I was going through stuff in the attic, and I came across some back issues of Architectural Digest magazine. In the November 1998 issue I found an article by Paul Goldberger that I can recall reading many years ago entitled “The Identical Sedan: Car Design at the End of the Nineties.” I remember agreeing with many of Goldberger’s ideas, and now from the perspective of 2021 I have to ask–has anything really changed?
For those of you who don’t know, Architectural Digest is a formidable, highly respected upscale-type magazine which, when I was reading it regularly in the ’90s and early 2000s, had splashy, sumptuous articles and advertisements mostly relating to high-end, high-status, cost-is-no-object presentations of upper crust home furnishings, interior decorating, and fashion accessories. So we have ads for Gucci Luggage, furs from Saks Fifth Avenue, Baccarat chandeliers, Cartier silver and gold watches with extra diamonds on the crown, dealers selling “important” antiques like Louis XV’s snuff boxes; as well as multi-page color spreads featuring celebrities’ and other beautiful people’s Upper East Side NYC apartments, mansions in Beverly Hills, and other palaces spread all over the world. Styles range from lavishly traditional to minimalist sleek modern. Each issue is 300 pages, so they are like little coffee table books rather than typical magazines.
Now AD doesn’t usually focus on cars, but there was this 1998 article in which the author bemoaned the fact that new cars are so look-alike, dull, and boring. (Where have we heard that before?) Paul Goldberger (who writes very clearly and entertainingly, making abstract concepts clear) relates how when he was growing up in the ’50s, “Men were men, women were women, and there was also a time when Fords were Fords and Pontiacs were Pontiacs and nobody could mistake a Chrysler for a Dodge.”
Each year and make had its own distinctive identity: “Not only could you not confuse an Oldsmobile with a DeSoto…but there was no danger that you would mistake a 1957 Oldsmobile for a 1958, or a 1959, or a 1960 model. Everything looked different from everything else, every year, all the time. The mission of the design studios was very clear: Keep inventing.”
He continues: “Harley Earl, the legendary design chief at General Motors, composed more variations on a theme than Bach ever dreamed of. Every car had to be different from its competitors, and it had to be distinct from its own preceding models too, at least enough to encourage loyal owners to trade their vehicles for the latest model.”
You can see why the homogenous look of contemporary auto offerings would bother Goldberger as well as AD’s readership, which consisted of aesthetes who loved high style, beauty, and exclusiveness: “We have hardly lost our desire for sex appeal, excitement, and a sense of fulfillment, but the way the automobile industry provides them for us… has changed altogether.” He goes on to say that all cars now run very well, none of them is really bad, and that the constraints of engineering and regulation drive the industry toward a single basic form: “Raising the common denominator comes at a high price, which is that everything has become the common denominator.”
Goldberger cites a few new cars he likes, specifically the Audi A4 & A6 (slogan: “We design cars because we don’t know how to write poetry.” Coincidentally, there’s an ad for Audi in this issue). He also mentions the Jeep Grand Cherokee (another advertiser); the new Ford Taurus (“with its exaggerated curves and ellipses, [it] is a welcome break from the norm”); as well as the Jaguar XJ8, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and the Oldsmobile Aurora.
What Goldberger and other taste-makers of the time could just barely see were the beginnings of a small but significant movement against dull automotive sameness in the form of retro design. Cars like the Jaguar S-Type, the New Beetle, and the Ford Thunderbird were the premiere examples of creating new distinction by incorporating classic design cues into modern forms.
As SUVs and trucks became more popular, retro-inspired versions were created as well, including the PT Cruiser, Chevy SSR and HHR. Some of the retros were very enthusiastically received, while others were not a sales success. And, like in the old days, a PT Cruiser was easily distinguishable from an HHR, and no one mistook a New Beetle for a Thunderbird. However, none of these models (except New Beetle) is offered today.
Which makes me wonder–do people like sameness and lack of distinction? The retro fad came and went, bringing with it some really beautiful and distinctive vehicles which had that longed-for spirit of romanticism–these were cars you could love. Today’s Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang, and Chevy Camaro reflect that same spirit, but they make up a very small slice of the market–and like the Beetle, may be on their way out. The Mazda Miata, Mini, and Fiat 500 are also hanging in there, but these are all cars of the small, sporty type.
