"Future to the back..."
Written by Jelsen Lee Innocent.
There are several ways through which to reference distinct points in a society’s history. Design, in its many forms, is a trustworthy go-too. Ranging from architecture to fashion, design communicates clear representations of what society considers contemporary.
The automobile’s advent, and propagation, is one of society’s most significant barometers of its future-self. The introduction of mass-produced motor vehicles at the end of the 19th Century is undoubtedly one of the most important innovations and contributions to the evolution of modern society. Not only did it create the obvious convenience in mobility and technical innovation, it also marked clear division of what people considered the past, the present and the future. The automobile made horse dependent transportation obsolete, unfashionable and connotatively against society’s progress.
At the turn of the 20th Century, America was aggressively looking to establish its own definition of the future. The cars produced from the very early 1900’s until around the late 1970’s carried a confident proclamation of ‘this is the future’ formed into their metal bodies. Within these decades, car manufacturers conceived and implemented distinct design statements that expressed America’s optimistic foreseeable future.
The fabled Model T, regarded as the first commercially successful automobile, was in production from 1908 ( released as a 1909 model ) through to its 15th millionth car in 1927. By 1918, half of all the cars on US roads were Model T’s and this popularity defined the era.
The next definitive design language, coming in the early 1940’s, was a direct consequence of the major event of that time – World War II. In 1942 the US government mandated decrease in Detroit’s burgeoning decades-new car production industry in order to ration steel, factory space and industry knowhow for the war effort. Assembly lines were retooled for military assemblage for war machines. Naturally, the cars of post-war America inherited the design language of these large, utilitarian machines. The streamlined curves of fighter jets expressed both speed and stealth, the aggressive bulbous noses of B-24 bombers and the impenetrable look of heavy steel clad submarines and Navy ships were all now applied to the scheme of commercial vehicles of the time.
From windshields to wheel arches the automobiles of the 1940’s were larger and more powerful than their pre-war predecessors. America’s post-war boom provided a strong economy to support buying big for the decades that followed. Suburban landscapes were being erected at a dizzying rate and the New American Family was driving across a freshly paved network of roads to reach them all. Americans were, more than ever, perceiving the future as more than just a reality but as the standard way of life.
The public’s enthusiasm in the international Space Race further fueled their sense of attaining the future. The auto industry perpetuated the worlds interest in space exploration through its own products. Cars became more missile-like in stature and referenced both actual and fictional aspects of space exploration. Elongated tail lights of shimmering chrome prominently adorned these new Space Age vehicles.
To the general public the future had arrived and a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz was unquestionably the most beautiful way to travel through it.
The American muscle car came to define this era in automotive design as well. Hot Rod subculture grew in popularity and car manufacturers began producing vehicles to cater to the growing scene. The bodies were lighter, the engines more powerful, the ride aggressive and the designs both innovative and most importantly fearless.
The Ford Mustang, Dodge Charger, and Chevrolet Camaro were crowned crowd favorites. These three became benchmarks in the muscle car Golden Age which subsequently ended in the mid 70’s. Social changes, hiking gasoline prices and imports of smaller, more affordable cars were among the reasons why the American Muscle Car declined in popularity and relevance. It also no longer represented the American future.
Of these three marks, the Ford Mustang is the only muscle car whose production never ceased since its inception in 1964. The Dodge Charger ran from 1967-1987 and the Camaro from 1966-2002.
The Mustang’s design evolution – or devolution – is a peculiar testament to the current state of American automotive design. From onset it was visible that Ford’s design intent considered each generation of its Mustang as a fresh interpretation of its quintessential muscle car. Admittedly, they weren’t always successful but their offerings didn’t cherry pick from the forms of their past – which couldn’t be said for the Mustang of today.
With today’s Mustang, Ford took the classic – and undoubtedly most popular – 1960’s Mustang body styling and ‘reintroduced’ it in the inflated 2004 model. This creatively complacent strategy proved commercially successful and the new breath of stale air also blew through the resurrection of both Chevrolet’s Camaro and the Dodge Challenger. These models depended just as heavily on their badge’s past successes. So, when will this trend end? American muscle cars became iconic because they were all unapologetically new for their time – they referenced a future yet to be seen – thus setting the standard of their time. Do we now live in a culture where we’re comfortable with enveloping our sense of future through the safety of the past? Why would car executives, engineers, designers use innovative materials and state of the art manufacturing techniques merely to copy antiquated design ideas?
Some would argue that Europe has its own issues with nostalgic automotive design. British Motor Corporation’s Mini Cooper, VW’s Type 1 aka Beetle/Bug ( the largest selling car design in history ) and Italy’s Fiat 500 have also recently been handpicked from the dead for a pseudo makeover rerelease within the last decade. The BMC Mini Cooper came on the scene in 1959 and ceased production in 2000. The iconic Beetle’s production was from 1938 to 2003 and the original Fiat 500’s run was from 1957 to 1975.
Upon first, second and third glances all three ‘re-releases’ stick to the same retro-styling strategy that the American muscle cars utilize. They all pull from nostalgic heartstrings – respectively 1960’s Mod Britain, flower-power US and Italy’s dolce vita.
The difference between the American and EU/UK’s double-dipping into their car jars is, in my view, one pivotal thing: the muscle car designs kept experimenting with each generational iteration for at least four decades before throwing in their creative towels in.
The VW Beetle never (safer to say, ‘barely’) went back to the drawing board after its creation. Neither did the Fiat or the Mini – a 1957 Mini and 1975 mini are identical in design. So, technically, the Europeans didn’t give up – they just waited have a century to update their icons once the market allowed an opportunity to degenerate a proven formula. When the new US-spec VW New Beetle was launched in 1997 the dashboard came with an integrated flower vase.
Its now time for car companies to embrace their original intent to define a new future – especially with the vehicles whose insignias hold the identity of its nation. Who better than designers to have the hindsight to clear a new path.
Jelsen Lee Innocent is a designer, investigating narrative and tactility as well as a contributing writer for by such and such.
Pictures are from : Funscrapes.com, sportscardigest.com, supercars.dk, ipad-wallpapers.us, seriouswheels.com.