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.
That created a bubble in the hood—and headaches for stylists. “This raises not only the front of the hood, but also its trailing edge by at least 0.8 inches,” writes Jim Hall, a veteran auto journalist at Car & Driver magazine who has studied the changes. Some automakers added three inches or more to hood height. That doesn’t sound like much, but because the hood now bears a high crown, the dashboard looks too low and must be raised. Which means the seats must be raised as well for adequate forward visibility. And of course you can’t have passengers hitting their heads, so the roofline must go up. Now the car looks lopsided, like a cubist-period Picasso. Flared wheel wells and bigger wheels and tires are often added to even out proportions, but there’s another problem: Alterations have made the doors taller and in some cases narrowed the windows, creating a bigger blind spot for drivers. Not to worry: Last week the National Transportation Safety Board approved a new regulation that will require all new cars to be equipped with rear-view cameras by 2018. The auto industry has argued that it will cost manufacturers as much as $2.5 billion annually to comply.
The cumulative effect of all these changes is a wedge shape, seen from the side, from the low nose swooping upward toward a high tail—the startled stance of a cat with its rump in the air. And what about the view from the rear? With only so many ways for stylists to efficiently “separate” moving air from that high trunk lid, thus reducing drag, there is scarcely any difference in design resolution today from one car to another. Henrik Fisker, creator of the hybrid electric Fisker Karma sport sedan, once told me that when he’s stuck in traffic he compulsively changes lanes in the forlorn hope of finding tail lights visually interesting enough to sit behind.
The former head of Ford design, J Mays, once observed that cars reflect the times in which they are created. If that’s true, what will auto shows of the next few years be featuring? Maybe better to ask: What will Pajama Boy drive? It’s possible he may just not be interested in cars. Last July an American Automobile Association study found that millennials are delaying getting driver’s licenses, in part because the smartphone has supplanted the automobile as a teen obsession—though it’s hard to imagine a Jan and Dean ode to the Samsung Galaxy S5—but largely because owning a car is too expensive.
And it’s not going to get cheaper. In 2011, the Obama administration, in a move that EPA head Lisa Jackson declared an act of “environmental justice,” announced the raising of CAFE standards yet again to 54.4 miles per gallon by 2025, double what is required today. The EPA itself said the compliance cost would be $157 billion. The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates that the new regulation will add nearly $3,000 to the price of a new car, and that affordable low-end cars may simply become too expensive to build at all. Meantime, the European Union has decreed that, beginning in 2015, all new cars be designed so that impact with a pedestrian is survivable at 25 miles per hour. Costly pedestrian airbags outside the car are under consideration.
It’s worth noting that today’s cars are engineering miracles and a testament to problem solving. The lowliest 2015 Ford Focus at this year’s auto show will be light years more technologically advanced than the most sophisticated Mercedes-Benz of a decade ago. Sadly for stylists, most of that action is under the hood hump and not on the surface. They remain tasked with thinking up cars that look not the way they, or we, might want them to look, but the way they have to look. It’s not that they turn out ugly cars, just uninteresting ones.
Eager for designs that will connect with buyers, automakers have in recent years reached back into the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s to revive beloved classics. It’s what is called “retro-futurism.” Marketers have disinterred long-ago hits like the Mini, the Fiat 500, the VW Beetle, and the Thunderbird, among others. Those designs have been upgraded, then poured into the regulatory jelly mold. What comes off the assembly line are, if not quite classics themselves, at least something that lets the heart race a little bit. As the manufacturers would put it, they make an “emotional statement.”
Which is what buyers have always wanted, and the reason why the biggest draw at any auto show remains concept cars, those daring futuristic designs born of anything-goes imagination. They are dream cars ripped from the drawing boards of young Harley Earls, cars that, sadly, will most likely never be built. But seeing them, fans leave the auto show filled with hope for what’s possible. It’s a feeling that lasts until they get outside to the parking lot and ask: Dude, where’s my car?
Patrick Cooke is a writer and critic in Pelham, New York.