Do you approve of the way cars look these days? Do people even care any more about the style of what they buy? Here’s an example of the most luxurious automobile on the market in Indonesia today:
Is it a refrigerator? A gigantic toaster? A Toyota Corolla that’s been binge-eating?
No, it’s your new family motion appliance, guaranteed to get you from “A” to “B” with safety, comfort and ugliness. At least when you’re riding inside it you do not have to look at the styling failure.
What the hell happened to beautiful car design?
Let’s fly into the future, and see how our descendants appraise us.
When an historian from the 25th Century looks back at our crackpot civilization she or he might have some very harsh judgments to make – opulence and starvation, war upon the weak, degradation of our fine natural environment…
But what are the high points of the 20th Century? And, more to the point, when was life best?
Automobiles have been a central fact of life around the world since early steam- or gasoline-powered machines began to smoke and bang and scare the livestock around the turn of the Century. The early cars were certainly no beauties – builders had a hard enough time figuring out how to make ‘horseless carriages’ run, much less beautiful.
“The first horseless carriage in Vancouver”
They could even decide on a basic configuration. Three wheels or four?
Some designers even thought cars should look like aircraft – like the Dymaxion.
Motor racing started as soon as cars began to appear – mostly in France, which is a little-recognized pioneer of automobile history. The first races were held on open roads, with locals cheering and waving and dancing in front of the speeding cars – so many citizens were injured or killed that the authorities were considering banning racing altogether.
Race wins helped sell cars, and distinguish one marque from another.
For the average citizen a car, first thought of as convenient, smart transport (compared to a horse and carriage) soon became an “accessory”, a “status symbol”, establishing one’s place in society.
Famous cowboy film star, prestigious, expensive automobile:
the Cord 812. He was killed in it.
From the 1930s elegant styling differentiated motorcars, and appealed to prospective buyers.
Our future historian (assuming humanity has not gone extinct long before the 25th Century – a dicey assumption, in fact, considering the direction we’re heading) will most likely conclude that the finest automotive transport was available in the decade of the 1930s. But if she is a diligent historian she will also have to admit that the decade following the Wall Street crash of 1929 was known as ‘The Great Depression’; millions were out of work; companies collapsed and factories shut their doors.
1932 Lincoln Model “KB” Boat-tail
The few remaining rich people did not pay much attention to the poverty and desperation of the millions (they felt sadder for their stockbroker pals who had shot themselves or jumped off skyscrapers were their fortunes were miraculously wiped out). They just fondly motored off into the sunset.
1937 Cord 812SC Phæton
Rich folks were naturally alarmed by the rise of Communism and Fascism (also coming to prominence in the 1930s) as it threatened their comfortable way of life.
But in fact even the dictators were car-crazy – especially Hitler, who loved his Mercedes-Benz and his Horch.
Championship racing driver Bernt Rosemeyer about to do some high-speed record-setting in a Horch. Like many drivers of that era he did not survive his automotive adventures.
1932 Alfa Romeo 8C2300
Automotive Art Historians will quite likely decide it was the Europeans, soon to suffer the devastation of World War II, who mastered the beauty and engineering of car design. Designers went wild, skilled labor was cheap, and buyers were ready for the most exotic styling imaginable.
1937 Talbot-Lago Type 150CS
For the European buyer a car was a work of art. Engineering was less important than style.
The French or the Italians? Take your choice. They both went wild with aesthetic flair.
1938 Bentley 4-litre, body by Pourtout
Even the British went to Continental body builders when they wanted gorgeous designs (in this case, French craftsmen, hand-beating body panels on wooden forms).
Cars of the Thirties were often drawing rooms on wheels, with privacy, quiet and comfort.
1933 Delage D8S
Something terrible happened after World War II: design went to hell – cars became bulbous and pompous.
1947 Hudson Commodore (“Bathtub School of Design”)
In the 1950s designers got finny – grotesque but not at all beauteous. Either they were slathered in a ton of chrome…
1958 Buick Special
…or wild with fins, like a cross between a shark and an aircraft:
1958 Dodge Custom Royal
1958 Dodge Custom Royal
This writer’s dad invested $6500 in a 1956 Cadillac:
…which is less “transport” than “flamboyant display of status: ‘Look World, I am RICH’”. Those torpedo bumpers were nicknamed “Dagmars”.
Only the European designers carried forward with beauties, though prices became stratospheric:
You have a loose two hundred thousand dollars laying around?
Now if you pull up to Yaudah Bistro in Yogyakarta, Menteng Jakarta or Gading Serpong in your dowdy Japanese sedan we will not refuse you service.
But if you were to show up in your 1934 Packard Twelve LeBaron Runabout Speedster then we would have to give you a special Door Prize. Sausage? Beer? Pork Knuckles? Aglio Olio Spaghetti? Jeez I’m getting hungrier and hungrier just writing this stuff.
The “Golden Age of Automotive Design” may be gone forever but good food is here to stay – and we have it for you.