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June 11, 2005

Donald on the Chrysler 300

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was delighted to learn that Blowhards friend and illustration buff Donald Pittenger is a car conoisseur as well as a fan of automobile design. It's a too-often-unstated assumption here at the blog that "culture" is a broader and more-diverse thing than pictures hanging on a museum wall. (Though we like those too!) Pleasurable, beautiful, and worth-noticing cultural experiences are to be found all around us: in our buildings and our neighborhoods; in our media diets; in how we clothe and feed ourselves; in how we decorate our surroundings -- and, of course, in the cars we drive.

Today we're very pleased to have Donald checking in with some observations about the snazzy new Chrysler 300.


Driving in Controversial Style: The Chrysler 300

by Donald Pittenger

Sometimes I wonder if my teachers in junior high and high school -- and, yes, even college -- knew that instead of taking notes I was sketching planes and cars in my notebooks. I like to think they didn't, but teachers as well as parents usually know a lot more than they let on.

Of course it was a harmless activity: the only thing that suffered was my GPA.

I've always been a car nut, at least where appearance is concerned. My parents used to tell me that I could distinguish convertibles from sedans when I was only a couple years old.

I really got "into" cars in 1950 when my dad let on that he would be shopping for a brand new car to supplement our 1941 Pontiac. So I spent a couple months snipping out cars from ads and sticking them on my bedroom wall. Then I got to wondering what the 1951 Pontiacs would look like (Dad decided to stick with Pontiac); this was my first brush with the notion of future car design.

1951 Pontiac

A few years later I enrolled in the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild which, after World War 2, was a competition sponsored by General Motors where youngsters designed cars and built scale models: top prizes were generous scholarships. I found that I couldn't really settle on designs, but this was moot because I lacked the tools and ability to build the required models anyway. Nevertheless, I thought it would be neat to be a professional car stylist. (I touch on how I drifted away from this career path in my March 5, 2005 Blowhards post.)

Despite never having become a styling pro, I've maintained an active interest in car styling throughout my adult life. I have many of the major books on the subject and buy fancy (and expensive) Italian styling magazines when I see them. And I still doodle imaginary cars -- never real ones.

A car design I couldn't have come up with

The "hot" sedan for 2004-5 is the Chrysler 300. Not only is it selling well, it garnered almost every "car of the year" type award from various car buff magazines. This is in spite of the fact that its styling runs counter to many previous conventions of automobile beauty. Why is this so?

Chrysler 300

Mechanically, the car is interesting. The headline feature is its V-8 motor, not-quite accurately called a "Hemi." The term Hemi is shorthand for "hemispherical-shaped combustion chamber" -- the combustion chamber being the area beyond the upper part of the piston stroke containing the spark plug ignition tip and intake and exhaust valve openings.

Back in the early 1950s Chrysler introduced its original Hemi V-8 that sported a combustion chamber that had a fairly flat domed shape rather than a true geometric hemispheric form. The idea was that the domed shape made for more efficient combustion and, in consequence, greater power. Since the Hemi proved expensive to build, later Chrysler V-8 engines changed to a more wedge-shaped chamber, and that is the general form of the motor for the current Hemi.

1947 Chrysler grille.jpg
1947 Chrysler grille

Chrysler 300 front view.jpg
Chrysler 300, the snarling front view

"Hemi" therefore is more a marketing term than actuality, though its appeal is as potent as the original Chrysler V-8s of the early Fifties. However, not all 300s are powered by this motor: the Hemi version is named the 300C and it is the car that triggered all those awards. Other 300s are powered by V-6 engines, a line-bottom 190 horsepower version and one with 250 HP.

The 300 is also notable in that it marks a return to the classical Système-Panhard with the motor at the front of the car transmitting power to the rear wheels via a drive shaft. Since the mid-'70s, most cars have been equipped with front-wheel-drive, a more complicated system that offers better traction and stability in snowy conditions but is compromised by worse maneuverability in extreme driving situations. An engineering rule-of-thumb is that large cars suffer from front-wheel-drive and this is why Mercedes and BMW sedans stuck with rear-wheel-drive.

One other engineering feature worth noting is that the 300's suspension -- the springing and articulation of the wheels and body -- are either Mercedes-Benz parts or are derived from Mercedes engineering practices, a result of the creation of DaimlerChrysler.

Taken together, these mechanical features are enough to make the 300 worth consideration. But the feature that put the car over the top (in more ways than one) is styling. And I can categorically state that I could never have come up with the Chrysler 300 styling on my own. The styling runs counter to many of the rules and maxims I picked up over the years regarding "good design."

Yet I recently bought a Chrysler 300.

The small-block V-6 fell just inside my price-point maximum, so I leaped at the chance to buy one. True, its power is just adequate for my driving style. And yes it has nice-looking yet hard-to clean wheel covers instead of stainless steel wheels. And true, the wheels are 17-inchers, not the larger, more aggressive wheels on other 300s. Plus my car has less chrome trim. But it looks just like other 300s to casual observers. And it has cloth seats, which I prefer to leather. Finally, it has the same Mercedes-based engineering as the other 300s. I might have gotten a Nissan Altima or maybe a Pontiac Grand Prix once I started car-shopping, but once I discovered the entry-level 300's price was right and performance was good enough, no doubts remained.

