Horse power: the legacy of Ferrari is given a dramatic stage at London's Design Museum

Horse power: the legacy of Ferrari is given a dramatic stage at London's Design Museum

Up until now the quintessential Ferrari exhibition was the display assembled by Ralph Lauren from his world-beating car collection back in Paris in 2011. Lauren’s 'L'Art de L'Automobile' wasn’t even totally dedicated to Ferrari, but the Italian marque dominated. The Design Museum’s new Ferrari blockbuster doesn’t have the space to replicate the meticulous gallery-style display Lauren maintains at his private garage in Westchester County, New York, where his priceless cars are presented both as automotive art and kept primed for everyday use. Instead, 'Ferrari: Under the Skin' is a far more claustrophobic affair, with dark red walls and dominant super-graphics and a tumbling wealth of ephemera and historical material set up alongside the cars themselves. The lighting and framing is dramatic and heroic, for this is an uncritical look at the triumphant synergy of design, engineering and branding.

Ferrari undeniably has a design story to tell, for it is one of those brands that cleverly filters its image from the highest levels (invitation only limited edition supercars) right down to the mass-market, with shop-fulls of merchandise keeping the flame alive. Curated by Andrew Nahum and Gemma Curtin, 'Under the Skin' begins as a chronological display of Ferrari’s origins, charting how Enzo Ferrari parlayed his pre-war experience as a driver and manager for the likes of Alfa Romeo’s racing team into his own car company, starting with the Ferrari 125 S of 1947. Seventy years is a substantial chunk of history to revisit, and the show’s publicity material makes a point of totting up the value of the display. £140m worth of cars is even more impressive when you realise there are only 13 in the show, alongside a scattering of models of various scales, styling bucks and engines and chassis.

The exhibition charts Ferrari's history, starting with 1947's 125 S

That valuation alone is the reason the Ferrari legend endures (is this is the most expensive collection of objects the Design Museum has ever assembled?). One consequence is that the lustre and patina of actual use is almost entirely absent - when not being used, these cars still feel showroom fresh (you can’t even photograph one of the loan cars, lest the proliferation of its image somehow diminishes its value. Perhaps the owner has been reading Walter Benjamin).

Enzo Ferrari was already a legend before he put his name on a car. ‘He did not race to sell cars - he sold cars to keep on racing,’ one panel reads. That relationship is not so straightforward today, with Ferrari’s Formula 1 future in doubt for the first time in decades. The innovation that drives the highest of the high-end models forward might have its origins on the track, but ultimately it could just as easily be driven by the wallets of the marque’s vociferous and voracious collectors. Over the years the company has kept an iron grip on its image, without losing its finger for the pulse of popular culture. The casual graphic elegance of its 60s and 70s yearbooks is a particular highlight, and the archive imagery of car designs and sketches is compelling.

But Ferrari today is not about nostalgia. ‘We don’t like to repeat ourselves,’ insists Flavio Manzoni, Ferrari’s Senior Vice President of Design, ‘I am on a constant quest for innovation.’ Sure, there are the occasional visual quotes and references from new to old, but the company has no pattern book of forms that it relies on to give its cars a consistent image over the decade. This show elevates car and designer to heroic status but never quite gets under the skin of the brand’s raw appeal to the emotions, whether it's from rock stars or celebrity chefs right down to those who simply want an association – at any scale – with the famous prancing horse.