The Editors of Automuseumonline.com weigh in on this question.
How important to sales is automobile design and styling today? Will we ever again see the types of design innovations and creativity put forth in the 1930's, the late 1940's and the 1950's? Is today's automobile design a fading art? Something of less overall importance? Perhaps it is and here's why!
There was a time in the automobile industry when a car's design and styling meant success or failure. If someone came out with a bad design it didn't take long for an coachbuilder automaker to disappear.
In most circumstances, aside from the expensive luxury cars such as a Stearns-Knight, design was not an overriding factor during the industry's very early years when the automobile was replacing the horse and carriage. Dependability and engine reliabilty, not to mention the ruggedness required to navigate early roads which in many instances were simply paths, were the important issues.
During the early years and in some cases with luxury automobiles through the 1930's, coach builders were the right hand of automakers. Many automakers like Ford originally turned out only a chassis, engine and drivetrain and the coachbuilder usually selected by the car buyer would build the body that gave the automobile it's street look. Interior styling might even be customized to the buyer's wishes.
The 1920's Were Unique
The 1920's ushered in changes regarding how and by who body designing would be done. These were the times that some of the more notable designers started their careers. We believe that the first really important automobile design changes occurred during the 1920's.
The 1920's saw many companies struggling. Not because of the economy but rather because there were so many of them. Competition was keen and the capital required for keeping up with the pack was a lot. This is why there were so many mergers and acquisitions during the decade. General Motors bought companies and added brands to it's nameplate list. Auburn and Duesenberg merged. There were others.
Enter the Designer
One of the foremost names in automobile design during the mid 1900's was Harley Earl. Earl began working in his father's automobile body design company in 1908. Even during these very early years, Harley Earl was helping to design custom bodies for celebrities like Tom Mix and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
Harley Earl's career got a jumpstart when his father's company was purchased by a local Cadillac Dealer. After being noticed by Lawrence P. Fisher, the GM of General Motors Cadillac Division, Harley Earl was asked to design the 1927 LaSalle. The LaSalle was a success and GM's President Alfred Sloan hired Earl to create an Art and Color Section for General Motors. Design was starting to be worked on in-house.
Jumping forward several decades, Harley Earl is known for his major influence with the tail fin craze of the 1950's and the concept for the Chevrolet Corvette which debuted in 1953. What sold the Corvette of the 1950's? Giving fair credit to engine performance, the answer really was design. The sports car looked good. It competed against the European imports, which was it's goal, and many would say looked better and faster. As a result, the Chevrolet Corvette became one of the best successes for GM. It was and is America's sports car.
The Designs of the 1930's, 40's and 50's
In addition to Harley Earl, there were other designers who left highly successful design legacies. Anyone familiar with American auto design history has heard the name Virgil Exner. Exner was actually hired by Harley Earl and before he turned thirty years old was in charge of Pontiac styling.
Virgil Exner's greatest successes were later for Studebaker and then the Chrysler Corporation. When Exner joined Chrysler, the company's designs were crafted by engineers, not designers. Earl struggled to take over design duties and did. Chrysler designs had been tagged as being old style and boxy looking. This didn't help sales. In fact it hurt sales significantly as other automakers employed actual designers.
Exner came out with tail fins during the very late 1940's and premiered his "Forward Look" designs. Exner lowered roof lines and added sleek and smooth lines. Virgil Exner had so much success with changing the old Chrysler design image that there was a time during the 1950's that both Ford and GM raced to catch up. Exner's aggressive designing sold Chrysler automobiles.
There are many worthy names who worked directly for head designers like Earl and Exner to make designs a reality. Automobile designing was and is a team process and both Earl and Exner had excellent and notable talent on their teams.
Auto Design Importance is Fading and Here's Why
We could make a strong case that the importance of automobile design started to fade decades ago. We might say design as a primary sales catalyst ended during the early 1970's.
The 1970 Clean Air Act and strict emission standards brought an end to the "Pony Car" era of the last half of the 1960's. From the introduction of the Ford Mustang with Carroll Shelby, the Chevy Camaro, The Dodge Charger and several other models, the race for speed was on. Design also followed suit with smooth lines, longer hoods and smaller decks.
In 1972, American automakers were hit with the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act. This act covered other industries as well but for the automakers it put a brake on engine performance for street legal vehicles.
You may argue that all of the above laws were targeted at engine performance and design, not body design. In a sense this is both true and false. At the same time that engine horsepower was being lowered designs were becoming "staid". Add to that the new safety regulations that went into effect including collision impact thresholds and the later mileage requirements which directly effected a car's weight, and you have taken a lot away from design creativity.
Car buyers in general during the 1960's, not to mention the several decades prior, bought their cars as a somewhat social statement as well as for transportation. Individual budgets aside, the buyer bought a car that they thought looked good and one they were proud to drive to work and the grocery store. They had a lot to choose from because designs and styles among all of the nameplates were diverse. Sure, there was a time that almost every car sported some type of tail fin, but there were significant differences as well.
It seems that from the mid 1970's to today, not all at once but by slow progression, automobile designs began looking somewhat and then quite similar.. In fact, as each year passes cars are beginning to look more alike. We would argue that during the 1950's and 1960's most people could recognize a Chevrolet from a Ford. Not necessarily true today. Is that car you just saw a Toyota, Honda, or Nissan? Could have been a Kia or Ford.
Automobile design's importance is directly related to it's impact on sales. What sells a car today? Performance? The Way it looks? Engineering quality? Price? "Operating economy?
If we had to choose today we would say "Engineering Quality", "Operating Economy" and "Price". Of course you want a car that looks good to your eye. Most people do. It's amusing when you see articles like, "America's Ten Most Ugly Cars". There are no ugly cars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If ugly cars didn't sell you wouldn't see a Smart Car or Toyota Corolla on the road. Both of these automobiles have something the buyer wants. In their case it might be operating economy and the price tag. To many buyers today that is enough.
What doesn't seem to come to the forefront today is "design". We are not talking about the latest Lamborghini or Farrari. We're talking here about daily drivers. Outside of some sports car makers, do you really expect Ford or General Motors, or Chrylser to unveil a design today that would have the same effect on buyers similar to the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1964 Ford Mustang, the 1967 Chevy Camaro or many of the late 1940's new post war designs. Add to the equation the safety standards that didn't exist in the 1960's, 1950's and earlier and it would be very hard for designers to create the unique designs of old.
What the mass production automakers today advertise is quality and economy. We are not calling these unimportant attributes. They are important and especially so in today's economy. Today, this is what sells. What buyers want in a car today is different than what they wanted in 1932, 1955 or 1968. Because of this we don't expect to see new tail fins, jump seats or classy hood ornaments any time soon.