So where does this leave us now? Much the same place as 1998, except the “identical sedan” has become the “identical SUV”. It makes me wonder why, with all models so similar, do we even need all these different brands? I find the case of Mercedes particularly egregious. A Mercedes was always distinctive; it looked like a Mercedes, and had a unique luxury feel and vibe. Now the only way I can tell if an SUV is a Mercedes is that it has the 3-pointed star in the grille. Maybe that’s why you can, at extra cost, get a Mercedes grille star that lights up–so everyone knows what you’re driving!
Ah, but time moves ever forward, endlessly. All things evolve into new forms, just like the universe itself. These electric truck proposals are distinctive, and reflect today’s leading-edge aesthetics. Whether they are beautiful or artistic is another question.
But what do you think new things will be like? Hint: Not what you expect! This 1950s prediction of a car of the future, the 2001 Turbopusher II, is merely an exaggerated version of ’50s design ideas. The real 2001 models were based on ideas no one could accurately see 40 years before. It’s hard to look past your own nose.
Speaking of future predictions, the same November ’98 issue has an article by Nicholas Von Hoffmann entitled, “The Cell Phone Era: Rapid Advances in the Ubiquitous Item.” It closes with the statement: “Buy a phone, get a life.” But what kind of life will that be?
The identical sedan article reminds me of that Shoe comic strip featuring a 1959 DeSotol then someone posted on the Forward look forum..
While we’re at it, it reminds me also of that Lincoln commercial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaZqQLpbjFU
There’s a surprising resemblance between the DeSoto and the Ford Focus in that shot – compare the shape of the taillights from the side view, or the slope of the rear windows, or how the Focus rear spoiler picks up the angle of the DeSoto’s fin.
“Generic, uninspired front ends of 1998. Can you identify them?” Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, Cadillac Catera
“The rears–equally dull.” Oldsmobile Alero, Nissan Maxima, Honda Accord
“But what do you think new things will be like? Hint: Not what you expect!” We can’t leave “The Jetsons” out of this discussion. Based on current trends, flying cars may remain just in Orbit City.
Ha ha! Loved that show when I was a kid.
Not Alero, Intrigue. Only because I owned one for 8 years.
Forgot about that one! I could still tell it was an Oldsmobile b/c of the wheel design. Saw an Intrigue just this afternoon in fact.
The hidden horror of the Jetsons: why do they have to live in the sky? Is it because the ground is a radioactive hellscape?
In cars, sameness goes along with times of fake wealth. The 20s, the 90s. Anything sells, so makers focus on status instead of looking different. Sizzle, not steak.
Variation in style goes along with more equal wealth. The 30s, 1950 through 1975. Makers have to work harder to sell a car, so they do.
I love this type of vintage commentary, and I’ve found that frequently with cars, the most interesting articles are sometimes from non-car publications.
Regarding the seemingly revolving door of boring and derivative car designs, I remember as a kid in the 1980s, my father often complained about how new cars all looked the same, while back in the 1950s, you could ID a year make and model of a car from a quarter-mile away. I didn’t see it, since to me, 1950s cars all looked the same, but I could easily pick out the difference between a Century and a Cutlass Ciera. I wonder if back in the 1950s, old-timers complained how newer cars lacked the distinction of cars from the ’30s? Serious question… I’d just love to know.
Regarding Mr. Goldberger’s analysis of new cars, I certainly agree about the Olds Aurora… I thought it was the best-looking sedan of its era.
Oh, and cellphone obliviousness, like from that 1998 drawing? Nah, that’ll never happen…
My father, a closet gear head, was born in 1922. He and many of his friends complained that in the 1960s all the American cars looked the same, based on their intended selling point.
IE; all sedans were 3-box type. All American sports cars were fastback roofs on a box, or the convertibles were simply the same box without the top. These guys said it was the imports that had any sense of style. Perhaps this is why back then they ALL bought foreign cars for themselves & American cars for their spouses!
[Dad bought these fairly rare and unusual foreign cars: ’59 Volvo 544 Duette, ’63 Peugeot 403 Familiale wagon, ’68 Porsche 912 w/5 speed, then he changed to buyiing less unusual cars as he got older; ’73 Mercury Capri, Volvo 240 sedan.
Bill, thanks for your response. Makes perfect sense to me how your father would view cars of the ’60s as so similar.
I was a great fan of “Car” magazine in the 70’s and 80’s. L.J.K. Set right and crew had a lot or references to “UJCs”. Universal Japanese Cars.
I’m sorry but in my opinion the original AD design article is complete bullshit, and we see the same thing in comments here at CC over and over again.
The author of the AD article and many others are not fans of automobiles IN GENERAL, they are fans of an ERA in which they are cognizant of the existence of automobiles, that era varies among people. As such they can (or choose to) clearly identify everything that exists in that era to the exclusion of everything else from different eras. Which is completely fine and a non-issue, to each their own.