So if I'm a styling buff and if the 300's looks violated many good-design axioms, why was I so eager to buy the thing? The short answer is: I'm not sure.

But I'll give the question a try. First some background on how designs are selected for production along with some aesthetic guidelines used by stylists in the past.

How car designs are selected (short version)

If you're interested in learning about automobile styling from a largely non-technical standpoint, buy a copy of "A Century of Automobile Style" by Michael Lamm and (the late) David Holls, first published in 1996. There are other good books on the subject, but this one deals with the history of the field, including bits of gossip regarding which styling vice presidents were boozers and skirt-chasers. Lamm was founding editor of the lamented "Special-Interest Autos" magazine (I especially lamented it when other hands held the editing pencil -- Lamm was outstanding) and Holls was a high-level styling executive at General Motors.

Anyhow, let me focus on how designs are selected for production. Into the late 1920s, all aspects of a car's design, including appearance, were normally up to the manufacturer's engineering department. Before the 1920s the focus was on getting cars to run reliably and appearance usually was a side-issue.

The first American styling department was established by Harley Earl at General Motors in the late 20s. Other large companies fell into line by the mid-30s, though some relied partly or entirely on outside consultants: the best-known example is Studebaker's relationship with industrial designer Raymond Loewy. No matter whether design proposals originated with a consultant, a contract car-body builder, an in-house design director or a junior engineer with a smidgen of aesthetic sense, higher management had the task of signing off on new production designs. This is because expense of tooling a new car was never trivial, and nowadays can soar towards ten-digit dollar figures.

In the early days, final selection was a matter of taste or gut-feel tempered by the sales pitch of the head designer. Legend has it that even wives of top executives had a say.

1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow.jpg
1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow

Today a good deal of marketing research in the form of "clinics" is involved in the design selection process. The route from gut-feel to clinics probably went as follows: As early as the '30s, manufacturers would occasionally construct "dream cars" -- hand-built prototypes featuring "advanced" style features -- to show the public what forward-looking companies they were. A major venue was the 1933 Chicago "Century of Progress" world's fair where Packard, Cadillac and Pierce-Arrow presented notable show-cars. Later pre-war experimental cars were the Buick Y-Job, and the Chrysler Newport and Thunderbolt.

1938 Buick Y-Job.jpg
1938 Buick Y-Job

In 1951 General Motors built two sensational dream cars -- the Le Sabre and the Buick XP-300 -- that opened the flood-gates for experimental cars. GM also had a traveling Motorama exhibit that featured later experimental cars, and after the Motorama era finished GM (and other companies) used major auto shows to display them.

There are two major types of publicly displayed experimental cars. One is the true "dream car" -- a car with highly experimental style and engineering features that will never have a chance of being produced, though some of its features might be. Dream cars sometimes are simply a means for a styling staff to show off, but normally car companies will test the public's reaction to various details as a means of planning future production features.

Other experimental cars are thinly-disguised future production cars. Given that expensive body tooling has already been ordered, these experimental jobs mostly serve to condition the public to new styling ideas -- to soften the blow, if you will.

Over the last few decades another kind of experimental car has been shown to the public: not the public at large, but a selected subgroup. This experimental car is the styling prototype.

Styling prototypes have been around since the late '20s, but normally were kept under tight security wraps; these were the clay (later fiberglass) full-sized body-models (no motors or running-gear, maybe no interior detail) shown to top management for final approval for production. As marketing research became an accepted corporate staff function, marketers eventually convinced management that it would be smart to test styles on samples of the car-buying public before committing to all those tooling millions. Thus was born the styling clinic.

I've never participated in a styling clinic, but what follows is my understanding of how they generally operate.

Samples of car buyers are selected by one means or another and invited to participate in a viewing of production and experimental cars. Normally the name of the company funding the clinic is not revealed. Participants encounter some experimental cars with all clues as to make and model removed. Also present are production cars of a similar type and price bracket.

These cars are a mix of current offerings of the host manufacturer and competitors' models. Participants are given questionnaires and perhaps comments are recorded as they pass among the cars displayed. Following the clinic, the collected data are tabulated and analyzed. Clinics are conducted in various parts of the country in order to account for or rule out regional peculiarities.

Clinics seem to be a scientific, sensible means of deciding which style to put into production, right? The design with the most points wins, right? Actually, maybe not right. Famous automobile executive Robert Lutz in his book "Guts" points out that often the best-scoring design is actually the most average, bland car of the bunch. Whereas it might have nothing much wrong with it, it also likely doesn't provoke much enthusiasm either. This is a recipe for a hit on the rental car circuit, but nowhere else.

Lutz claims that the best car to put into production is a car that polarizes; it might turn off a lot of people yet turn on many others. The goal is to have a significant (from a sales standpoint) minority of potential cars buyers saying "Wow! I gotta get one of those! Now!!"

Historically, General Motors has tended to produce cars that got the best overall clinic scores while Chrysler has taken the Lutz route. (Yes, I know that Lutz is now a very senior GM executive and that The General is still introducing snoozers such as last fall's Pontiac G6 and Buick LaCrosse.)

What good car design is supposed to be

Although the topic is worthy of a small book, this section presents a top-of-the-head sketch of major notions concerning good car design.

