In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | How Real Are Tourist "Cultural" Events? »

June 15, 2007

Dream Cars Like Jets

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A tenet of industrial design theory is that the shape of an object ought to reflect the object's function.

A purist might hold that there is a Platonic ideal form lurking out there that designers should strive to discover. But changing technology in terms of engineering and means of production can make such an ideal elusive -- if it exists, which I tend to doubt.

Even if ideals are hard to attain, rough approximations usually aren't. Consider the automobile. Just what expresses "automobile?"

A car normally has four wheels, the front ones steerable. So it might be a good idea if the front wheels were fully exposed (or nearly so) on the sides of the car to ensure a decent turning radius. Exposing the rear wheels is more a matter of aesthetics, though there are the practical considerations of ease of changing tires or chaining-up for snow and ice. A wide wheel track (placing the wheels near the sides of the vehicle) is helpful for preventing rollover, and this also suggests that exposed wheels are part of the nature of a car.

Cars carry a driver and passengers, all of whom need to enter and exit the vehicle, ideally with some ease. The driver needs to be in a position to control the car, and so requires windows or some other nearly 360-degree vision system. Human sizes and shapes and the need for a certain amount of seating comfort dictate in part the size and form of the passenger compartment.

The type, size, position (fore, mid or aft) and cooling needs of the motor as well as other requirements (such as carrying luggage) affect the look of a car, but this doesn't mean that cars need to look alike -- though they theoretically should look "car-like."

But there was a time when cars began to look a lot less car-like. This was the mid-late 1950s when cars began to resemble jet fighters and sci-fi spaceships. And this tendency was most pronounced in the case of dream cars.

By 1950 it was clear to automobile company management that style was a major factor in sales. So stylists, having proven themselves, were encouraged to cut loose and create things to excite potential buyers. By coincidence, this happened just as evolution in the appearance of cars essentially ended (see my essay on this topic here).

With no place to go trend-wise, stylists thrashed around in search a new trends or themes. One such theme was aviation or space, already successfully tested by Harley Earl at General Motors. I'm thinking of a series of futuristic scale models that yielded the famous 1948 Cadillac tail fins. The success of Cadillac led stylists to go pretty wild exploring that theme -- wild to the point where dream cars (and to a lesser degree some production models) looked less and less like cars.

As will be seen below, Ford stylists were the wildest of all. I recall a TV documentary in the 50s dealing with car styling where the narrative mentioned that its stylists even looked at insect shapes for inspiration.

Here are some of the least car-like dream cars from that era.


Ford FX-Atmos, 1954
The Atmos astonished me when I first saw photos of it. Jet fighter? Space runabout? Who cares! For months thereafter I sketched dream cars in an attempt to equal -- if not surpass -- the flair of the Atmos. Of course I failed, being only 15 years old and lacking both talent and experience.

From what I've read, the Atmos was designed with no particular kind of motor in mind ... might be conventional reciprocating, maybe a turbine or even (gasp) atomic. Note that the wheels are almost incidental to the design: eliminate them, pop in a tiny atomic / rocket propulsion system, make it airtight and you've got the right jalopy for Buck Rogers to take Wilma Deering on an interplatetary date.

Lincoln Futura, 1955
The Futura is best known for that fact that it was customized into the Batmobile for the 60s Batman TV show. In its original form its feel is Atmos-like, but less sleek; this is perhaps because it was drivable, unlike the Atmos. Again, wheels are de-emphasized and tucked well away from the sides. The "double bubble" canopy over the passenger compartment is flashy but probably not practical in the real world.

Ford Mystere, 1955
Fussy design thanks to the chrome dip on the side, a riff on the flatter dip on production Fords for 1955, 1956 and, in somewhat different form, 1957. The odd spike-like objects on the front bumper (toned down from a similar feature on the Atmos) lend a sci-fi aura to the Mystere. If you eliminate them, cut back on the transparent areas of the top and get rid of the dip, the result would be a nice production design in keeping with the mid-50s.

Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, 1956
GM's Olds design seems smaller than the Fords shown above, and it strikes me as being more airplane-like than the spaceship-themed Ford efforts; the front ends of the fenders remind me of noses of some contemporary jet fighters. Its full front wheel cut-out suggests automobile, but this is counteracted by the peculiar central snout, the jet-fighter canopy-like top and the small, oddly-positioned fins.

Pontiac Club De Mer, 1956
This 1956 showcar looks more car-like than the others even though it has a number of aviation touches. These include the slender, wraparound front air intake, the separate, streamlined windshields and the centrally mounted fin behind the passenger compartment. Its Pontiac identity is asserted by the stylized "silver streaks" on the hood. It too has full front wheel cutouts that give it more of a land-based than a sky-based appearance.

Cadillac Cyclone, 1958
Rather late to the car-as-jet dream car genre, the Cyclone incorporates the pointed front and finned rear motifs of GM's experimental gas turbine powered cars. This is pretty much the end of the road for such styling themes. The 1950s tail-fin mania was reaching the point of professional embarassment and stylists were starting to design cars to look like ... cars.



posted by Donald at June 15, 2007


Woo-hoo! Those are some seriously zany designs! There was clearly something funny in the water back in the '50s. Why are the '50s known as the era of bland conformity?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2007 12:32 AM

I must admit that the Cadillac Cyclone reached the zenith of "jet age" design. It almost looks like one of those vehicles you used to see in Shriner parades. Would love to see some interior shots of this wonder. "George Jetson, your car is waiting at the front entrance."

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 18, 2007 8:28 AM

At the other extreme, a brick-with-wheels design, like the Land Rover, can appeal.

Posted by: dearieme on June 18, 2007 8:41 AM

This was a brief period when, for reasons I still don't understand, car design became extravagantly imaginative. (Shameless self-promotion: Click on my name to see my take on one of the real cars of that time).

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 18, 2007 10:47 AM

Grant McCracken has a terrific essay on this subject in his 2005 book Culture and Consumption !! (not to be confused with his 1991 book Culture and Consumption).

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on June 18, 2007 7:18 PM

That Oldsmobile looks for all the world like an echo of a P-38 Lightning from World War II - maybe that's why it seems more aircraft-like to you.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 18, 2007 9:36 PM

Virginia -- Several months ago McCracken sent me a copy of that book to read, but in the sturm und drang of moving to Seattle, I forgot about it. I just located it again and will give it a read. Thanks for the heads-up.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 18, 2007 10:36 PM

Most of these aerodynamic features were stylistic flourishes that didn't add anything to functionality, except for the greater visibility of the bubble canopy.

However, Chrysler's '6os turbine engine powered car actually used a powerplant originally designed for aircraft in a car, as did one Indy 500 car in the same period.

As a child, I remember seeing one of the Chrysler turbine powered cars at the 1964 New York World's Fair going arund a closed track, makimg a slight whoosh sound as it passed me.

Here's a web site from someone who's family was one of several who were given a turbine car to see whether it was suitable for everyday driving.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 19, 2007 2:42 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?