It states that it is obvious what was a Chevy or Ford or Dodge or Chrysler back in the day. No it really was not and is not to those not either growing up with an interest in or having studied those particular designs of that era (that aspect is key). I’ll freely admit I’m as big a fan of cars any anyone here and had no idea I was looking at a 1954 DeSoto in the junkyard last week until I read the badge on it. It could have been any of these above marques. The author of this post probably thinks I’m a philistine for not readily identifying a DeSoto Firedome from 300 paces in the dark that’s behind a wall, never mind from five feet away. Fine, it’s not something I’m particularly interested in but I can surely identify any Accord from any Maxima from any Cadillac, no matter the year or era. The vast majority of 50’s designs mass market cars before then? Fuggedaboutit. I didn’t grow up in that era and haven’t studied it in depth. A better way to describe it is if the authors of the AD as well as this post were presented with a variety of old designs from a different country, let’s say France or Germany or Britain. Would it be as immediately obvious what brand of car they were looking at of those products of the same era even if they’d heard of the brand names? To a Frenchman or German of the era, very likely so, to others likely not as much. You can’t tell a 1950 Lanchester from a 1950 Wolseley, why ever not? But that’s the supposed premise here, old cars are all highly distinct, modern ones not. False.
However I also believe that anyone that considers themselves an enthusiast in general and isn’t aware of the subjects of their own era and of any era going forward from there in which they were still enthusiasts since then is stuck in a bubble. If one is over 40, an auto enthusiast since their teens and can’t see the difference between the turn of the century Accord, Maxima, and Catera as referenced in the article, then that’s just willful ignorance or the enthusiasm is not general but highly specific but might as well be toasters or lamp posts as opposed to cars.
If I am misreading things and the question is if a car was shown to me for the first time without any badging on it would I be able to tell who made it? I don’t know, but I’d be just as unlikely to tell you I’m looking at a ’55 Chevy as opposed to a Dodge or Ford if I had never seen one before and was presented with one without badges back in 1953, the same goes for the 1997 Audi A6 design from the rear if seen in 1994, and the same goes for probably any vehicle since the beginning of time. If something is instantly recognizable the first time it’s seen then it speaks to a lack of imagination rather than an abundance of it on the part of the designer or a constraint levied upon that imagination (you MUST use this old feature in the new design, etc).
Thus the author’s appreciation of the Jaguar XJ8 – no shit, it looks great because it looks just like what went before it back to when he actually studied and knew the designs. On the contrary, most fans of modern vehicles panned the design exactly because of that, there was no original thought in it (noted to to an even greater extent on the X-Type), and thus eventually the XJ and all other Jaguar models broke from their old design themes and went in a new direction – to their long term detriment in that case as the volume was never there and the buyers liked the oldness. Or would Jaguar have been at death’s door either way? Probably, the cars are perceived to have too many other issues.
The same goes for the same misleading SUV graphic that’s presented yet again here. I note that every vehicle is adjusted for size, thus taking away one of the key differentiators that is used to mentally whittle down the range of possibilities in one’s mind (this holds not just for SUVs but for any object). I’ll cherrypick from the blatantly misleading image – if you can’t tell a difference between the referenced Mercedes GL in the third position of the right column and the Honda CRV immediately above it when parked next to each other on the street, you’re flat out blind but the creator would have you believe they look identical. Or you just have zero interest in vehicles of the era and willfully blind yourselves to things visible dozens of times daily in anyone’s daily outings. The same goes for pretty much any grouping of at least any three of them – there may be sets of two that look similar but never a set of three that doesn’t have some form of ready distinction between them. It’s like saying women all look exactly the same. A nose, a couple of eyes, four limbs, two boobs, some hair on top and what’s the difference otherwise. Gimme a break. Even one with zero interest in that particular model of humans can see differences between them.
And lastly, no, a PT Cruiser is no more readily different from a Chevy HHR to anyone who can’t or won’t see a difference between current CUVs, it’s only different to those who are either fans of cars in general AND in this case those who are fans of cars of the era that those two purport to mimic specifically due to their sometimes cringey style points when looked at in retrospect, just like every other retro design out there. Thus the reason retro is a dead end, it more than anything else shows a lack of imagination and a longing to go back to what was seen before through today’s rose tinted glasses. The similarities are fun in a kitsch way (and is valid, kitsch can be attractive), but not lasting as an absolute, i.e. the design does not stand on its own without the reference subject.
