1939 Lincoln Zephyr front end.
Jeffrey Tucker explains that, after Big Government got done ruining the gas can, it went after automobile design.
Your car looks like a box. So does every other car. Itâ€™s boring, even shocking when you consider how awesome cars used to look. Whatâ€™s gone wrong? And to what extent has the design mess contributed to the decline of American auto manufacturing?
A recent letter to the Wall Street Journal comes close but misses the point. â€œBlame the Death of Design for U.S. Autosâ€™ Declineâ€ reads his headline. Speaking of Cadillacs and their declining sales, he writes: â€œThe 1957 coupe looked like nothing else on wheels then, and itâ€™s still stunning six decades later. The [new] XT6 and boxes of different sizes, identified with variations of letters and numbers, are the problem. A distinctive, prestigious and beautiful vehicle is the solution.â€
This seems right. You drive around today and can barely distinguish one wheeled box from another. We look through websites at concept cars and wonder why they never seem to exist. And whatever happened to the Golden Age of design?
The problem with the letter is that it only scratches the surface. The real problem is more fundamental. Designers did not somehow lose imagination over the last 25 years. The designs of new cars are boring because regulations forced this result. …
[I]â€™s not a choice. No manufacturer can make a car like this anymore. Step back from the situation and think about it. In the 1930s, phones were awful, and you were lucky to have one at all. No one today would give up a smartphone for one of those old things. Same with shoes, computers, televisions, ovens, and so much more. No one wants to go back.
We Want Old!
With cars, itâ€™s a different matter. Our sense of nostalgia is growing, not receding. But we donâ€™t even have the choice to go back. There will be no more pretty cars made and sold in the United States. The government and its tens of thousands of micromanaging regulations on motor vehicles will not allow it. …
It hasnâ€™t happened all at once. Itâ€™s been a bit at a time, taking place over four decades in the name of safety and the environment. The whole thing began in 1966 with creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency and dozens of others. Every regulator wanted a piece of the car.
Each new regulation seems like it makes sense in some way. Who doesnâ€™t want to be safer and who doesnâ€™t want to save gas?
But these mandates are imposed without any real sense of the cost and benefits, and they come about without a thought as to what they do to the design of a car. And once the regs appear on the books, they never go away. They are stickier than code on a patented piece of software.
The Rise of the Boxes
As the years marched on, the homogenization process rolled forward, with each generation of cars looking ever more like each other. You can even trace the problem by looking through the history of the Mazda Miata: this slick two-seater roaster eventually became a shrunken version of all the other cars on the road: swollen nose, rear, and beltline.
Try as they might, manufacturers have a terrible time distinguishing their cars from each otherâ€™s. Car homogenization has become something of an Internet meme. It turns out that all new cars more or less look alike. I had begun to notice this over the years and I thought I was just imagining things. But people playing with Photoshop have found that you can mix and match car grills and make a BMW look just like a Kia and a Hyundai look just like a Honda. Itâ€™s all one car.
Truly, this cries out for explanation. So I was happy to see a video made by CNET that gives five reasons: mandates for big fronts to protect pedestrians, mandates that require low tops for fuel economy, a big rear to balance out the big fronts, tiny windows resulting from safety regulations that end up actually making the car less safe, and high belt lines due to the other regs. In other words, single-minded concern for testable â€œsafetyâ€ and the environment has wrecked the entire car aesthetic.
And thatâ€™s only the beginning. Car and Driver puts this as plainly as can be: â€œIn our hyperregulated modern world, the government dictates nearly every aspect of car design, from the size and color of the exterior lighting elements to how sharp the creases stamped into sheetmetal can be.â€
You are welcome to read an engineerâ€™s account of what it is like to design an American car. Nothing you think, much less dream, really matters. The regulations drive the whole process. He explains that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards with hundreds of regulations â€” really a massive central plan â€” dictate every detail and have utterly ruined the look and feel of American cars.
In Washington, there are very big buildings with tens of thousands of employees sitting around all day with nothing to do but write new regulations. And there are lobbyists for auto companies offering suggested regs, intentionally designed to build deep moats around their businesses and to nobble the competition. Then come the insurance company bean-counters, determined to reduce their companies’ liabilities at any cost to your convenience or choice. You may get killed by defective air bag, but the statistics show that overall they save insurance companies money. And, after them, come the crazies and crackpots determined to save the trees and polar bears by taking away the internal combustion engine, one nut or bolt at a time.
60 years later, I still miss my 58 Chrysler Windsor, steel dash and all.
Hell, I still miss my basic 1969 Ford Maverick. It had no air conditioning, an am radio, no power steering, and was badly rusted. But it was better than my current car.
Who would have thought, circa 1973, that the Chevelle Malibu and Honda Civic would end up identical? And my best car ever – 1972 Cutlass. For one thing, it had the displacement of any two cars today and the back seat was huge by current standards.
Thatâ€™s one reason that trucks are so popular in the US. For a long time they were exempt from many of the worst car regulations. Trucks could be customized and tricked out by the OEM as well as the owner. Remember also that the car companies tried to get common engineering worldwide so the worst of both US and EU regulations combined to product disaster.
Live Free or Die!
My first car, purchased in 1972, was a ’65 Chevy four door Impala. It has a straight six and a three speed manual on the column. That car got 25 mpg in 1972! No pollution controls, and I had to keep a timing light in the trunk to keep it tuned up, but sold it to my sister in ’76 and she drove it for four more years. It just wouldn’t quit, and it was easy to work on.
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