(first posted 6/16/2015) NOBODY LIKES to look under-endowed in the locker room, and no car likes to look puny in the showroom. A full lunch-box matters: whatever the body-style or design theme, a car must look confident and potent.
In design circles anthropomorphism of cars is rife. This has its foundation in cars replacing the horse, cars uniformly described as having a face, shoulders, body, a tail, and stance. It has since distended to adjectives such as ‘sexy’ and ‘muscular’ being used. Even unapologetically euphemistic terms such as ‘thrusting gesture’ are said in all seriousness.
Looking at cars such as the Jaguar E-Type and McLaren-Mercedes SLR, another type of equine comparison is inevitable, and the obsession with length is mirrored in the distance between the dashboard and the axle. The more the better, traditionally, and it is why Audi spent so much money moving the front wheels of the A5 forward, even though it is basically front-wheel-drive.
Historically cars had all the length they wanted. Cylinders were often in straight-alignment necessitating a long hood to cover them all, the 1933 24-litre Napier-Railton a shining example.
Cars such as the Bugatti Royale even used an open cabin to falsify the impression of distance from grille to B-pillar, rather than A-pillar. Yet it was only a measurement: simplistic surfacing ensured a mechanical character devoid of today’s naturalism.
That came later, almost accidentally, when Mercedes had to tilt the engine in the 300SL Gullwing, thereby creating the eponymous twin-peaks. One ensured clearance to the engine, the other aesthetic balance (unlike the more ballsy W196 300SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe, which had a long cigar rolled to one side of the hood to accommodate the air-filter).
The other source for surface development on hoods stems from the legacy of pre-integrated-bodied cars. As fenders grew more elaborate and engines larger, these volumes began to merge, as seen on the awesome Cord 812. This DNA is still visible today: see the creases running from the base of the A-pillar to the corners of the grille, with fender flats outboard.
The 1979 Cadillac Coupe DeVille is a good example of this, while similarly the Volvo XC90 uses a tall centre section on the hood to dilute the mass of the cabin.
While American cars had flourished under this new thing called ‘automotive design’, which consolidated themes from a breadth of influences, European products were much more obliging to strict industrial design. The success of Giorgio Giugiaro with the first Volkswagen Golf and Fiat Panda left a taste for clean, rational designs that focused on clever combinations of straight lines with flat surfaces. Sticking a large proboscis on your car did not occur to him.
That was left to muscle cars, notorious for stuffing socks down their fronts for a greater impression of potency. One of my favourites is the Pontiac Trans-Am. A hole for the carbs is one thing, but hell, it had an eagle painted on it too. The Dodge Charger also features a neat detail, integrating the indicator repeater within the hood relief. Today, voyeurs might be tempted by the fenestrated Callaway Camaro to offer a better glimpse of your package. And for those who like to let it all hang out, a Morgan three-wheeler wears the family jewels on the outside.
The Chevrolet Camaro takes this one stage further, and tips the whole laundry basket into its Jocks. Its bulge is obscene, and dominates this automotive lothario. The fact that it is the hood that delivers all the semantics is down to a couple of things: that metal presses were relatively low pressure back then, and sheet metal thicker, making it impossible to achieve the kind of definition on the rest of the car. Secondly, styling was still in the slipstream of futurism founded over a decade before, where wheels played second fiddle to fuselage-like body volumes. That is, until the Oldsmobile Toronado came along.
Suddenly car design language had a new addition to its vocabulary: prominent arches. Such is the strength of this concept that bulging hoods were no longer prerequisite to expressing power. It is a tool we still see in Audi design today, where the hood even on RS models remains stock while fenders are exaggerated to remind of the Quattro heritage. A message is nothing without a messenger.
For years Audi had incredible technology (Procon-ten, five-cylinder turbos, four-wheel drive), but it wasn’t until they nailed the stance of the cars that they could begin their escalation to the premiership. You could almost pinpoint that moment to the first A4, when concentric arches shrouded big wheels pushed as wide as possible. With such square-shouldered, straight-backed confidence, one could at last believe in the message of the advanced technology being espoused. Audi has locked horns with Mercedes and BMW ever since.
Time for a brief antithesis: allow me to introduce the Fiat Multipla. It may seem contrary but as a point of interest I feel it worth mentioning. This oddball moment of brilliance is a Europe-only MPV that sat six people, three in two rows. All aforementioned examples exaggerate potency; the Fiat is unique in deliberately shrink-wrapping the hood around the engine to make it seem as small as possible. Call it Freudian, but it leaves a rather matronly bosom above it. This trick emphasises the size of the cabin and leaves virility to be proven by children filling the seats.
Though not every car will end up like a Multipla, pressure today to build a lighter car with a bigger interior inevitably means that the hood gets smaller as engines do too. The power bulge as a stand-alone feature is becoming rather out-dated. Having a lump on your hood that says power is as a styling tool what a grunt is to conversation. Branding, competition and the explosion of new markets means that cars have to cater to so many more tastes, and design has moved from colloquialisms to becoming multi-linguists. More words are needed to appeal to more people, words like pride, quality, heritage, trust, speed, personal, fun, exclusive are regular additions to the strategic lexicon, and as proportions conform, it falls on surfaces to be able to articulate them. That extra square yard ahead of you might just have the last word.