I would agree with this. I can readily identify cars of my baby boomer era, but anything from the Thirties looks interchangeable. Apart from the grills, what was different about any of the post-war slab-sided cars? And much as I love fins, it’s not always clear which is which. Nothing has changed.
You’ve said pretty much everything I was going to say, only in much greater detail. Bravo!
Very insightful, Jim.
As I grow older I’m losing interest in modern cars (like my father before me), to the degree that (drum roll…) they all look the same. I’ll admit, I’ve stopped buying new car magazines because they just don’t interest me, so until I see something on the street, I don’t know it exists. And in small-town rural Australia, new cars don’t come along that often. At least, not ones that I notice.
Back in the sixties, the differences between modern cars were obvious to me, but not to Dad. Nowadays when I snap pics for the a certain FB group, I often have to check badges, or find myself subjected to ten different degrees of “That’s not an Toyota X, that’s a Toyota Y”. It’s amazing how many people feel they also need to correct you once the initial ‘you got it wrong’ post is up. And that’s in a polite, well-moderated group.
But I find that among my own age group, automotive interests tend to be shared. Nobody cares that I can’t tell an X from a Y (unless they own one). So what do most of my friends drive? White pickups and SUVs. Unless they’re silver. (Graham’s a holdout for the old ways; he drives a maroon Volvo sedan.) Can I tell one from another? Apart from Chris’ LR Freelander and Ken’s Land Cruiser, no. Is anyone fussed about that? No. Because we all remember the same “old days”.
I agree with this 100 percsnt, and couldn’t have said it 10 percent as well as that.
It is a generation thing.
As most car-crazy kids, I could pinpoint every rear lamp from a car to what make and type it belonged. I still can recognize all makes and types of European cars from the 50s, 60s, 70s and most 80s. It is because I grew up with them around me and me taking an interest. Nowadays, I have to find a badge to know what it is.
But I cannot and could never decipher American cars. As fascinating as they are to me, I have hard times distinguishing them. I only started to take an interest in them a couple of years ago and now am able to recognize the main vehicles – Cadillacs, Mopars and the minor makes such as Studebakers, Nash, Hudson and AMC. Still have trouble with the more common GM and Ford makes.
Jim, great points. The citation of the XJ8 as highly appealing… I knew where you were going with that. As owners of one of those, in black, I have to say that it indeed does stand out in 2021 even more than it did in 1998… and that I agree with the AD writer’s assessment. But yes. The premise of the article is foolish. There is a period of car design you recognize, and others that you don’t. I’ve been a car nut my whole life, I’m 45. I could easily identify every car they pictured. They are from the era where I read R&T every month. I can’t discern 2020 models nearly as easily. There are ages both before and after the period I can discern makes/models. I’d say after about 2010 or before 1940. I can’t tell 1920s cars apart until I am close enough to read the badges, they really all look the same to me, apart from the model T which has a distinctive stance. I’m sure there were old guys who could not discern the difference between a Riviera and a Thunderbird but who could tell an Essex from a Maxwell at 100 yards:)
My favorite thing in this post is the VW Billboard, proclaiming that you won’t freeze in the new Beetle like you did in the one you had when you were a kid.
Thanks for sparing me having to write out a similar long comment. 🙂
Yes, the reality is that our memory banks are eager for new input before they get mostly filled up, meaning when we are young/youngish. Which of course explains why car nuts can wax eloquently on all sorts of minutia about the details of the cars of their youth, and find all the cars of their middle age (and older) as boring and all looking alike. They simply don’t have the available memory/interest (which is essentially the same thing) for new cars, with some exceptions.
I can see this very much with myself; there are some new/newish cars that just do’t hold any visual interest, hence I can barely ID them. But certain others are distinctive/interesting enough to do so.
We’ve shown over and over here with old parking lot photos that cars of any age tend to look alike. No need to retrod that old ground. It’s juts a reality.
There’s another factor: cars may simply not be as desirable an object of general interest as they once were. Cars generally don’t have the positive social aspect as they did once upon a time. They’re more of a necessity now than something to really be excited about. People have only so many things that they can engage in as an object of interest and for social sharing.
Once upon a time, it was a big deal when one of your neighbors got a new car. Now if your neighbor’s driveway has a new CRV or RAV4 or even a Mercedes CUV, it’s barely noticed, unless you’re a car nut still, which is of course a dying species. You think the kids and grownups in the neighborhood are going to come over and ogle that new CRV?
