Anyone who’s ever misplaced the family car in a parking lot at the mall must surely sense that we are not living in a golden era of automobile design. Gazing in panic out across that vast tar pit, every car seems to look like every other car. Late-model midsize sedans and compacts, especially, appear nearly identical. It’s no help that there are only a handful of basic paint colors to offer clues: white, black, silver, and gray. The quest appears to be at an end when you climb behind the wheel and realize that you are . . . in somebody else’s car.
When doors open this week at the New York International Auto Show, the grumbling will continue, as it has for the past few years, that there isn’t much new and different to see. The public once flocked to auto shows to marvel at groundbreaking designs created by giants in the field like Harley Earl at General Motors who “styled” magnificent sculptures in the early to mid 20th century. They bore names like Firebird and Golden Rocket. Today, mileage standards and safety regulations largely determine what most cars rolling off assembly lines look like. Auto styling may not yet be a dead art, but the artists have certainly been thwarted. As standardization by governments has taken hold—there are more than 200 safety and environmental regulations that go into building a car—the challenge for designers is no longer to create something uniquely beautiful, but to turn out a product that’s in compliance—and hope people buy the result.
Federal interference began in the 1970s with a mandate to provide drivers with bumpers capable of surviving a five-mile-per-hour crash without sustaining damage to the body of the car. Bewildered manufacturers responded in many cases by simply bolting on front and rear rubber bricks, obliterating the lines of the car, which they then attempted to compensate for by adding gaudy touches like carriage lamps and vinyl roofs.
The energy crisis only made matters worse for designers when, in 1975, Congress introduced the first mandatory Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations that set mileage quotas for new automobiles. The easiest way to meet the mandate was to lower the drag coefficient on cars, and so began the automakers’ mad dash for the wind tunnel. With only so many solutions to be expected from rounding off fenders and tilting windshields, stylists began producing cars that converged more and more on the same shape. Built less of steel and more of lighter plastic material, the new cars were smaller, more expensive, and less safe. (A 2007 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study estimated 250-500 deaths per year attributable to CAFE downsizing.) “You had designers who were constrained and occupied with only one goal, and that was weight and miles per gallon,” says Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “They still are. It’s the reason why many new cars come with no spare tire.”
In the quest for greater fuel mileage, cars may have become less safe but, ironically, safety rules have done more to create the cookie-cutter clones than anything else—safety for pedestrians, that is. Pedestrian safety regulations imposed in Europe and Asia during the 2000s are not yet law in the United States, but domestic automakers must adhere to them if they expect to sell their products overseas. Hood ornaments were the first to go. Door handles were recessed and rear-view mirrors rounded and made inwardly collapsible. Front ends were lowered, creating a kind of cowcatcher appearance.
The biggest influence on design is what might be called the “hood hump.” Because flying pedestrians are most seriously injured by striking the hood, lawmakers demanded that there be a collapsible void between the top of the engine and the underside of the hood.