Ethos

English Artist Benedict Radcliffe Wired with Passion

Meet his amazing steel rod sculptures

In the opening scene of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Roger stars opposite a sweet, monosyllabic Baby Herman in the animated short, “Something’s Cooking.” Roger flubs his part, the scene is cut, and Herman becomes a garrulous curmudgeon, screaming blue murder at the rabbit before storming off the cartoon set and into the grimy studio lot, possibly in search of a Montecristo No. 2. That moment when Herman and his chubby, watercolor backside waddle into the real world was an absolute mind-bender for children like me at the time.

Today, looking at photographs of English artist Benedict Radcliffe’s automotive wireframe sculptures, the same fuse has blown. An ethereal, gleaming white Toyota Corolla being lifted and carried into a truck by six men, one of whom seems to be at once inside and outside the car. A black London taxi driving past a fluorescent orange outline of the same that seems superimposed but somehow casts a shadow. A hot-pink Range Rover Evoque that looks more hologram than solid matter, and a dayglo Lamborghini Countach that pierces the humdrum of an everyday street scene as an oblivious pigeon pads by. It’s abstract meets everyday, and it’s absolutely stunning.

Specializing in a kind of augmented reality, Benedict Radcliffe builds wireframe car sculptures that capture the essence of the originals.

Amazingly, all this visual chicanery springs from plain old steel rod and a bit of paint. To find out how, I visit Radcliffe’s London studio—an unremarkable, graffitied industrial unit on a quiet East End street, inside which the alchemy takes place. When Radcliffe first took over the space, he filled it with a bright pink skate park commissioned for a shoe launch. Now he lives in the loft, and the main space below is dominated by a huge “datum table” where his wireframe sculptures take shape. Hanging on one side, there’s a comically outsized bicycle frame, and the opposite wall is plastered with full-scale blueprints of a Ferrari F40. By the door sits a white wireframe Honda Gold Wing he displayed at the city’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012.

Chatting in the studio’s kitchen, Radcliffe explains where it all began. While studying at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architecture, he was trained in fabrication and welding by Andy Scott, creator of many landmark installations including “The Kelpies,” a pair of 100-foot horse’s heads sculpted in metal that tower over one of Scotland’s main highways. A year after graduating in 2004, Radcliffe created “Modern Japanese Classic”—a white wireframe Subaru Impreza P1—as part of a personal exhibition. Too large to fit inside the venue, it was “parked” on the street outside, dazzling among the dank, weathered masonry of Glasgow’s city center. With that, his signature style was born.

Most pieces have been 1:1 scale, but he’s also produced smaller works of late, building a 1:6 Toyota Celica Mk7 on skateboard wheels for Mai Ikuzawa, daughter of Le Mans and Formula 2 racer and team owner Tetsu Ikuzawa. Yet he’s not afraid to go large, either: A life-sized JCB JS200 tracked excavator wireframe now sits at the plant manufacturer’s headquarters in England, and a 20-foot-long, six-wheeled Komatsu mining truck is now taking shape at a bigger facility elsewhere.

“It’s quite straightforward—cutting, welding, and grinding—but it’s the manipulation of the steel rod I’m drawing with that is really important.”

But the process remains fairly consistent, regardless of size. Radcliffe collates technical drawings and photographs from the internet, then traces out front, side, and rear elevations by hand to the required scale. It’s far from a simple case of copying what he sees, though. Even at this early stage, deft artistic wit is called for as he distills the vehicle’s form into key features that “capture the shape of the car with an economy of line,” as he neatly puts it. He uses just one gauge of steel rod for each sculpture—0.12 inch on small pieces and usually 0.39 inch on 1:1s—which means he recreates a highly complex, multisurfaced solid form using only what to all intents and purposes is a single, bendable cylinder of metal.

Radcliffe eschews computer-aided design and 3D-printed prototypes in favor of a manual process, literally building on his sketches.

“Everything I do is quite low-tech,” he says. “I’ll start with the blueprints, then extrude up from the plan. I might concentrate on the front bumper first, then the back bumper and the light clusters, building in components. It’s quite straightforward metalwork—cutting, welding, and grinding—but it’s the manipulation of the steel rod I’m drawing with that is really important.”

A homemade (and quite secret) apparatus helps Radcliffe bend the wire, and although a temporary grid is built to help keep the proportions correct, there’s improvisation to the building process, too: little changes here and there, cutting out and replacing lengths of rod, and experimenting with forms until he’s happy with the result. Pointing out the two mismatched loops that form each door mirror on Izukawa’s Celica, he elaborates: “These mirrors are quite abstract, but if I’d just had one loop, they would have looked two-dimensional. A second loop gives more form and depth.”