The world changes. Except for those that still need to show off, a car or truck just doesn’t convey as much as it did once upon a time. When a young woman in her first good job can afford to lease a Mercedes or BMW or Tesla, is it really a genuine prestige object anymore, outside of her social circle perhaps?
Cars became mostly appliances quite a while back, for most of the population. And complaining about appliances looking alike is silly. CUVs have the shape they do because it’s the most practical and logical, given their mission. People don’t want to drive sedans with giant long hoods and trunks anymore.
Harley Earl became the master of gingerbread. But even he could only do so much. The only way a non-expert can possibly tell the difference between a ’59 and ’60 Cadillac is the fin. And that applies to a lot of his glorious and original cars. How much difference was there really between a ’61, ’62, ’63 ‘ 64 Chevy, other than the gingerbread? And often re-arranging the gingerbread meant an uglier car.
The Europeans had it right: build a better car all-round, and then build it the same until you’re ready for the next really new one. The annual styling change was a ridiculous joke.
If American cars in the ’50s and ’60s had stayed the exact same for 4-8 years at a time, it would be a lot easier to ID them for anyone other than a nerd.
Something just like this was noted in a book I read ages ago. Perhaps 1972’s “The Death of the Automobile” by James Jerome, or the mentioned-here “The Insolent Chariots”?
Cars have always looked generally the same. Its just the decade and style of the time that changes.
And those 50s cars were not very innovative. Besides the automatic transmission and ohv v8 (which became mainstream the decade prior) it was just the styling that was innovative.
The best part of this article is the Author pointing out the Audi A4 and A6 as particularly stylish and unique, and yet 23 years later they have nearly identical silhouettes, and arguably The most minor revolution in design for any passenger cars. You do know they are Audi’s, however (they never change!).
Buick made a particularly unfortunate choice of car for the “Harley Earl was here” ad. The ’58 GM cars may have been distinctive, but they were also garish.
I don’t recall anything about the “Harley Earl” series of ads, but, yeah, that’s not the thing to focus on.
I do remember an earlier Buick TV ad series in which they spotlighted Buicks thru the years. They showed the first Special, some of the best pre-wars, a Riviera or two, and I remember “In the ’50s, along with expectations, Buicks got bigger”, illustrated by a canted-quad ’59. Sort of a tacit admission that it wasn’t their time-capsule effort.
I think the lack of color variety plays a larger role than the styling, the late 90s was when I remember silver beginning to proliferate every damn new car on the road, and it’s been one greyscale form or another since. I was a child of the 90s, and indeed I could tell all these 90s designs apart pretty easily(dad had that exact Maxima featured), but I think one reason I was immediately attracted to old cars at a young age was because they seemed more colorful first, and the stylistic elements came second. But the reality is, when I see a silver split window Corvette, my reaction is the same emphatic “meh” a silver Accord elicits from me.
In terms of style I think the 90s designs on average were more discernible than many boxy 80s designs in the sheer look mould. Conformity ebbs and flows, and I think there are spurts through the years and decades where conformity abounds and other periods where there’s a shake up of what styling trends are actually forward thinking and what’s modern in an acceptable way. The “jellybean” was being widespread through the 90s, and all the key elements of that design trend have remained in automobiles to this day, but the details hadn’t quite been sorted out yet with all sorts of headlight shapes being tried, and of course the bodystyle consolidation hadn’t yet taken place(there were still 2 door Camrys back then!). Much the same applies to the 60s where American designers transitioned from only designing large finned cars to smaller definned compact and intermediate segments, which then got stale themselves by the mid 70s.
I was waiting for someone to bring this up. Of course it was you, Matt!
Greyscale colours just slip under my automotive radar. It takes pretty amazing styling to make a greyscale vehicle stand out amongst a herd of other greyscale vehicles. All too often that amazing styling seems contrived, overdone, juvenile even. And yet people buy these things.
Is it because they’re effectively denied a choice of real colours to express their individuality? Or is it a sign of something deeper?
Back in the seventies we all wanted to stand out. Oh, we stood out from our parents all right, but not always from others of our generation. And it was a very colour-filled world. Nowadays, it seems nobody wants to stand out. Everybody seems to want to conform; the rise of social media and the idea of political correctness seems to encourage this. Nobody wants to be noticed. As a society, we’ve become as conservative in our choices as our parents were. Who’d have seen that coming?
So, conversely, if you had to compare a silver split-window Corvette to a red Accord, would you prefer the Accord?
