A Pedestrian's Love of Cars

By Carter B. Horsley

As a pedestrian, I look at cars mostly as street sculpture.

I also look at them as dangers to be avoided, but here I will consider only their aesthetics.

They are, 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.

All the 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.

The first 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.

By my 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 circa 2005

Updated version of Thunderbird circa 2005

The 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.

What 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.

The 50's 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 seen advertisements.

The 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 period.

Cars 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.

The new 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.

Until the 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 directions.

In late 1997, however, the new Lincoln Town Car was introduced and the new  design is horrible.  It 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 that its last Lincoln Town Car model would be produced in 2007 (8/7/06).

The 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.

The 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.

These 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.

Chrysler 300 circa 2005

Chrysler 300 circa 2005

The Chrsyler 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 grill. (6/6/06)

What is important, of course, about this category is that they offer more headroom and interior space, vital amenities for all cars other than sportscars.

What they 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!

Most cars 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, bulbous bumps.

BMW X3

BMW X3 roadster circa 2003

One gets 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.

Of course, they are plenty of slicks and hicks who buy black Mercedes-Benz sedans with beige interiors!

This 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?

Why must one's walk to the corner be blighted with these low-slung, amorphous, ugly plastic blobs?

It was 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. (6/16/99) It was freshing to see that the old Morgan sports car has been revived and slightly updated with quite svelte lines in early 2000. (6/1/00)

Maybach

Maybach outside Cipriani's in SoHo when Italians won the World Cup in 2006

In 2004, 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)

In recent 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.

The Hummer

The Hummer

Why can't 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.

I think 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 hell!

Ferrari

Ferrari outside Cipriani's in Soho when Italy won World Cup in 2006

Don't buy 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.

2009 Aston Martin

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.

See Plots & Plans column in The City Review on "The Pedestrian Perogative"

See "Perils for Pedestrians" website

See "American Walks: website with good list of local organizations concerning about pedestrians

See Transportation Alternatives website

See The City Review article on the Christie's May 18, 2002 auction of Collectors' Cars

 

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