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June 12, 2006

Funny (Automobile) Faces

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The prime purpose of automobile styling is to sell cars.

No doubt some stylists and academic design-groupies make the "art for art's sake" pitch, but in my book such talk would be public relations or wishful thinking from the respective sources.

One sales-related aspect of car styling is brand image.

Some brands feature well-established styling cues that carry over from model to model and year to year. Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Packard (all luxury makes) are/were notable examples. General Motors had strong brand cues in the 1950s, but failed to follow-up subsequently as I noted in a post dealing with Buick's "portholes."

Other makes do little in the way of long-term cues. Ford, for example, has tried many styling themes over the past 70 years, but never stuck with one for very long. About the most consistent cue over the last 20 years is the blue oval with the word "Ford" in script, a trademark borrowed from the 1920s.

A recent, and to me strange and ugly attempt to establish a styling cue comes from Volkswagen and its Audi subsidiary. A styling cue gone wrong, in my opinion. Let's take a look.


Auto Union racer.jpg
This is a scene from a race in the late 1930s. The lead car is an Auto Union, followed by what appear to be two Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo. Auto Union was a company formed from previously independent makes including Horch. After World War 2 the Horch was revived as the Audi brand -- "horch" and "audi" being German and Latin forms of the word "harken." The Auto Union race cars were designed by Ferdinand Porsche's engineering firm, which also designed the Volkswagen. Volkswagen eventually absorbed Audi.

Auto Union racer - 2.jpg
This is a closer view of the grille of an Audi race car -- not the car pictured above. The grille shown here is supposedly the inspiration for the styling cue under discussion.

Audi S4 - earlier.jpg
To establish a benchmark, here is an Audi A4 from a few years ago. Note the conventional grille that Audi stylists decided to juice up.

Audi A8 2006.jpg
This is a current Audi. The rennwagen (race car) inspired grill splashes over the nose, engulfing the bumper. A functional-purist stylist or an academic critic might contend that this design does not express the functionality of the bumper. This is true. Functionality aside, the "face" presented by the car has crossed vertical-horizontal elements that are nearly-enough visually balanced so as to create a confused impression.

VW Jetta tdi 2006.jpg
Worse, the Audi styling cue has recently been passed down to Volkswagen whose connection to Auto Union is far more tenuous and harder to justify. Further, it blurs the distinction between the two brands -- likely an intentional result, but hard to explain from a marketing standpoint.

Chrysler 300.jpg
Another car with a prominant grille is the Chrysler 300. The bumper is nearly invisible (worrysome to me and perhaps to my insurance company), but the vertical-horizontal conflict mentioned above is eliminated; the theme is more coherent. The dominant-subordinate grille bar theme, by the way, is derived from Chryslers of the late 1940s, reviving an old styling cue.

Ford 500.jpg
Not all makes have joined the big-snout brigade. The Ford 500 shown above has a fairly conventional front end. The shape of its grille reflects a recent Ford styling cue theme that is absent in its new Fusion series.

Opel Vectra - 2.jpg
But wait!! Here's another car with that same sort of snout! It's an Opel Astra. Opel is a German carmaker that has been owned by General Motors since 1929, certainly no relation to Audi or VW. Hmm. Something seems to be in the luft in Germany these days.

I find the faces of Audis (and now Volkswagens and Opels) off-putting. I suppose an aplogist could claim that shape "evokes the form of the hidden radiator and thereby expresses functionality." But that would be an example of logic from someone who doubtless could rationalize anything.

As for me, unless one of their models was compellingly superior in terms of engineering, features and price over other cars I was considering buying, the styling alone would nix the deal.

It will be interesting to see how long the Germans continue with this styling cue.



P.S. Note that in every illustration but one, the featured car is painted silver. It wasn't intentional on my part.

posted by Donald at June 12, 2006


Check out the design on the new Toyota Camry. The snout is a very sophisticated look reminiscent of the Aston Martin logo.

I agree...the Audie is bizarre.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 12, 2006 7:51 PM

Some people claim the new Camry has a pig-like snout.

Posted by: Peter on June 12, 2006 9:52 PM

Oh, yeah? Sez who?


Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 13, 2006 11:26 PM

There was a discussion of this on USENET ( August Horch founded Horch, then was forced out of the company, pre-WW I.

He then started Audi, based on the Latin pun. In the 1930s, Horch, Audi, and two other firms formed Auto Union, but continued to sell cars under their own brands. The four-ring emblem came about at this time, to represent this combination.

Post WW II, Audi resumed making cars, the other firms all having collapsed. Audi retained the four ring emblem.

BTW, the car which rumbles through the camp gate in the opening sequence of "Hogan's Heroes" is a Horch.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 16, 2006 3:59 PM

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