No but a bright red Accord would likely catch my attention sooner. It’s not a preference thing, I obviously prefer everything else about the Corvette
I mostly agree with the points Jim and Paul have made. I can tell just about any ’90s and ’00s car apart from one another, because that’s the era of cars I grew up looking at any day. Give me a car from the ’60s and I might get it right, but it’s certainly more difficult.
I will say that I think the late ’50s are a niche case in which car design in different brands was more distinct than at any other point in automotive history due to the more overt emphasis on flashy (and, in many cases, somewhat grotesque) looks; but, as that statement suggests, it was an anomaly, not a sustained trend.
The image of the contemporary SUVs is of course very misleading; for one thing, the profile view is the least distinctive distinguishing angle of a car. If you greyed out a bunch of ’50s cars and only gave someone their side profile, it would be no easier.
One thing I have noticed in recent years (and perhaps it’s just me getting older and less observant) is that it’s harder for me to tell models from the same manufacturer apart from each other. I do honestly feel like, for example, the C-Class and E-Class were more distinct a couple of generations ago. But this doesn’t extend to across-brand comparisons.
Last thought, and it’s just a passing observation: I had forgotten how much I detested the modern Jaguar S-Type’s styling. Maybe it’s because I never thought the Mark II’s design was very appealing either, but the S-Type honestly could almost pass for a Mitsuoka to me. The XF that replaced it was a galactic leap forward in styling quality, in my eyes.
” I do honestly feel like, for example, the C-Class and E-Class were more distinct a couple of generations ago.”
I was thinking something more like this (2010); not 30 years ago. But as I said, I accept that it might just be me getting older and less observant.
Yes, I have the same problem, too, with Mercedes-Benz C-Class (W 205) and E-Class (W 213), especially the side and rear quarter views.
I would agree that car consciousness is probably related to the period of a person’s coming of age. In our past America, getting your driver’s license was a major event for most people and usually was consistent with heightened “auto awareness.” Past social relationship practices placed a priority on a young male’s need to invite and squire the young ladies of his choice. Also, because these same males bought into the belief that these young women actually cared about their mode of transportation, cars took on a more important aspect to these young men.
As mentioned, at one time cars were a serious indicator of status and personal (financial) achievement. Selecting the right car was like selecting the right wardrobe, a matter of image management. Interest in these things usually fades with time, experience, and maturity. Except in the case of the car enthusiast.
Even with enthusiasts interest is usually limited to certain time periods. As a youngster and into my teens, I was intensely aware of cars from the late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. In the 1980’s and 90’s I was actively involved in buying the occasional new car. Into the 2000’s my interest in new cars has waned, and I don’t pay much attention, except to specific models, like Mustangs. I can usually tell the different makes apart because I know where to look for the areas of differentiation, such as grilles and tail lamp designs.
There are other things that I have little interest in differentiating. Such as phones, TVs, computers, and appliances. I only pay attention to the differences when I have to make a purchase, except for that, they all look the same to me.
One of the things not mentioned yet, which did play into the original article’s premise is the shrinking number of bodies/body styles for a given model.
There was a time when you could walk into a dealership and ask to see the new model X and the salesman might ask, 2dr or 4dr? If you replied 2dr the next question might have been sedan, hardtop, fastback or convertible? If you had answered 4dr you would have been asked, sedan, hardtop or wagon? Sure not every model had all of those choices but quite a few offered most of them. So even in a given model you at least had a lot of variation in the roof lines and thus overall profiles. Then convertibles fell out of favor and eventually 2drs and wagons followed. The sales were also reasonable spread out, the 2drs and wagons weren’t uncommon unicorns they were everywhere.
By the late 90’s having a choice of a 2dr, 4dr and a wagon was as good as it got and not that common either as take rates of 2drs and traditional station wagons fell off. You could buy a 98 Accord coupe, sedan or wagon, but seeing a coupe or wagon in the wild was quite rare. Over at Toyota the Camry wagon was gone by 1998 and Ford never even bothered with a 2dr Taurus.
So yes cars of the 90’s were much more homogenized to the average person’s eye than they had been in the 60’s and 70’s simply because basic 4dr sedans were a much larger percentage of the cars on the road.
The author of the AD article seems to have some odd choices in what he likes and doesn’t like – Jaguar and Audi I could see coming, but not the fishface Taurus. Distinctive and different, sure, I get that, but the overall design is not a thing of beauty. And surely good design should be about beauty and practicality. That E-class Merc he likes? It always looked to me like it had two pairs of leftover Beetle headlights on the front; it sure doesn’t say ‘energy and dignity’ to me. More like giving the eye such a distinctive detail to focus on so that you don’t notice the blandness everywhere else.
