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October 28, 2007

Copycat Car Styling

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe they knuckled under to Management.

That's the best spin I can put on the latest example of "copycat" automobile styling.

Yes, they regard themselves as Designers, and the word Design is usually used to label their corporate administrative pigeon-hole. From public relations and advertising blurbs as well as books and magazine pieces, these Designers are supposed to be creative geniuses set apart from run-of-the-mill creative geniuses because they have gasoline flowing through their veins.

Truth is, they're in the fashion trade. Back in the 1940s, General Motors had them in the Styling Department -- the label "Design" came later in a public image makeover. The nature of fashion is roughly as follows: (1) someone does something innovative, (2) the rest of the herd rushes in to produce close variations on the new theme, and (3) this continues until another innovation is produced. To what extent this is the fault of designers/stylists or Management, I can't say. But I suspect Management is more responsible because dice are being rolled for large amounts of money, and with large stakes the natural tendency is to play things safe.

So much for speculation: now for some reality.


1949 Oldsmobile "fastback" style
An automobile style popular from the mid-1930s till the early 1950s was the "fastback," illustrated above. This was related to attempts to make cars aerodynamic, though much such "streamlining" was cosmetic. Fastbacks represent a type of semi-false streamlining because tapered rear-ends require quite long bodies to be effective -- bodies much longer than that of the Oldsmobile. A better aerodynamic solution for conventional length cars is the "Kamm back," where the rear of the car tapers slightly and then is, in effect, chopped off vertically. Otherwise, fastbacks tend to be impractical because the sloping rear reduces potential luggage space. This is one reason why the style disappeared for decades.

Honda Accord - 2008
This is a brand-new body for Honda's Accord line which is battling with the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima for the prize of being the top-selling sedan in the USA. Perhaps I'm delusional, but the new Accord looks suspiciously like ...

BMW 5 Series
This BMW 5 Series body has been in production for several years and therefore must have been known to Honda stylists. The 5 Series is a detoxed version of the BMW flagship 7 Series. The 2002 7 Series had controversial styling -- especially its awkward-looking rear where the trunk had a peculiar, tacked-on appearance. BMW styling supremo Chris Bangle took an immense amount of heat from the automotive press and BMW fans, but Management stood by him and he's still in charge of styling. When the 5 Series was restyled a few years later it was given the odd trunk design theme, though in milder, more refined form. The theory behind this look is shown next.

Style analysis -- faux-fastbacks
The style makes sense only when seen from the side, as in the two photos above and the present diagram. The diagram shows a generic rear incorporating key features of both the BMW and Accord bodies: this is in black. The blue line, offset slightly from the body lines, indicates an implicit profile -- one might call it a phantom fastback. Due to the required roomy trunk, the fastback does not exist in reality. But the curve of the rear of the roof is extended downwards by the forward edge of the tail light. A viewer might see this as a fastback-like curve if he can mentally connect those two manifest clues.

Cute, but I'm not sure how well it works in practice. For one thing, it's pretty subtle: maybe too subtle for most people. ( Wonder how many of you noticed it before I pointed it out.) More importantly, the effect can't easily be seen unless the car is in profile or nearly so. In other words, all this subtlety might not have been worth the effort.

Styling theory aside, give the photos of the Accord and BMW a good look -- especially from the rear doors to the rear. The styling herd thunders on!



posted by Donald at October 28, 2007


I'm not sure that "styling" is even the right word for the way cars are designed today. Wouldn't it imply that one -- has a style?

Posted by: Lester Hunt on October 28, 2007 9:37 PM

My preferred style, post WWII, is the Land Rover. Everything else looks mimsy, or in the case of the Hummer, camp.

Posted by: dearieme on October 29, 2007 8:08 AM

It's amazing what a big difference the smallest detail makes in the overall look of a car. I kept looking at the Honda and the BMW you have pictured. The angle of the trunk of the Honda (in profile) is slightly shaved, slightly rounded. BMW refused to do that. And that makes all the difference. Actually, I'm not put off by the BMW's profile. But I can see where most would prefer the closer to symmetrical or balanced look of the Honda.

Tire hubcaps have become quite creative and, in some cases, beautiful, in recent years. Does that rate as an element of car design? In any case, IMO, that represents a step forward over the small hubcap white wall era.

Posted by: ricpic on October 29, 2007 10:09 AM

I own a 2003 Saab 9-5 which also copycats the BMW body style. Sure like the car though

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 29, 2007 11:25 AM

I've read articles with interviews of Honda folks who said that they were going for a more "upscale" look to the Accord. The body crease is a straight steal, as it was when Acura did it a couple of years ago for the TL. The nose of the Accord is less sloped than it was it models past, which is also supposed to add to the upscale look. When I see the new Accord on the road, it looks like the Acura RL.

Posted by: wph on October 29, 2007 9:23 PM

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