While I was on my recent vacation in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to rent a 2017 Nissan Armada. While the vehicle itself is fairly unremarkable, what is interesting is how much it thumbs its nose at the past 75 years of automotive styling while embracing “traditional automotive values.”
On the Armada, Function meets Form, and then basically gives Form the finger. The few attempts at style on the Armada are notable for falling flat. Take for example the fake fender vents: These had a brief resurgence in the early 2000’s after being reintroduced by Maserati, and then Buick. However, the look was quickly copied and soon became cliché. Heck, by 2008 even the Ford Focus had fake fender vents. Here we are in 2018, and the look is definitely past its sell-by date, but the Armada still sporting them like something from the clearance rack at Marshall’s.
And yet this is more than just a car devoid of style, proudly wearing its function on its (highly unstylish) sleeve. It is a complete rebuttal to the Harley Earl longer, lower, wider school of design that has dominated the auto industry for 75 years, and is finally losing its grip.
Before 1940, virtually every car sported some variation of two box styling: small box up front for the engine, and larger box for passengers and cargo. They had relatively tallish wheels and tires, and a body that sat above the frame and lots of ground clearance. They had tall, upright grilles and running boards for easy entry and exit.
While Harley Earl wasn’t the only designer playing around with lower cars (period designers like Gordon Buehrig and others were experimenting with similar themes), Earl’s outsized influence as head of design at General Motors gave him the bully pulpit to drive down the entire industry (literally). Wheels and tires became smaller, rooflines dropped, and bodies sunk down into the frame, and running boards quickly disappeared.
Compare the two pictures above, the top a 1935 Chevrolet, and the middle a 1949 Chevy. Forget the calendar: Thanks to World War II only ten model years separate the top two cars. And then compare the Armada on the bottom: Small box up front for the engine, and larger box for passengers and cargo. Tall wheels and tires, and a body that sits above the frame and lots of ground clearance. A tall, (reasonably) upright grille and running boards for easy entry and exit. Sound familiar?
At 75 years old, The Harley Earl doctrine has had a good run. In fact, it lasted longer than I would have guessed, given how impractical it is. But its time has passed, and we are quickly entering the Post-Earl world of crossovers, sport utility sedans, and body-on-frame SUVs like the Nissan Armada. A world where Ford will soon no longer sell traditional three-box cars in the United States at all.
Need further proof? Let’s take a closer look at that Nissan Armada. The first thing you notice is the unabashedly boxy two-box shape (no fast sloping rear window here). When you step up into the car, you are greeted with a definitely-not-a-running-board side step to help you climb in. And make no mistake, you step up into the Armada, just like Grampa’s Model A.
The body of the Armada sits on top of the frame, not down in it, as evidenced by the perfectly flat floors front and rear, despite having a driveshaft and low-speed transfer case tucked underneath. That high seating position unfortunately also contributes to that unique SUV phenomenon: The lateral head bobbing that occurs whenever you hit an uneven bump (an affliction that Grampa’s Model A also suffered from).
The vertical tail conceals enormous amounts of storage space, even with the third row seat deployed. Indeed, I have come to appreciate the space efficiency of early cars, and have begun to realize that Harley Earl’s emperor has no clothes. (Compare the interior space of a 1930’s Chrysler Airflow to just about any sedan from 1950 to 1970 and tell me which has more room).
Of course all analogies are imperfect, and this one is no different. The Armada is loaded with comfort and convenience features its 1930’s counterpart could only have dreamed of. It also packs a 390 hp 5.6L DOHC V8 engine whose effortless performance far eclipses that of even the most powerful 1930’s Marmon or Deusenberg. The gas mileage I observed (12.4 by the trip computer, 10.5 by my calculations) is more 1938 than 2018, although part of the blame can be laid at the large amounts stop-and-go and mountain driving that one experiences in Hawaii (as well as my heavy foot).
So at the end of the day, would I ever consider getting one? Absolutely not, as I like my cars smaller and in a flavor other than vanilla. The Armada is, like the Island State itself, a great place to visit, but one in which I wouldn’t want to reside. Everything that made it a great vacation ride (size, heft, V-8 engine, passenger and cargo capacity) make it a poor choice for my daily 30-mile solo commute to work. So I will be sticking to sedans to for the foreseeable future, while renting SUVs as needed. And while I may not be completely done driving sedans, I can now understand why the majority of car buyers are.