It would be interesting to know what he actually drove.
I enjoyed this time-capsule of an article, and Jim and Paul’s long, well-thought-out responses.
As I’m hitting middle age, I certainly care less about the “cool factor” of what I drive, and I find that the majority of co-workers and friends younger than me are even less enthused about car choices.
Maybe when people look at the preponderance of gray/silver/black cars and talk about all these societal factors of people becoming conformist, or not wanting to be noticed, or having a dull outlook on life, they’re missing the point- cars are no longer aspirational objects, so who cares if they’re dull? After all, when’s the last time you saw a Corvette red dishwasher?
Last time I was at Home Depot, actually 🙂
I don’t believe we have truly hit the full appliancification of cars, otherwise why are there 300 horsepower Rav 4s and Honda Pilots? If nobody truly cares and only purchases the most practically packaged vehicle for the money, why have way more horsepower than absolutely necessary for a commute? Why are the greyscale colors popular, ie what practical appliance purpose does the very popular white and black have? In a home neutral colors on appliances serve a purpose of not clashing with decor or color schemes, but that is irrelevant with a car, and from an ownership standpoint they certainly aren’t low maintenance, road grime or salt become visible faster than just about any other color. Probably the most appliance practical colors would be beiges and earth tones popular in the 70s, yet that color palate is shunned and ridiculed by people who “don’t care” today.
I think the ambivalent attitude around cars is something of a fashion thing, trying hard to look like you don’t care about frivolities and value practicality. The same mental endorphin rush that someone had knowing you have fins on your new Desoto thinking you’ve impressed the neighborhood are there when you buy today’s crossover with all that utility and space, letting all the neighbors know you’re “adulting”. But just as the desoto’s fins didn’t provide any directional stability at super sonic speed, those three rows of seats and utility aren’t exactly that useful when it’s just you, your wife and your dog, and everything you buy is delivered by Amazon or instacart.
I don’t believe we have truly hit the full appliancification of cars, otherwise why are there 300 horsepower Rav 4s and Honda Pilots?
For the same reason we have 2hp garbage disposals. I could go on about the “horsepower war” in other appliances.
Actually, appliances are a big thing these days. In fact, I’d venture to guess that some folks are as much or more “appliance proud” as they are “car proud”. Some goes for other aspects of their houses.
Guess what: couples without kids don’t buy three-row SUVs.
For that matter, they don’t buy a single vehicle for both of them. He buys a pickup and she buys a compact CUV or such.
You’re sounding a bit bitter, Matt. hang in there; one of these days this CUV/SUV/Pickup fad undoubtedly will end, and folks will be clamoring after low-slung coupes again. And the dog can ride in the trunk.
Well, I stand corrected. (Yes, on the Internet.) For what it’s worth, I’ve only seen those wild colors at super-high-end appliance places, but never in anyone’s home. When we replaced all our appliances a few years back, we went with boring stainless steel.
We’re a couple without kids with one car, but we’re an outlier- we only have one garage space, and live in a dense urban area. I’d never own a pickup (where the hell would I even put it, it wouldn’t fit in the garage) and the single car of choice is a compact CUV based on a size/utility tradeoff.
That’s not a red dishwasher, that’s a dishwasher with an option to hang a matching cabinet front on it instead of whatever panel it came with, as can be done with many dishwashers (and some fridges as well), cabinet makers have long (decades?) been selling the blank panels to specifically do this with. The idea is to make the appliance just blend in to the row of cabinets.
No, Jim that is a red dishwasher, or you can order it in other colors but you order the color you want, not the dishwasher and an optional panel. To change the skin you would need to completely disassemble the door.
I do remember when most better dishwashers came with several insert panels, in fact I think I’ve sill got one or two hanging around from when I did the cabinet side panel insert to blend into the cabinet, one of which I removed last summer after 25 years of service and unfortunately I couldn’t put the panel in the new one because it was one of the style that is intended to stay what ever color you ordered.
Why do all but a couple design magazines advertise to the wealthy? Like all design enthusiasts are totally loaded or something. I enjoy reading AD at the library because I’m too cheap to subscribe. I think the author of the article wasn’t thinking like their target market. Those that can afford to buy those fancy offerings would likely purchase a Land Rover, Maserati, Bentley or maybe even a Ferrari.
“ Ah, but time moves ever forward, endlessly. All things evolve into new forms, just like the universe itself. These electric truck proposals are distinctive, and reflect today’s leading-edge aesthetics.”
