Automotive History: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Cars Without Grilles

(first posted 6/8/2017)         We humans see faces in all sorts of things, we’re wired that way. We especially see faces in the fronts of our cars. Two headlights for eyes, a badge nose and a grille for a mouth. It gives the car personality, and sometimes brand family identity too. From the Fifties through the Seventies lots of small cars had rear engines. No radiator up front, which meant no grille either. A face with a blank space where the mouth should be, like this 1972 VW Squareback, looks wrong to many people. Stylists used a wide variety of tricks to deal with this problem.

Now we’re seeing more and more electric cars. No combustion engine means no big radiator which means no big grille. Car designers again have the challenge of “saving face”. Many of the same styling tricks are reappearing, with some new ones too. Let’s take a look at the wide variety of cars without grilles.

First a collection of grilles with real personality. Two cars couldn’t be much different than the carefree 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite and the grinning, some say angry, 1959 Buick. A couple of today’s popular cars, the 2017 Ford Fusion and Honda Accord have personality too. In fact I was surprised to see similar expressions in the Honda and the Buick. No question the grille has always been a powerful tool for the stylist to give a car character and distinction.

Grilles can be powerful tools for branding too. You can’t see the rest of the car but you instantly know what kind of car it is, which tells you something about its owner. A grille is a lot more than just a big air vent. It’s a shame to give it up.

Here are some cars that simply left a blank space where the grille would be. Purely functional, a perfectly defensible choice. But, like the “silence” emoji in the center, a face with no mouth has nothing to say. There’s something quite odd and unsatisfying about it to most of us. Starting at the upper left, did you know Mercedes once sold a rear-engine production car? Here is a 1935 Mercedes 130. Going clockwise that’s a 1972 VW 412, a 1985 Tatra 613, and a 1973 Fiat 126. There were darned few blank-faced rear-engine cars, and I haven’t found any blank-faced modern electrics.

Ever seen a man with a mustache just long enough that you can’t see his mouth? Still can be a fine-looking face. I like to think of these as “mustache” cars, no grille but a nice wide trim feature to take its place. This was a popular feature of grilleless cars, here are just a few. The 1958 NSU Prinz (thanks Tatra87) at upper left really has a mustache-shaped mustache. We Americans knew the Chevrolet Corvair very well (’62 shown here), and you Brits knew its stylistic sibling the 1963 Hillman Imp well too. The current 2017 Tesla Model S electric car has a modern mustache, don’t you think?

One of the most popular and well-loved “mustache” rear-engined cars was the 1957 Fiat 500. It was revived in 2007 as a retro-styled answer to the modern Mini. But to echo the original 500’s look, today’s 500 has no grille even though it has a front engine. Just a little slot under the mustache and a good-sized chin scoop. In a unique return to roots, the 2013 500e electric needs no grille like its grandpa, so the chin scoop was replaced with a styled plastic panel. The slot remains for the motor controller and the air conditioner. (A metallic grey 2017 500e is now my daily driver. I’m delighted with it and it inspired this post.)

Another answer is to make the bumper take the visual shape of a mouth, like the popular 1956 Renault Dauphine. Since modern bumpers are so large and covered with colored plastic, the “bumper mouth” has been a common feature of modern electric cars, seen on the 2010 Nissan Leaf, the 2017 Chevy Bolt and the original 2012 Tesla Model S.

Of course a popular solution to the lack of a grille was just to put on a fake one. An easy way to complete the face and give it a bit of attitude as well. Upper left is a Tatra 600 Tatraplan from 1946, next to the Dauphine’s predecessor, a 1947 Renault 4CV. The 1948 Tucker’s big chrome front grill was only used for air conditioning, it had a radiator and a grille with the engine out back. Today’s Ford Focus Electric just replaced the combustion version grille with an identical looking fake grille panel. Which leads us to another common form today…

…what I call “fill in the blank”. Many of today’s electrics are versions of existing combustion-engine cars. It’s common to use the same bodywork and just fill in the grille opening with something different to signify the electric version. The Chevy Spark EV, which went out of production when the Bolt came out, has patterned silver panels to fill in its grille openings. VW’s eGolf above it has a black plastic band that replaces the Golf’s grille. That’s the new Kia Soul EV at the lower right, with a white and blue panel filling in the blank. BMW’s i3 electric car is still a fill in the blank design in my book, even though it has no combustion counterpart. They kept the iconic BMW grille shape, filled in with black rather than a fake grille.

Porsche set the standard for rear-engine sports car design in 1963 with its iconic 911. Just slope the hood down to the bumper to cheat the wind and maximize forward visibility. For some reason it looks right in a way that other grilleless cars don’t. Heaven knows a 911 can scream. Fiat’s 1965 850 Spider is a trim and beautiful Porsche-type front end design by Bertone. In 1969 Porsche’s 914, an air-cooled mid-engine roadster (without the front radiator most mid-engine cars have), didn’t even try to present a face by hiding its headlights. Looking to the future, Porsche has announced its pure-electric Mission E, to come out in 2019 as their Tesla fighter. Its front end is unmistakably Porsche style.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. A few designers just filled the grilleless space up with more headlights. Tatra’s 603 from 1956 looks like it came out of a mid-fifties space monster movie. Older three-headlight designs like the Tucker (shown 3 pictures up) and some earlier Tatras used separate fenders and the hood to make triple headlights look somewhat functional. Not the 603. Maybe they meant to poke fun at the Communist officials who drove the big Tatras. Renault’s 1967 R8 Gordini was a more successful example of the face full of headlights, maybe because it has a bumper mouth as well.

Has anyone noticed how much the forthcoming Tesla Model 3 front end looks like a 1958 Renault Caravelle? Can you believe sixty years separate these two designs? In both cases the blank front succeeds because it strongly suggests the shape of a sports car with grille. I’m thinking of the 1966 Fiat 124 Sport Spider for example. Something like a sculpted face wearing a sheer ski mask. Model 3 is such a big hit people lined up around the block to put down $1,000 on one. Maybe this look portends a new design generation of cars without grilles.

Finally, let’s consider the most popular car without a grille in history, the VW Beetle. It’s in a class by itself. A design so well loved VW came out with a modern retro version, that keeps its grilleless look in spite of its front engine. I’ve owned two original Beetles myself. What makes this such a successful face? It’s not quite a bumper mouth, besides VWs without their bumpers look fine, even better to my eye. I think the trunk lid resembles a big, broad nose, like a trusty, lovable dog. It harmonizes with similar shapes in the whole car. Compare with its blank-faced big brother, the Squareback at the top of the page. Somehow the Beetle pulls it off, a car without a grille but the friendliest face on the road.