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June 18, 2003

Aesthetics: Dude, Where's My Flying Car?


I came across this little gem the other day on, of all places, a NASA website for children:

Have you ever watched the cartoon, "The Jetsons"? How do they travel from place to place? They do not get in the family car and drive. They get in the family car and fly.

How would you like to have a flying car? Your grandparents thought that by the year 2000, everyone would have a flying car. So, what happened?

The flying car has had two problems. One problem is that you have to be a pilot to fly one. The other problem is that you have to have a lot of money to own one.

Yeah, yeah, let me down easy, NASA. This just served as one more painful reminder about the realities of having grown up: not only am I stuck with the whole death and taxes thing, and having to do awful stuff like figure out how to pay for my kids’ college tuitions, but I have to soldier on through this dreary mess without having a flying car. For an old Detroiter (whose father worked in the auto industry) this really sucks.

Okay, granted, flying cars were always a trifle, shall we say, fanciful for any society without unlimited—and I do mean unlimited—energy resources. But at a minimum, I should be able to tool around town in something like these:

Ford FX-Atmos, 1954

GM Runabout, 1964

I understand that these were never more than concept cars, but, hey: we’ve had almost half a century to make these babies a commercial reality. And what do we have now that we’re several years into a new millenium? A bunch of timidly designed cars that can only serve to lower our already sagging middle-aged expectations to the ground.

So I thought I’d inaugurate a series of postings to recognize the smallest, most infintesimal efforts of the world auto industry to deliver vehicles that reflect the creative exuberance of the illustrators and designers of my youth. To qualify, a car must be a mass marketed vehicle that might have surprised auto consumers of fifty years ago with its styling—as opposed to merely disappointing them with a sort of lowest-common denominator evolution (devolution?) from cars of that period.

Nissan Murano, 2003

Honda Element EX, 2003

Have you got any cars you’d like to nominate for future postings?



posted by Friedrich at June 18, 2003


So the idea is to surprise someone transported from 1953, and not in a bad way. Well, rather than mention something Italian that I'll never be able to afford, I'll list some mid-market or lower American cars that I've found interesting*.

The first version of the Ford Taurus, 1986, with the sloped trunk lid first struck me as looking extraordinarily odd. The longer I looked at it, though, the more I liked it. It didn't hurt that it was built pretty well and not especially expensive.

The current version of the Saturn wagon, again, is odd looking on first glance, but has grown on me over time. Again, fairly well built.

Finally, any recent version of the Corvette is very interesting (though it doesn't fit my affordability criterion above). It isn't as idiosyncratic as earlier Corvettes, but then mid-50s Chevrolets were not especially idiosyncratic for their time either.

I get the impression that you don't think much of current car design, but this is a view that I don't especially share. I think that current car designers are designing extraordinarily efficient tools to match specific needs. I often enjoy the appearance of efficient tools, whether aircraft carriers or absurdly expensive swingsets. There is an honesty in their appearance that is often not present in things designed for appearance first.

*Note that I'm trying to look at these as a person used to 1950s Packards, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, etc. would look at them.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 18, 2003 12:52 PM


Thanks for pitching in to clarify what I was driving at. Your list of cars is appreciated. Actually, although I'm finding it easier and easier to play the crusty old fool and dismiss contemporary design efforts, I would say that cars seem, after a disappointing couple of decades, to be bouncing back and showing more promise than they have for quite a while.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 18, 2003 1:11 PM

From a styling perspective, I nominate the Isuzu VehiCross with its odd fanged grille and the diminutive Suzuki X 90 two-seat off-roadster. From the "what-the-heck-was-that?" perspective of a mid-century car buyer, any luxury SUV would leave them scratching their head and wondering why our roads weren't paved anymore.

Posted by: Jim7 on June 18, 2003 2:12 PM

A guy I worked with said the Audi A4 Carbriolet looked like "Speed Racer's" car. That sounds like what you are talking about.

Posted by: caroline on June 18, 2003 2:50 PM

To me, the Honda Element, along with several other new extremely boxy SUV's, looks like a Brinks Truck. I hope they put gun slots on the next version.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 18, 2003 3:27 PM

Most surprising to our friends in the past might be the height of many of our current cars. Compared to most vehicles from back then, popular styles like the minivan, SUV and pick-up are quite tall. Of course, I bet weird custom jobs like monster trucks would just freak-out those folks from the 1950s. On the other hand, the lengths of sedans and station wagons from the '50s and '60s makes my mind boggle--how in the heck did people (like my dad) parallel park those behemoths?

BTW, folks have not given up on the flying car. There are several companies working on them now, with most of the designs using turbofans of some sort for both lift and propulsion. The one that seems furthest along is the Skycar, being developed by Moller International. Their website is

Posted by: Kevin Riley on June 18, 2003 11:26 PM

Hey, I live in NYC. So far as cars go, about all that's on my mind is the perennial question: why on earth are NYC cabs so hard to get in and out of? Especially now that they've installed those airconditioner thingees right on top of the transmission hump, you really struggle. How do old people, or people lacking even a bit of agility, manage?

Stylingwise, I confess I've really enjoyed the retro movement, which I guess has semi-kinda come to an end, though I could be wrong about that. The PT Cruiser, the new T-bird: very cool. On the other hand, it's about the only styling movement I've noticed in a few decades.

Looking forward to more car-styling postings, though, however little I have to contribute.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2003 2:50 AM

Michael, many cars are harder to get in and out of these days - if you count the mid-eighties as these days.

Surely, some people love their SUVs simply because the enjoy being able to get in and out of their damn cars and see where they're going. What Saturn or recent Mustang driver can blame them?

There are still folks who drive old Checkers, bless 'em. As a small person, I don't have too much trouble getting in and out of the current Lincoln town car, but the current models are nothing compared to the Lincoln of the mid-sixties. That's a living room on wheels.

I've always wished there was room in the budget for an old Model T or A. Fun to drive and easy to repairs.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned - today's cars do have all the fancy-assed electronics we were promised. Heated seats, automated seat adjustments, lights that go on all by themselves, and other pointless gizmos that are expensive to repair.

What do you suppose the super-car futurist would make of the current vogue for Dodge-Ram styled trucks - vehicles that promise more utility than most people need with ultra lux extras? Lowriders?

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 3:54 PM

Here's your flying car:
(if you can wait until 2005)

Posted by: Channing on July 10, 2003 3:59 PM

I gotta say, I am very impressed with the new Honda Element, and the Honda Civic. On the page I linked above, it lists the car price which is fair, and some links to good reviews. The Element is new, but a really cool car, and the Civic has won countless awards over the years. I think Honda is one of the best auto makers on the planet.

Posted by: Mikkel Torst on November 20, 2003 2:58 PM

I want my car to fly how can I do this?

Posted by: John on January 2, 2004 11:23 PM

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