I went to a car show recently. A couple of hundred vintage vehicles, strong on low-slung Studebakers with chrome-studded front ends. Some excellent ’55 T-Birds, a ;’50s-era Hudson and, as always, the candy-colored ’57 Chevy Bel Airs. And cars of the early ’60s, like the 1963 Plymouth Belvedere, making the awkward transition from rocket fins to conservative lines, yet still artful. Really memorable designs.
Unlike today’s vehicles. Car shows of the future will not feature the Honda Kia and the Chevy Malibu. We are living in an automotive moment that is best, and will be easily, forgotten.
Today’s vehicles are loaded with standard and optional toys – cup holders, phone chargers and GPS, plus a bare-minimum of cylinders to prop up the mileage. But style-wise, it looks like the architects of ’70s strip malls found new jobs in the automotive industry.
As evidence, examine the evolution of the Thunderbird over the decades. The first couple of years were classic, the next few acceptable, occasionally interesting, distinctive, always some sense of sporty. But by 1971, Ford’s designers lost it. They started creating 4,400-pound monsters. Square and dull. By the mid-’80s, the Thunderbird looked like every other car on the road. By 1990, the pounds-per-wheel pendulum was swinging back the other way, and the poor, confused Thunderbird looked like a Pinto.
Why is it that car designers, floundering for new ideas, don’t go back to concepts that people really liked? Remakes don’t often work – did anyone see that McHale’s Navy movie? But people like retro furniture, which was pretty much what we had in the 2002 Thunderbird, a resurrection of the old ’55 Thunderbird’s sporty lines. Its brief experiment in style over substance declared a failure, Ford went back to making all of its cars look like SUVs.
This is an era of automotive identity crisis. A car goes down my street, the driver honks at me and waves. I don’t know who it is, because everyone’s car looks the same. The headlights and taillights all now have that squinty, wraparound appearance. The cars don’t look sleek, but blunt. And there’s a 72 percent chance that it’s silver. Or some fantasy color like Atlantis Blue. Really? Atlantis disappeared beneath the waves centuries ago, if it even existed at all. How do we know what shade of blue was preferred by Atlanteans?
I haven’t owned a piece of automobile chrome since my 1972 Impala.
I recognize what’s going on here. Automotive design is being strangled by the same corporate culture that’s killing talk radio, sports commentary, news reporting, pop music, fast food and hairstyles. Group think. That fella over there is doing it, he must know something, we’d better do it too.
Group think spills over into car names. They’re killing me. Back in the day, car names held a degree of romance. Buick Riviera. Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Hudson Terraplane. Rolls Royce Silver Wraith. Corvette’s Sting Ray really did look like a sting ray. And I doubt that anyone knew what this thing was when it was first introduced in 1938. But years later Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, knew a good name for an alien journalist when he saw it: Ford Prefect.
Today’s cars? Walk through a mall parking lot reading the names of the vehicles, and be prepared to be walloped by the numb world of marketing. Prius, Scion, Fiesta, Forte, Elantra, Altima, Fusion. The focus groups that approve of these names even named a car for themselves. The Ford Focus. But the car of today that I most fear is the Ford Probe. Who wants to be stopped at a red light, only to get rear-ended by a probe?