Harley Earl, the Founding Father of American corporate automobile styling, operated under the maxim that cars should evolve in the direction of "lower and longer" and if those goals could not be achieved in reality, then cars should be styled in such a way that they appeared to be longer and lower. And over Earl's career from the late '20s to the late '50s, both reality and appearance conformed to his concept.

I must add that Earl doesn't seem to have been a design theoretician; he had a keen practical marketing sense. For example, he liked chrome embellishment because (among other things) shiny trim distracted the eye from sheet metal imperfections resulting from pounded-out dents. He also wanted to maximize chrome's bang-for-buck ratio, insisting that trim be shaped so that it would catch and reflect light from the sun and sky. He also was fond of what stylists call "large-radius curves" on body panels which meant that General Motors cars tended to be more "rounded" than many of his stylists liked.

Loewy's 1947 Studebaker Champion

Raymond Loewy, on the other hand, considered weight an enemy. He wanted the Studebaker Champion to be a light car physically and he tried to style cars in such a way that they appeared to be light -- to have a lean, hungry look. I try to be cautious about spotting parallels and theorizing about them; it's something intellectuals do for sheer pleasure or just perhaps to gain academic tenure. So what follows might not have a speck of truth to it -- but what the heck.

Okay, Loewy was a Frenchman. Born there, fought in the Great War as an officer, then migrated to the U.S. after the war. During the '20s he was a fashion illustrator before turning to industrial design. Connections: French. Fashion. Fashion models. Slim. Elegant. Beautiful. Why not the same for cars?

Bill Mitchell, Earl's successor as GM's design vice president, had tastes more like Loewy's than Earl's. He wanted his cars to have a tidy, tailored look and was fond of 1940s Rolls-Royces with "razor-edge" custom bodywork. Cars styled under his aegis tended to have taut panels intersected by tight-radius curves. One analogy applied to his cars is canvas pulled tightly over curved frameworks. Archetypical Mitchell cars are the 1963 Buick Riviera, the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, and 1963 Sting Ray Corvette.

1963 Buick Riviera

Another design paradigm is what might be called the "shape-wholistic" (my term) approach as explained by Buick designer Bill Porter to C. Edson Armi (interview transcript in Armi's 1988 book "The Art of American Car Design"). Although Porter held the highly responsible position of Studio Head, he comes off in Armi's interview as a theoretician and intellectual. What I recall best is his idea that it was the overall shape of the car body that counted, not accents and other details. Porter seemed quite interested in mathematical-geometric structures such as conic sections as bases for defining body surfaces.

From this, I assert that the prevailing ideal aesthetic for car design can be summarized by the word FEMALE. Cars should evoke slender, athletic women who also are not emaciated like current fashion models: curves are essential. (Well, I exaggerate. During the early '70s, many fancy sports cars were svelte, yet angular, with many nearly-straight lines. Sort of like Twiggy, the famous mid-'60s English model –- another female-to-car connection?) When I doodle pictures of humans my subjects are usually pretty women, and when I doodle car designs, I tend to draw taut, yet curved shapes. Which is what I meant above when I stated that I couldn't have come up with the Chrysler 300's design on my own.

(Good-looking cars are not exclusively slender and curvy. Some classic cars of the '30s such as Bentleys and Duesenberg Js were large and imposing. But others combined curves with gravitas: consider the 1936 Mercedes 500K sports car.)

I should note that relating car style to femininity was a staple of late-50s pop psychology. One notion was that a fancy red or yellow convertible in a showroom window -- the "mistress" -- attracted the male into the dealership where he ultimately settled on a drab, blue sedan -- "the wife." More explicitly sex-related were Cadillac's mid-'50s front bumper guards that bore strong resemblance to the shape of contemporary padded bras. A nick-name for these was "Dagmars," after the name of a top-heavy television personality of the day.

1954 Cadillac with "Dagmar" bumper guards

Dagmar herself.jpg
Dagmer herself, including standard bumperguards

So if there is a female design aesthetic, can there be a MALE one as well? Yes, there can. For the male aesthetic, think football players of the non-"skills positions" (linemen, linebackers) -- heavy, square-shaped, thick-looking.

And think trucks. Most car stylists before 1990 probably preferred to work on passenger vehicles and regarded truck design as a backwater, a dead-end career posting. But a few enjoyed drawing big, sometimes brutal-looking trucks. The SUV (sport-utility vehicle) that emerged over the last 15 or so years was based on truck chassis' and bodies. The stylist usually had to start with the front end of a truck (from nose to the back of the door) and then tack on a station wagon-like body.

Dodge Ram Hemi: Male style

Recently so-called "crossover vehicles" have emerged; these are built on passenger-car components but are styled to look like truck-based SUVs. Again, the aesthetic is more masculine than feminine, more brutal than beautiful.

If this typology I just concocted (no doubt many others thought of it earlier) is valid, then the 300 is the conscious result of putting a "male" design on a traditionally "female" vehicle type.


Study the Chrysler 300. The lower body is almost brick-shaped -- squared-off, massive. The top of the fender line doesn't curve, it simply extends to the rear without compromise. The upper top is basically a simple trapezoid, nearly symmetrical front and rear, as are the doors. The wheel wells are large and accommodate aggressive, large wheels in the 300C version.