The Komatsu excavator sculpture weighs just a fraction of the real thing but still tips the scales at 3,300 pounds.

Radcliffe gets some help when it comes to the megasculptures—for example, fabrication of the 100 identical loops that make up the JCB’s tracks were outsourced after he created the master—but otherwise he does all the work himself, including the welding (TIG on the small sculptures, MIG on the rest). It’s often frustrating work—when heat from the welding gun distorts the metal, for instance—but once things start to take shape, it becomes a joy.

“The trick is to make them look simple, but they’re actually quite tricky. Not everyone has the patience,” he acknowledges, “but it’s actually really good fun. After about two months, once I’ve done all the hard work, I can experiment with how to do stuff. Someone might come from an engineer’s point of view and do it differently, but I can go a bit free-form and be more playful.”

The pink Celica and a white BMW E30 M3 Evolution (also 1:6 scale) took almost as long to build as the 10 to 16 weeks required to make a full-scale car, partly due to their intricacy. “You’ve got more steel to mess around with on the big ones, so you can make more mistakes,” Radcliffe says. “The small ones are really fiddly, and it’s difficult to get the welder in.”

The magic is all in the bending of the steel rod.

And the smaller the sculpture, the more the thickness of the paint has an effect on the visual gravity of the finished article. Radcliffe usually spray-paints, but the Celica and M3 were powder coated due to their diminutive size, which bulked them up and produced a tougher look versus the naked wireframe.

So, to retain more detail, Radcliffe kept the 0.12-inch rod but moved up to 1:5 scale for his subsequent project, a Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione. Unpainted, without wheels, and up on temporary stilts, it is not yet finished but is utterly mesmerizing in its accuracy, from hood bulges and box wheel arches to the tiny Lancia shield on the nose and the distinctive rear-wing mounts. A rare concession to technology is the MDF jig Radcliffe had made by a CNC router to help form the Lancia’s intricate, 18-spoke wheels, but he can be forgiven for that; they’re shrunk from 15 inches across to just 3.

The intricacy of Radcliffe’s work is even more apparent in his 1:6-scale sculptures, which have to capture the key details with even less steel.

Examining the Delta, my instinct is to click and drag a mouse to rotate the digital-looking form in front of me. The fact you can actually move around it, or even pick it up and hold it in your hand, is a genuine wonder.

In contrast, the towering JCB and Komatsu are edificial—at 3,300 pounds, the latter weighs 10 times as much as a full-scale car wireframe—and required more of an engineering-focused approach to accommodate their trusses and overhangs. He says these creations, which are built piece by piece in component form, are more about structural integrity than playfulness and line—yet he still likens them to big Lego bricks.

You’ve probably gathered that Radcliffe’s clients are eclectic to say the least, with corporate patrons such as Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover, and Nike, the latter for whom he built a giant wireframe Air Max shoe. Other projects include a Citroën DS-style hovercar from the “Judge Dredd” comics that was commissioned by a toy shop in London, and in 2014 Heathrow Airport bought one of his orange London taxis to make a vivid centerpiece for the departure lounge in Terminal 2. As is the art world’s way, pricing is fluid, but Heathrow paid around $130,000. That early Subaru P1 went to a collector for $30,000, while the Countach that Radcliffe sold privately in 2008 went under RM Sotheby’s hammer six years later for $116,500.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Radcliffe is working on a 1:5-scale sculpture of the dauntingly complex Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione.

But you get the distinct feeling fiscal concerns are more a means than an end—a way for Radcliffe to keep doing the work he loves. He’s chomping at the bit to finish the little Integrale (it’s going to be painted brilliant white), while the 1:1 Ferrari F40 is next and will grace the Classic Car Club Manhattan’s cavernous riverside clubhouse in Hell’s Kitchen. I ask what else he’d choose to build, which prompts a flurry of glossy car book pages and various printouts. He admired the “democratic” attainability of the Impreza, and the people’s champion theme continues with the Peugeot 205 GTI, but Porsche features, too, as a Kremer Racing 935 and modified 911 from Japanese outfit RWB are also on the wish list. And then there’s the Ferrari 288 GTO: “Oh my God, those wheel arches! Absolutely filthy!”

And with those words, Radcliffe explains why his work gets gearheads frothing at the brain: He is one, too.