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July 24, 2009

False-Functional Car Design Details

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Taken literally, the word "postmodern" refers to what happened or happens after modernism presumably ended. That covers a lot of territory and invites people who enjoy being analytical and or building taxonomies to come up with labels that might help clarify what has been going on these last few decades. Rather than getting into name-calling -- er, naming -- I thought it might be interesting to explore some odd details of the life-cycle of modernism with reference to its Industrial Design aspect.

Not long ago, I dealt with refrigerators, a product that was a subject of ID from its earliest years. I also recently discussed that matter of form following function with reference to passenger liners. And I write a lot about automobile styling.

When I was in college, industrial designers in general cast a skeptical eye on car stylists, not fully accepting them into the ID tribe. One factor might have been that car styling came into existence a few years before ID arrived on the scene. Another was the fact that transportation devices have always had a different, more romanticized, aura than other daily-used human creations: think ships, locomotives, airplanes and cars as opposed to toasters, desk lamps and refrigerators. Industrial designers had to decide whether to be coldly analytical and stand a good chance of coming up with an unappealing design for a locomotive, say, or else go for something sleek and futuristic that would create good public relations for their firm. This was the situation in the early, classical, purist days of the profession.

A number of automobile stylists have had a tendency to think of themselves as somehow being inferior to and less pure than industrial designers perched atop the ivory tower of "form follows function." Not all stylists, mind you; the very best and most successful ones usually considered themselves better than industrial designers because they believed that they could do industrial design as well as cars, whereas an industrial designer couldn't do cars well. And they were right, for the most part. A number of car stylists successfully transitioned to ID, but hardly any industrial designers moved to the automotive field. (Only Raymond Loewy really succeeded doing cars thanks to his long-term Studebaker contract that resulted in several famous designs -- but he relied on staff members who were "car guys." Norman Bel Geddes' firm created speculative automobile designs and consulted for Graham-Paige and Chrysler. Brooks Stevens had a longer run as an automotive design consultant and even manufactured the Excalibur sports car for a few years. His car designs sometimes had an appliance look, sporting flat areas of chrome -- I'm thinking of his work during Studebaker's dying days.)

So there can be low-level tensions in styling studios. There is the romantic aspect of transportation. There is the need for the product to appeal to potential customers. And then there is the siren song of form, function and design purity. Probably all stylists recognize the need for operational functionality to be given an important role in the aesthetics of the product. But sadly for those who hold design purity as the highest goal of a professional in the field, compromises get made. Let's take a look.


1933 Hupmobile advertisement
Styled by industrial designer Raymond Loewy, this Hupmobile is essentially a very clean version of automobile design at the start of the 1930s, just before streamlining and integration of exterior parts into the body became dominant themes. Nevertheless, it is "functional" design in that the various visible parts such as headlamps, fenders, hoods, running boards and so forth serve functions that are obvious by their appearance.

1952 Mercury
In addition to expected styling touches such as the chrome strip on the side to enhance visual length, 1952 Ford products such as this Mercury incorporated some fake details -- in this case non-functioning air scoops on the hood and sides. This was troubling to some car stylists as well as to industrial designers in general. Note that the window glass segments are all purely functional, something that would not last....

2009 Toyota RAV4 rear window view
This and the remaining photos are of my new car. Take a look at the rear window. The windows towards the rear of the car are heavily tinted to make objects inside less visible, and there's a lot of reflection. But if you look closely, you will notice a dark area inside the window edge, especially to the left. That dark area is part of the rear door structure which is overlapped by the glass. This is unlike the "honest" windows of the cars shown above.

2009 Toyota RAV4 rear side window view
Here is a rear-quarter window, and it also covers more area than the actual opening. Neither this nor the rear window open, so the structure of the car can be beefed up in these places, leaving the glass to be a less than fully functional styling feature. I'm not sure when this practice started; the first time I noticed it was on the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable models introduced in the mid-1980s.

2009 Toyota RAV4 windshield view
The same sort of overlapping is found on the windshield. Most current cars have such details, so what I've shown so far is not surprising.

2009 Toyota RAV4 grille view
What did surprise me was the grille. Notice the reflection of sunlight off blanked-out parts of the plastic along the top and sides. Jaded though I might be, I sort of expected a car's grille to identify a hole where air enters the engine compartment. Sigh. One more function not followed.

I should mention that grille trim was extended beyond the area of the air intake in many past designs, though the opening itself was usually much more obvious than it is on my car. And air-cooled Franklins in the late 1920s went so far as to have fake radiators up front to make them look like normal water-cooled cars of the era. This was before Industrial Design and its notions entered the scene, I might add.

To return to thoughts in the opening paragraphs, professional automobile designers -- not the engineers who controlled the appearance of cars during the early decades of the industry -- have been influenced by the ideology of modernism. Occasionally a "rational," non-romanticized design hits the streets, but normally designs are influenced by other considerations ranging from aesthetic quirks of styling studio leaders to the design taste of corporate executives' wives.

Hmm. Maybe I should scout for rational/functional designs and report on any I can find.



posted by Donald at July 24, 2009


I always thought the NSU Ro80 was about as close to a functional car as we've seen . . .

Posted by: Rashomon on July 24, 2009 2:25 PM

The '52 Merc hardtop is one of my all-time favorite 50's rides along with it's brother the Lincoln, the '53 Olds 88 ragtop, and the '53 Chrysler hardtop with wire wheels. Pure fantasy, but lasting good looks. I do remember many customizers making those fake scoops functional by removing the chrome, trimming the edge with round rod and adding "teeth" from another car's grille--DeSoto? For my buddies and I the worst trend of those days was the addition of the "Continental Kit", the Fender skirts, and the lowered rear end. We referred to this as the "East Coast gook wagon" look. California cars were almost always clean and gook free. And if it was lowered, it was raked (higher in back, hot rod style) or level all the way around. East Coast music sucked then too, except for doowop. Freddie Cannon? Fabian? God it was lame!

Posted by: Terry Butler on July 24, 2009 5:16 PM

Thanks for the excellent lesson in design history and appreciation. I like the Loewy and the '52 Merc, which means I have no design spine, I suppose. How are you enjoying your new Toyota, btw? A nice car?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 24, 2009 7:58 PM

Michael -- So far, so good on the Toyota. But I've put only 2,000 miles or so on it. It quickly developed a minor door rattle, and I'll ask the dealer to try to track it down if that sort of thing is covered by the warranty.

As I mentioned just after I bought it, a major attraction was greatly improved driver visibility compared to the Chrysler 300. Another reason was handier size. Both reasons are proving out well after use. The all-wheel drive feature awaits its tests once the snow flies, but we're into a spell of 95-degree weather, so that will have to wait.

I do miss the 300's style and ease of freeway cruisin' but on balance I did the right thing by trading it in.

... and Terry -- I loved the styling of the '52 FoMoCo line from the time the cars were introduced, especially the Mercury. The fake scoops didn't bother me in those days, but I was a late pre-teen and into the space-age styling quirks of the day. Yes, it'd be nice if they were functional, but I find it easy to regard them as being in the spirit of Baroque or Rococo architectural embellishment. A little bit of it can be a lot of fun, a lot of it -- not so much fun. And the scoops were only a little bit of it.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 24, 2009 8:18 PM

The late-60s BMWs (1600 / 2002) had the ultimate in functional design, especially the use of glass. They were the first to have high windows, a trend which was unfortunately reversed in the 1990s. I would never drive a car like the Chrysler 300 because of its tank-like low windows. Waiting for the trend to reverse again in 20 years or so . . . .

Posted by: RC on July 25, 2009 9:05 AM

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