The detailing does not really follow the sex-based typology just mentioned, but it is quite interesting to me. Notice that the car has proportionally less window area than most cars built since around 1950. The 300 has a fairly low top and the windows appear relatively slit-like as on the 1948 Hudson and 1949 Mercury and on many hot rod and custom cars of the 1950s. This similarity to old custom cars is not likely an accident. Tom Gale, Chrysler's former design vice president, was a great hot rod fan, as evidenced by the productionized hot rod Plymouth Prowler.

Plymouth Prowler

Large Chrysler sedans before the new 300 had what was called "cab-forward" styling -- rounded bodies with long front overhang and the driver positioned close to the front wheel well. Chrysler had the choice of continuing the cab-forward theme (though from a practical standpoint there was little further room to move in that direction) or else doing something completely different.

Since a major goal of Mercedes' buyout (they called it a "merger", but it really wasn't) was to save money by using common components across model lines, it was almost inevitable that big Chrysler sedans would become Mercedes-like. Hence the return to rear-wheel drive. And from a packaging standpoint, rear-wheel drive tends to mean less front overhang. I read someplace recently that one of Tom Gale's parting shots before retiring and handing design VP reins over to Trevor Creed was to lay down the 300's design parameters that others eventually carried out. I don't know if this story is true, but the Kustom Kar top is suggestive of Gale's influence whether it was actual or simply an aftereffect in the thoughts of stylists who previously had worked for him.

The Chrysler 300 grille harks back to grilles Chryslers sported in the late 1940s that might have been the work of Herb Weissinger who enjoyed drawing overlapping vertical and horizontal motifs. The blue-ribbon medallion and eagle wings are other historic Chrysler symbols that were resurrected over the last dozen years or so to replace the Modernist "Pentastar" corporate symbol that had been around for decades.

1934 Chrysler Airflow

The low top and near-symmetrical doors superficially remind me of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow, a highly advanced and influential (for its layout and engineering) car that was a sales flop thanks to its awkward styling.

The Chrysler 300's interior

The Airflow is often cited as an Art Deco design, and the new 300's interior strikes me as having a Deco feel, especially the gauges on the instrument panel and the design of the steering wheel.

In conclusion

First, let me mention that the sexual analogies noted above should be treated with caution. Clearly, some cars do look pretty feminine or masculine: "beautiful" or "handsome," if you will. But from an aesthetic standpoint, "curved" and "angular" or "svelte" and "bulky" are labels that could be substituted. And while there might be a few buyers who indeed think of cars as akin to sex-objects, most folks simply think of them as vehicles. If the sex thing held, then the stereotypical pickup truck driver would be quite different from what he actually is.

As was no doubt evidenced in clinics, the new Chrysler 300 is a polarizing car insofar as appearance is concerned. When it was first announced, I didn't really like it. The low top and (relatively) slit-like windows seemed odd; since the early 1970s cars have tended to tall windows and lots of glass. The top fender-line struck me as being too high, plus I thought it needed some relief -- maybe a notch at the back of the rear door or a slight curve of some sort. I didn't mind the front end so much, but I wasn't sure about the way the tops of the headlights were squared-off. The rear with its faceting above the bumper seemed fine. And I liked the interior.

But the car fascinated. Seeing them on the freeway, I could hardly keep my eyes off them. After a few months, I knew I wanted one and hoped that demand would slacken just enough that dealers would start removing "second stickers" (i.e., higher prices where supply was a lot less than demand).

Now that I drive even a bottom-of-the-line 300, I find that it gets stares and the occasional thumbs-up even though 300s have been on the road for more than a year now. The last car I owned that evoked such attention was a 1971 orange-gold Porsche 914. I'm a shy guy and hate being stared at. But still...


As a Manhattanite who hasn't owned a car in 25 years, I'm still getting used to power windows and automatic door locks. My idea of a great car is a Taurus; it's such a plain-Jane thing that even I can operate it without much effort. Still, I've noticed various waves of car design come and go in recent years. There was a long, sleek-German-teardrop period -- the Taurus was part of that, no? There was a retro blip that appealed to the classicist/fuddyduddy in me. SUV's still seem to rule the road -- but perhaps the Chrysler 300 is a sign that we're moving into a new and different era.

Donald's previous postings can be read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Friedrich von Blowhard -- a Detroit boy -- did some musing about cars here, here, and here. If you haven't done so already, please check these postings out.

Our thanks once again to Donald Pittenger.



posted by Michael at June 11, 2005


I have been unable to determine whether the Chrysler 300 is very stylish or very ugly. But it's definitely very something :)

Posted by: Peter on June 11, 2005 04:44 PM

I'd be the first to admit that I know nothing about cars. But if I had to sum up the 300 in one word, it would be "Bentley". Recently, I've noticed a few Bentleys cruising ostentatiously around the Lower East Side (well, duh, you can't cruise a Bentley in any manner other than ostentatious). There does seem to be a taste, these days, for the big and solid and expensive-looking. And of all the cars in the mid-to-high-$20s, I think I'm safe in saying that the 300 looks, at first glance, to be the most expensive: it really can hold its own next to Bentleys and Maybachs. I think the popularity of this car is mainly down to the front grille, which is very leonine and aggressive. This car is about projecting power and masculinity: I think it's the kind of design which gets more respect than love. The PT Cruiser gets "dude, that's cool"; the 300 repels as much as it attracts. Dunno, though, maybe none of this makes any sense. As I say, I know FBA about cars.