I was just ruminating on this but two of the three designs are what I would consider extremely retro. Elon himself said the Cybertruck was influenced by the Lotus Esprit’s guigiaro wedginess, and the Bollinger looks uncannily like a Land Rover series III. The only thing leading edge in them is that they’re among the first to have broken in the 70s-80s form of retro, departing the 50s-60s form of Retro that has been mined since the 90s in the previous examples.
“Which makes me wonder–do people like sameness and lack of distinction?”
I think that is the essence of the whole debate, along with the excellent points put forth by Jim Klein. And the simple fact is ye, people do like sameness and lack of distinction. But they call it individualism in a supremely ironic twist. Want to be a rebel? Wear jeans and a t shirt, just like every other person who wishes to be considered both a rebel and somehow socially acceptable at the same time. Truly rebel, and wear something garish, or gender-inappropriate, or such, and you are both a rebel and socially outcast. So what else can one do, but conform to the norms of the time in which they exist. The same goes with almost every product sold, from clothes to appliances to cars. Why is the minivan not selling? Fashion and social acceptance? Why are sedans dying? Yes, there is a switch to what is considered more functional, but then, we see the function of other choices are simply a happy byproduct of the fashionable choice.
It seems once a fashion is established, the masses flock to something that is a very close imitation of whatever has set the fashion. And one sees it in the cars of the eras. The jellybean movement started by the Taurus enveloped most product that came after, regardless of manufacturer. The whole retro era was seen all over, with most manufacturers dipping a toe or two into the water. All because it was the norm, the sameness and lack of distinction that the market rewards. We like the familiar, we don’t like rocking the boat, but we want to claim our rugged individualism just like the person next to us, with the irony never noticed.
The mindset you’re describing is called “creeping meatballism”, and is eloquently defined here:
Good post JFrank.
The author of the AD article puts out an argument that has been going on since the beginning of cars: my generations cars are better then yours.
Also, whether he means to or not, he proves this point: design is subjective.
Refer to the Mercedes. “A spectacular blend of energy and dignity.”
No, no it’s not. To me, it’s a boring German sedan. There’s no energy in this design. It’s meh. They always have been meh. And they still are.
The Jaguar: “What may be the most beautiful sedan in production.”
The XJ has never been bad looking. I like it. But I don’t know that I would call it beautiful.
To me, the most beautiful sedan would be the Olds Aurora. Hence why I am on my third one. Just pulled it out of winter storage. The design is one that you either love it or hate it. I am firmly in the love it camp. It is a clean, flowing design that, to quote the author has “energy and dignity.” A design that aged well and still looks good to this day.
Again, design is subjective.
I am not willing to concede that all design is subjective. There are certain divinely inspired qualities of beauty, symmetry, and grace which are eternal and unchanging. However, “taste” may be subjective. To call something that is disharmonious, ugly, or stupid “beautiful” would be calling sweet bitter and bitter sweet.
One correction: it’s been a couple of years since the “new new Beetle” went out of production.
The Fiat 500 is dead as well.
Arguably, the only retro cars to choose from now are the three pony cars and the Mini.
Corrections to the correction:
– The Fiat 500 is not dead.
– There are plenty of retro options out there (especially where I live), just not sold in the US.
Actually the Fiat 500 coupe is dead in the USA. Did not notice its “passing”. All that is left is the 500 crossover and the convertible.
Mr Golberg’s depth of insight is commensurate with his task of filling the spaces between pages 152 and 154 in a publication devoted to the vapid worship of the appearance of things.
I have only ever looked at Arch Digest whilst sweating in the waiting rooms of specialists whose ruinous fees could afford them not only the subscription but probably quite a few of the advertised contents, and distracted thus both by the prospect of the bill and whatever doomful thing the doc might be about to tell me, I paid no attention to the writing within.
Having just now done so, I conclude that I was missing nothing.
You know what’s odd?
Whenever I can’t tell a difference between two similar things, I chalk it up to being ignorant. But then, that’s me.
And I’m OK with being ignorant on a number of things. I know what I know, but also, what I don’t. So – I confess sheer ignorance on Japanese luxury auto brands. While I do note their appearances and enjoy their styling, I just frankly don’t give a damn about any of them. And that’s OK, right? Do I have to know something about a brand that I will never, ever, have an interest in buying – until one day, I might? Of course not.
We live in a database world now. I don’t need to know context on everything. I just need to know what I need to know, when I need to know it. Then – I just need to know the answer. Then I can return to being ignorant once again.
You know, bliss.