pedestrian, I look at cars
mostly as street sculpture.
look at them as dangers
to be avoided, but here I will consider only their aesthetics.
of course, the most
ubiquitous sculptures in the world and one does not have to go
to a museum to see a good assortment, although the very best are
secluded in far-away places like Reno, Nev., or brought out only
to occasional Classic Car festivals, rarely held in Manhattan.
I grew up
with the rather chunky,
chromed cars of the 1940's: the very large DeSoto taxi-cabs, the
Packards, the Buick Roadmasters, the Cadillac Sedans de Ville
and assorted Plymouths, Fords and Chevrolets. The Buicks were
the most memorable for their Saber-Toothed-Tiger-like radiator
grill and side air-intakes, while the Cadillacs' fins were definitely
aloof and aloft. The Studebakers' aerodynamics were only missing
propellers, but seemed rather ungainly.
tank-like cars of that
period were bulky, massive, heavy, and very passenger-friendly.
Well-built machines, they oozed security.
I did not
realize until much
later that that generation was greatly different from the pre-World
War II generation: curves had softened the boxiness of most popular
models, a not-an-expected development given the streamlining of
the Art Deco period bolstered by the aerodynamics experimented
with during the war.
generation of cars,
of course, remain non-pareil marvels of design with their large,
spoked wheels, their running boards, their enormous headlights,
their great height, designed presumably for tall, stove-pipe-hatted
Abe Lincolns and the great Ostrich-plumed coiffures and millinery
of the Edwardian Age ladies.
mid-teens, the ominous
hunks of cars that then prevailed became to succumb to sleekness,
epitomized by the 1956 Cadillac El Dorados whose squarish, but
slightly curved fins were hip signatures of status, later to be
transformed into jet-engine exhausts with dagger points.
Thunderbird of 1957 changed
everything. It tilted forward with a clean-cut, quite bare modernity
that was always in motion even when parked. It launched a long
era of radical, though not innovative, styling. This new generation
had its clunkiness, most notably a Mercury model whose rear window
was angled backwards into the passenger section, a superb design
for maintaining good visibility in all kinds of weather, but a
rather abrupt, jarring element in the overall design.
distinguished the cars
of the late 50's, of course, was the curved, wrap-around front
window that greatly improved driver visibility and become the
most prominent and impressive feature of the designs.
and early 60's were
periods of consistent model distinctions: the American Indian
hood ornaments of the Pontiacs changed, but carlovers could invariably
recognize a car's manufacturer from a distance without having
greatest modern car design
arrived in 1959 with the gull-winged Mercedes-Benz 300SL, a soft,
silvery sportscar of great sensuality evocative of the sinuous
beauty of Botticelli that stood in great contrast to the scary
mosquito bit bump of the Porsche Spider that seemed to slink and
slither in preparation for a death-bite leap. The Porsche, of
course, would soon develop its superb, svelte styling that engineered
compactness with muscularity: Its sleek lines were like a gymnast's
rather than a wrassler on steroids. The early Corvettes adroitly
combined the best virtues of both the 300SL and the later Porsches
into designs that quickly surpassed the Thunderbirds' promise,
paving the way for the demise of the great boxy MG and Morgan
sportscars and the onslaught of the fiberglassed Camaros and Firebirds,
elegant designs from afar that lost a lot of substantiality up
close. Most of the Corvettes were very pretty, but never achieved
the consummate artistry of some of the Jaguar sportscars of the
began to lose their allure,
however, in the 60's when Rolls Royce scaled down its fabled cars
and accepted a bit of streamlining, enough, unfortunately, for
them to lose their great, chiseled look and henceforth be notably
only for their high price and their good interiors.
Rolls, however, had
a great influence. It was not too hard to imitate and before long
Mercedes-Benz sedans, which had lost all of their allure except
for the great circular, spoked hood ornament, became its heir
apparent and the most influential car design of the post-World
War II period, sadly. The Mercedes sedans were, and are, bland
designs that offered no flourishes, no elan, no substance and
cruised for decades on the faint memory of the 300SL.
explosion of vans
and recreational vehicles a few years ago, the only car to challenge
the Mercedes-Benz dominance has been the Lincoln Town Car, arguably
the handsomest American car of the post-World War II period except
for a time when its roof was divided by a broad chrome strip and
occasional vinyl roof that greatly marred its design integrity.
The Lincoln Town Car has gone through various subtle permutations,
but remains the best looking American car, long, rectilinear,
large and very comfortable. Its overthrow of the Cadillac was
swift and apparently permanent. In midtown Manhattan, it is the
most visible vehicle. Its ancestor, the Lincoln Continental, has
not fared as well, having gone through many dramatic transformations
that blurred its original distinctive identity. The best Lincoln
was probably the four-door convertible whose doors opened in opposite
In late 1997, however, the new
Car was introduced and the new design is horrible.
softens the boxy lines and replaces the rectilinear grill with
a curved, almost heart-shaped-like one. The result is that
the model is no longer the most attractive American car and cedes
its leadership back to Cadillac. Lincoln also introduced
a giant cruiser, which has lots of curves but no design distinction.