Posted by: Felix on June 11, 2005 05:30 PM

Didn't the high bodyline smallish glasshouse styling trend actually begin at Cadillac a few years ago? When I started seeing the Chrysler 300s, my impression--rightly or wrongly--was that they were aping the Caddy's styling.

It's interesting to see in the recent coverage of GM's business woes that the fairly aggressively-styled Cadillac line seems to be one of their few success stories. Back in the 1970s when I still worked in Detroit (on a car advertising account, no less) it was a given among employees of the Big 3 that GM, by and large, had the best styling in the business. Sadly, their design chops seemed to evaporate once GM began to downsize their cars in the late 1970s. It's as though GM management stopped focusing on the very strengths that had put them in the #1 spot half a century before.

I wonder if someone couldn't write an opera about the past 30 years of the car business.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 12, 2005 04:05 AM

Friedrich -- (I'll reply to other readers Monday evening, probably)...

The consensus of what I've read is that thanks to Harley Earl (who was championed by Al Sloane and one of the Fisher bros. -- Fred, I think) got there fustest with the mostest. His "Art and Colour" department -- that's how it was called and spelled at first -- took root about the time GM was wresting Top Dog status from Ford, who had delayed coming out with a Model T replacement.

At any rate, by the end of the Depression GM had a commanding market share that continued into the 60s; it was often more than 50 percent. Given this market clout that was due in part to Earl's efforts, whatever Earl came up with in terms of new styling quickly flooded the streets. When half of the cars you see are by Earl, it does set the tone. It got to the point, I've read, where other car makers were hesitant to launch a new styling theme.

Actually, other firms did try their own stuff, but no doubt cast an eye on GM. Maybe I should do a proper write-up on this sometime.

And let me add that a lousy design will have trouble selling no matter builds it. Near the end of his career, Earl lost his magic touch as evidenced by the bloated over-chromed Buicks and Oldsmobiles circa 1957-58. There is a reason for this, but I'll defer that for a later posting on the evolution of styling.

The new Cadillac "stealth fighter" styling (they were calling it "Art and Technology", I believe) does sport smaller windows, though this is overshadowed by all the faceting on the body surfaces. Actually, design trends for cars are like womens' skirt lengths and other cases where there is a limited range of possibilities, the result being a cycling from (or towards) one extreme or the other. Side windows were really big 15 years ago (I saw a '91 Chevy Lumina yesterday and was struck by the fact that a window was almost as tall as the lower part of the door -- must have made for interesting engineering re window lifts and door locks). The Chrysler 300 is getting close to the extreme practical slit-ness, and this makes the feature especially noticeable.

By the way, Friedrich, I've done some Detroit work too. For a number of years I supplied foreign and overseas demographic forecasts (households by age of head and income ranges) to General Motors. Later I was doing overseas stuff for Chrysler, but the the Wehrmacht arrived, and you can fill in the rest of the story.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 12, 2005 10:54 AM

One more follow-up Friedrich -- Yes GM began screwing up badly in the 70s. Some of this was due to the first oil crunch and the rest was thanks to Ralph Nader and the federal legislation his work inspired; the entire industry was knocked off-stride.

GM's corporate-specific problems were due to management, I think (remember Roger Smith?). All very complicated, but key was the fact that Mitchell's successor, Irv Rybicki, rolled when higher management pushed (Earl and Mitchell would push back). Plus the fact that GM, as happened to Ford earlier, got taken over by the bean counters. Bringing back Lutz was an attempt to revive the "car-guy" culture: the jury is still out regarding Lutz.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 12, 2005 11:07 AM

Mr. Pittenger's postings are always fascinating, and this was no exception. I'm certainly no motorhead, but I did grow up in the '60s in a neighborhood of car-crazy boys, so a lot of things penetrated my skull almost by osmosis. (I can still identify cars by make and model between 1955 and 1965, or so, a skill that has rather little little application now that most of those cars are long vanished from the highways.) I frequently drive by a house where a vintage 1959 Thunderbird is parked out front. Judging by the accumulated dust and the slightly open front hood, it hasn't been moved in quite some time, so I'd guess it's somebody's hobby that just hasn't been gotten to lately. But from the outside, it's still in great shape, and just seeing it fires off the pleasure neurons in my dome. That car has tailfins! right angles! chrome! Man, they just don't make 'em like that any more. Which brings up a question I've long pondered -- did the Detroit stylists working for the different companies talk to each other? In particular, Ford, Chevy, and Dodge/Plymouth styling for '55 through '57 on track each other too closely to be a coincidence. If designers for one company weren't seeing a competitor's car before it was introduced, surely it would take three or so years before imitations could be put into production, and industry-wide trends were happening much faster than that.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on June 12, 2005 01:24 PM

I do wonder why American cars always look so overdone to my European eye. As if they are designed to carry their overweight passengers those thee blocks to the supermarket in the most uneconomical way.

Posted by: ijsbrand on June 12, 2005 02:40 PM

You're just jealous we can drive to the supermarket anytime we want to.

