Design: Reading Paul Goldberger’s “The Identical Sedan” 23 Years Later

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.

Baccarat chandeliers, ranging in price from $11,800 to $95,850 (in case you’re interested).


Generic, uninspired front ends of 1998. Can you identify them?


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.”

The rears–equally dull.


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.”

The Golden Age: Each new model is excitingly fresh and beautiful, yet they are all distinctly “Cadillac”!


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.”

Buick tried to capture some of the old mystique with their 2002 ad campaign, “Harley Earl was here.”


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.

Jaguar XJ8: “What may be the most beautiful sedan in production.”


The front end of the new E-Class he describes as “a spectacular blend of energy and dignity.” Sorry, Mr. G–I don’t see it.


Oldsmobile Aurora: “Perhaps the best American attempt to bring a fresh and beautiful sedan shape out of today’s complex requirements.”


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.

Cell phone prophecy: Everyone’s in his own little world! (Illustration from AD, November 1998).


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?