Alas! (12/21) Incredibly, Ford announced in 2006
its last Lincoln Town Car model would be produced in 2007 (8/7/06).
introduction of fiberglass,
of course, opened up new design possibilities, but also minimized
the heft. Interiors have been cheapened and dashboards, which
had become the stylistic mantelpieces of America, deteriorated
into flimsy reproductions: Formica-like panels replaced burlwood
and chrome, large steering wheels became padded dials. The oil
crisis of 1973, of course, was responsible for the dieted new
cars, slimmed down in weight and style.
re-emergence of big vehicles,
the vans, the cruisers, and the like, has been attributed by some
to the wanderlust romance of four-wheel drive epitomized by the
Safari images of the Land Rover, whose influence in the post-World
War II period is second only to Mercedes-Benz.
large vehicles, by and
large, are just clumsy, although one manufacturer has tried to
streamline its front with a rakish slope that just accentuates
the ungainliness. The Hummer, of course, is cool even if its sales
have been disappointing.
300 introduced in the mid 2000s took a clue from the relatively
small windows of the Hummer and put them at a slight angle in
a sleek retro sedan that became very popular especially in the
higher priced models with a fancy Mercedes-Benz/Bentley style
important, of course,
about this category is that they offer more headroom and interior
space, vital amenities for all cars other than sportscars.
do not have, nor any
recent car, is the front side angle windows, that permit people
not to have their coiffures mussed, not to have to use air-conditioners
constantly and are most helpful in ventilating smoke. Cost-cutting
taken to irrational lengths!
today have taken the
design lead from the small Japanese cars that became immensely
popular a decade or so ago. The popularity, of course, had little
to do with the desire but with the efficiency and economy. Some
models were not unattractive, but generally they have been uninspired,
the sense that, with
the exception of the new BMW roadster convertible, or the new
Corvette, which is quite nice looking, car designers have focused
primarily on interiors and have been totally lacking in creativity
as the interiors have not been very exciting.
course, they are plenty of
slicks and hicks who buy black Mercedes-Benz sedans with beige
sorry state of affairs
is depressing. What ever happened to all the cars of the future?
Can't GM and Ford and Chrysler afford good designers? Have they
all gone to work with George Lucas or Dreamworks?
one's walk to the corner
be blighted with these low-slung, amorphous, ugly plastic blobs?
somewhat comforting to see the 1999 Ford Mustang, which manages
to be graceful and elegant with soft curves. (4/26/99) The 1998
BMW roadster that was featured as James Bond's new car is very
cute as is the 1999 Audi TT, both cars whose plasticity seems
to reveal structure and good lines.
It was freshing to see that the old Morgan sports car has been
revived and slightly updated with quite svelte lines in early
Mercedes-Benz introduced a new super-luxury sedan, the Maybach,
which carries a price tag in the high six-figures. The Maybach
is very large and very beautiful and at first glace reminds one
of the Siddeley Armstrong sedans often used by royalty. It is
very classy. At about the same time, the big car manufacturers
showed off their latest "dream" cars and many were quite
svelte. Perhaps the tide is turning! (6/10/04)
years, Mercedes Benz has produced a lot of unattractive cars apart
from the Maybach. One of its SUV's is a boxy imitation of a Jeep
that looks rather tinny and many of its sedans have backseat side
windows that are squashed.
America nurture great
design? It has in the past occasionally with great steam locomotives
and planes. The Hummer, of course, impressed a lot of folks with
its bulk - a Jeep on steroids. Jeep, by the way, slightly redesigned
rather not badly its Grand Cherokee to give its wheel surrounds
a more sculptural look.
the answer is that the
talent is out there, but the honchos are driven by high-priced
marketing experts who invent tales of what the consumer wants.
The solution is for the public to write the chairman of the car
companies and tell that their design stinks and they are mad as
a car unless you are
in love with it. That's the rule in the art world and it should
be in the car world, too.
Aston Martin, probably the
750-horsepower, $1.77-million model, parked in driveway at 60 East 88th
Street in Manhattan September 19, 2009
Aston Martins gained a lot of notoriety in the
1960s as a James Bond-type vehicle but they never seemed to have lovely
lines. In 2009, however, the company came out with a
750-horsepower model with a price tag of about $1.77-million and we
spotted one, we think, September 19, 2009 in the driveway at 60 East
88th Street in Manhattan and it was, indeed, most attractive.