The question from my quarter is what of Ford & Lincoln? I was hoping for the Jag designers to get some play in the big car space, but they seem to have all been stuffed in a hole some where.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 12, 2005 03:06 PM

Jeez. Americans aren't that fat. We're not even the fattest country.

Posted by: lindenen on June 12, 2005 03:46 PM

I wasn't going to commnet, but then I saw one of these things driving through the Bavarian countryside this evening and was quite impressed. It looks more radical in the flesh than in pictures, and quite cool - sort of a very butched-up pastiche of a big Merc.

I just hope it has some substance to go with the looks - I don't like cars that look cool but underneath it are utterly mundane (PT Cruiser, I'm looking at you). My tastes tend more towards the opposite: things that look unassuming but are actually rocketships, like the little Subarus or the hot Audis.

Posted by: Alan Little on June 12, 2005 04:53 PM

Given the 300's masculine design, it would be interesting to see the gender breakdown of its buyers, especially when compared to competing models (I have no idea if the auto companies make that sort of data publicly available). It seems like things could go either way. Men might see buying a 300 as one of the declining number of ways in which they can affirm their masculinity in a socially acceptable manner. On the other hand, some women might consider a 300 as a way of asserting their independence, rather than conforming to the norm and buying "girly" cars like Hondas or Toyotas. Of course, it's also entirely possible that I'm reading too much into the styling issue and that 300 buyers don't differ gender-wise than buyers of competitive models.
I have noticed what seems like an unusally large number of blacks, mostly men ISTR, driving 300's, though of course this is just anecdotal.

Posted by: Peter on June 12, 2005 06:17 PM

Although I have never been anything but a passenger in someone else's car, I nevertheless find the subject of car design (and the place it holds in American cultural history) to be very interesting. So, thanks, Donald for this very interesting and illuminating brief overview (along with the suggested reference for further reading).

Two other articles along the lines of yours that I've found interesting in the past were a feature article in the "New York Times Magazine" about the Taurus and its designer (when the aerodynamic Taurus was the "big thing" in auto design) and a Paul Goldberger article in the "New Yorker" about one of the current big names in the field of auto design (forget his name, maybe it was the same guy?). Plus there were also some interesting articles in (I'm guessing) the "Times" about that that California college that is kind of like the "Harvard" of car design and those West Coast design studios of the Japanese car makers.

Carter Horsely, a former real estate reporter for the "Times" and an "urbanist," has a blog called "City Review," and he also has written (albeit, from what I've seen, in a more superficial way) about auto design. He explains his Manhattan-centric urbanist's interest in autos as follows:

"As a pedestrian, I look at cars mostly as street sculpture . . . . They are, of course, the most ubiquitous sculptures in the world and one does not have to go to a museum to see a good assortment, although the very best are secluded in far-away places like Reno, Nev., or brought out only to occasional Classic Car festivals, rarely held in Manhattan."

And I have a similar outlook: clothing is art that people wear; buildings are art that people inhabit; and cars are art that people travel in (as are trains, planes and ships -- are there any sculptures more beautiful than those Loewy- and Drefuss-designed locomotives, a DC-3 or the S.S. United States?)

I too find the Chrysler 300 to be very attractive (despite the "weird" small windows). Now that I know it's name, I'll have to keep an eye out for it on Manhattan streets.

Another recent car design that I've liked as "a-sculpture-that-you-travel-in" was that "Art Deco-y" Audi (?) that, someone quipped, looked like it was a Volkswagon that had been run over by a steam roller. The Chrylser 300 kind of reminds of this car -- they both seem to have a solid, stately, yet somewhat streamlined look (although the Audi has more rounded lines).

Some other recent favorites of mine have been the "modern" Volkswagon Beetle and the Taurus that was profiled in that "New York Times" article. (Although the Taurus may have been a bit of an acquired taste, and it may have been a case of brain over eyeballs -- anything that is truly aerodynamic and saves gasoline is something I want to like.)

However, one of my all-time favorite car designs from the past is one that I've heard is hated and/or ridiculed by people who are really into car design: that "people-mover-on-asphalt," the AMC (?) Pacer.

Culturally, one of the things I find interesting about car design is the sway that car design use to hold over the imagination of the ENTIRE (unified) American public during the mid- to late-1950s. As I recall it, at least, the Fall unveiling of the new car models in (I believe?) the big mass circulation magazines like "Life" and "Look" was a major, major "cultural" event -- kind of like the Super Bowl or Academy Awards these days.

In my mind, this phenomenon is related to, or "resonates" with, things that were mentioned in two other recent Blowhard articles: "Middlebrow, Again" (5/26/05) and "Costco" (6/6/05). It seems to me that this phenomenon is part of the same pre-segmented American mass pop culture that, for better or worse, allowed for phenomena like the Ed Sullivan Show, a Book of the Month Club, "only" three major TV networks, a handful of national mass circulation magazines -- and an establishment "middlebrow" national culture. Although millions of Americans are still interested in car design, the segmenting of American popular culture (hilariously chronicled and heralded by Tom Wolfe) means that the Fall unveiling of new car models will never have quite the same impact that it once had.

- - - - - -

P.S. -- I only recently got a chance to read Donald's articles on "flair," and I want to thank him and MB for all that research! The whole series of articles was very informative and eye-opening. I'm still not sure where I stand on the issue, though, and will have to think about it some more.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on June 12, 2005 08:17 PM

Benjamin -
That Audi model you mention is the Audi TT sports car.

Posted by: Peter on June 12, 2005 10:15 PM

Why isn't the Plymouth Prowler more common? I've never seen that on the road. Ever.

Posted by: lindenen on June 12, 2005 11:14 PM

Only about 10,000 Prowlers were built. Daimler-Chrylser's decision to drop the Plymouth brand in 2001 was pretty much the death knell for the model, though a small number were produced under the Chrysler brand before being discontinued in 2002.

Posted by: Peter on June 12, 2005 11:29 PM

With gast at $2.50 gallon, what we need is some genius to figure out how to take the squared-off masculine styling that is popular now and make it as aerodynamic (and thus gas-saving) as the rounded feminine styling that emerged in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 12, 2005 11:35 PM

I don't think it's the styling which really makes the difference. If you go to, you'll see that the Chrysler 300 will cost you anywhere from $1351 to $2213 in estimated annual fuel costs, depending on which model you buy. The most efficient car in its class, the Toyota Avalon, comes in at $1296, not too far off the most efficient 300. Of course, all of them are crazy expensive compared to the hybrid Honda Insight, with annual fuel costs of $515.

Posted by: Felix on June 13, 2005 12:39 AM

The first time I noticed the Chrysler 300 was this weekend, driving home on I-95. I wondered what the hell the car with the small windows was and kept trying to drive closer. I'm not sure I like it, either. It takes a while for my brain to become accustomed to such radical changes in looks.

Posted by: Rachel on June 13, 2005 10:14 AM


What a wonderful piece. I relish the beauty of the older cars.

Thank you for giving me (and others) interesting material to read. Reading blogs is a great joy and allows us to experience so much more than the traditional media/literature.


Posted by: PipeTobacco on June 13, 2005 11:26 AM

Felix mentioned that the 300 looks like a Bentley, which it does, but that's not the car I thought of first. To me it looked like a Jaguar XJ-6.

In either case, I think the look speaks of elegance more than power; the sort of design that "people who know" will immediately notice. I don't see these as ostentatious, at least not in the way that (say) a Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Prowler, or Cobra is ostentatious.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 13, 2005 05:12 PM

All -- before I get to replies to specific comments, I need to tidy up a point I made in my replies to Friedrich, above. (As usual, I was writing faster than I do when making essays, and that itty-bitty writing window in the comment box doesn't help; moreover, I still miss gaffes in the preview mode. Must be I'm terminally slapdash.)

My consulting to General Motors mostly dealt with U.S. population, households and income. The foreign work was occasional. I did strictly overseas data for Chrysler.

Dwight -- Some, likely most, similarity in car styling from different manufacturers is probably due to prevailing fashions, the zeitgeit, that sort of thing. I say this never having worked in a design studio, so perhaps it wasn't "most". Nevertheless, there were ways manufacturers could keep tabs on the competition.

The time from the laying out the "package" (size, price, market target, key engineering features) to public introduction for a new car normally ranges from three to five years. The last year or two of this period is when the major decisions have been made and work is proceeding on tooling and prototype testing. There are "automobile paparazzi" who lurk around test tracks in Detroit and Arizona (as well as in Europe) snapping photos of (often camouflaged) test cars. These pictures are sold to car mags and maybe also to car makers. Another source of intelligence is toolmakers and component suppliers. Their management is pledged to secrecy, but workers might let slip information while at the local watering hole. Consider this: Most U.S. cars came out with wraparound windshields in the 1955 model year. GM came out with sensational styling for Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs featuring wraparound windshields in the 1954 model year. A few extra-pricey 1953 Olds and Caddy convertibles with wraparounds were built. Aside from those '53s, the '54 GM cars appeared during the locked-in phase of '55 model development. I can only conclude that word of GM's commitment to wraparounds had gotten out somehow and might well have come from gossip in the window glass industry.

Another source of information is stylists who change jobs. Until comparatively recently, GM would not hire stylists from other firms, but other firms would gladly hire from GM. Usually lower-ranking stylists were involved, but they could be expected to be familiar with the general thrust of their former employer's design effort. It's possible that news of GM's wraparound windshields came via this route.

Let me add that sometimes security prevailed. An instance mentioned in the Lamm-Holls book I cited in the essay concerns the 1957 Chrysler product line. These cars featured large tailfins (vestigal fins were on the '56 line a facelift of the new '55 designs), tall "greenhouses", and thin (or shallow) roofs. This was in contrast to GM's rounded offerings. Apparently a GM stylist was cruising past Chrysler's Highland Park facility not long before model introduction time and saw a bunch of new Plymouths, Chryslers, or whatever in a parking area. He was shocked and flabbergasted, quickly fetching other stylists and managers to view the coming styling catastrophe. (GM's cars looked hopelessly stodgy compared to the new Chrysler line, and it would take two years for GM to get competitive designs to market. Luckily for GM, the Chrysler line was so popular that cars were cranked out too rapidly in 1957 and many quality-related problems resulted; Chrysler sales faded in subsequent years as the word got out.

Ijsbrand -- When I visit Euorope I'm usually struck by the small size of the cars I see, and on my return I get that same sort of reaction regarding how large American cars seem. Actually, each set of cars fits its native habitat. Leaving aside the huge difference in fuel prices (that drove a Dutch acqaintance of mine to convert his car to burning liquid propane), driving conditions influence car design. I don't know if you've ever visited the USA, but the place is HUGE by European standards. Residents of the northeastern USA tend to face European conditions and are used to making compartively short journeys. But out West where I live, long distance driving is common. I normally make 2 150-mile (240 km) round-trip drives to Seattle on weekends and occasionally day-trip to Portland, Oregon (240 miles/390 km). It really helps if you have a big car for cruising superhighways.

Let me add that many of the cars I see on Autoroutes and Autobahnen are large Mercedeses and BMWs which are comparable to American cars, and not so many 200-series Peugeots. So when Europeans do a lot of long-distance driving and if they have the Euros, they buy big too, or so I gather from anecdotal evidence.

And European car styling can become over-the-top too. Two examples: (1) the Renault Megane 2-door sedan and (2) the Renault Vel Satis luxury sedan.

My conclusion is that fingers can be pointed in both directions across the Big Pond. And I've nothing against "foreign" cars: I have owned a 1965 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia coupe, a 1968 Volvo 142 sedan, a 1971 Porsche 914 sports car, a 1975 Volkswagen Dasher sedan (I forget the Euro name -- it was the next size up from the Golf and I think based on the Audi 100), a 1985 Honda Civic 2-door hatchback and a 2003 Nissan Altima sedan.

Scott -- Ford writes the paychecks so Ford calls the shots. Actually, I read someplace that some English-based designers might have been brought to Detroit, but I'm hazy on this and might well be wrong.

Alan -- As I mentioned in the essay, the 300's suspension follows Mercedes practice and might even have some Mercedes bits. BTW, some new Cadillac models were given steering/suspension tweaking at the Nurburgring circuit and the result approaches BMW standards, or so I read in buff mags.

Peter -- I know of at least two Black connections to the Chrysler 300. Apparently some rappers or similar entertainers around the time of the car's introduction did MTV-type videos that included 300s amongst the props. And the car is as popular with blacks as it is with all Americans. The second connection is that the lead stylist for the 300, Ralph Gilles, happens to be Black.

Benjamin -- Thanks for the (as usual) long, thoughtful comment: I'll respond to only two things for now. First, yes indeed new model year introductions were big back in the 50s. I remember when the blowout-year (sales-wise, at the time) 1955s were introduced. Searchlight beams were all over the sky and my dad drove me over to look at the new Fords and Chevrolets. I suspect that a combination of economics and the fact that imported cars such as Volkswagens sold just fine without annual styling face-lifts slowly diminished the importance of model introductions as it dawned on manufacturers that annual face-lifts weren't essential. (Hmm, I could write something about the '55 intros and the preceeding publicity build-up -- I still have some vintage buff mags and a Newsweek cover story as evidence.)

The other thing that struck me is the fact that you aren't a driver. Only in New York!!! Actually, it makes little practical sense to learn how to drive if one was born and has always lived in Manhattan or the inner parts of the other boroughs (Staten Island excepted). Car insurance and the cost or lack of availability for parking are huge barriers to ownership. It makes perfect sense to simply rent a car as needed (as I suspect Michael must do) or else rely totally on a pretty-good public transportaion system as you do. I can't think of any other American city where this is the case for large shares of the population -- can you?

Steve -- I'm not an aerodynamicist (hope I spelled that right), so I can't give a solid answer. But most car designs spend wind-tunnel time these days. My personal observation is that the 300 is fairly quiet at freeway speeds so far as wind-noise is concerned -- quieter than the "feminine"-shaped Oldsmobile Intrigue that it replaced. The windshield has a good rake to it and the front is more rounded than photos suggest, which might be all it really needs for efficienecy. Really pointed front ends aren't essential at motor car speeds; consider the shape of a 22-cal. bullet or the bow end of a modern submarine that has to plow through an incompressible medium. Another aerodynamic factor besides Cd (the drag coefficient) is the frontal area (greatest lateral cross-section). The greater the frontal area (expressed in square feet, meters, whatever), the greater the wind resistance given equal Cd. This is a major reason (along with weight) why large SUVs get crummy gas mileage.

Felix -- On the other hand, hybrid cars tend to be more costly to buy than equivalent conventional cars, so overall lifetime cost of the cars might be similar. They do consume fewer resources, of course, and that is important to some buyers.

Pipetobacco -- You are most welcome for those appreciative comments.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 13, 2005 10:30 PM

Nice post.

Why don't theorists of auto styling pay more attention to the rear ends of vehicles? It's the most important part. The main reason is that most of us spend several hours each week barreling down highways, and the main thing we do during that time is ... what? Staring at the rear of the vehicle in front of us, that's what. That's a lot of time to really get to know what's going on with the styling back there. Yet the standard promotional photography emphasizes the front and side.

My favorite vehicles on the road right now are the Audi TT, the Nissan Murano, the Infinity FX35/FX45, and the Chrysler Crossfire -- all because they have beautiful and/or interesting rears.

The second reason rear ends are so important could probably be explained in Freudian terms, but I'll honor Michael's desire to maintain almost Victorian standards of propriety on this blog by saying nothing more about that.

Posted by: Fred on June 14, 2005 03:09 PM

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