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August 17, 2009

Cars Should be X Times Taller Than Tires

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Even though I'm a frustrated, never-was automobile stylist, I do keep my eyes open. Or flatter myself thinking so.

So I notice stuff.

I also scribble car designs: been doing that since before I was in high school.

Fairly early on, when blocking out the proportions of a dream car sedan or coupe I was designing, I hit on the proportion of the height of the car measured from the ground should be about twice the diameter of the car's tire. (Sports cars designs could ignore this ratio.)

I've been using this rule of thumb ever since. Lately, I've been paying attention to photos of actual cars from various eras and checking that ratio. In general, the most attractive cars, other details aside, tend to have tire diameters that are half the height of the car -- plus or minus a small margin.

American sedans for many years have tended to be a little taller relative to tire diameter than they "should be." During the late 1950s this might have been due to the tendency of stylists to ignore or de-emphasize wheels and tires, focusing instead on designs inspired by aircraft or even Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon space ships. Today's SUVs and Crossovers also tend to be a bit small in the tire relative to their height.

To me, proportionally large wheels and tires suggest power and are appropriate for sports cars and performance sedans. Little tires I associate with small cars that are puny in the power department.

Below are some examples to help me make my case. I'll start with some cars from the 1930s and then hop to recent cars with one significant detour.


Bucciali TAV 12 - 1932
Bucciali was an expensive, low-production French car that, in its final guise, featured outrageous styling that I dearly love. The car is much shorter than twice the diameter of the tires, stressing power over theoretical beauty.

Cord Beverly sedan - 1937
Cords for 1936-37 were heartstoppingly attractive -- for me, anyway. Like the Bucciali shown above, they demand an emotional reaction. Unlike the brutal Bucciali, Cords are sensuous beings tempered only by their "coffin nose" hood and moderne grille treatment. The Beverly pictured here is the least attractive Cord due to its bulging trunk, a feature added to counter complaints about lack of storage space in its Westchester sedans. I chose the Beverly photo because it allows one to check the height-diameter ratio -- which only slightly exceeds 2.

Willys - late 1930s
Willys retreated to small, inexpensive cars to ride out the Depression. The tire diameter is noticeably less than half the height of the car.

Morris Mini - 1964
When the Mini was introduced, its tiny wheels and tires shocked me to the point where its other virtues (mostly in terms of its engineering design) escaped me. It seemed more like a toy than a serious car. If I were a rich car-collector, would I have an early model Mini in my collection? Not on your life; they still look ridiculous.

Aston Martin DBS - 2008
Astons are expensive performance-cars and the low height-to-tire-diameter ratio emphasizes it. Nice looking with a dangerous edginess to it.

Ford Focus - 2008
The Focus is a contemporary small car. Guess what? ... small wheels and tires are part of the package. Because this combination in so common, I suspect that cost might be part of the reason. But packaging passenger space and the drive train on a short body might be an equally salient factor.

Chevrolet Malibu - 2009
The current Chevy Malibu is a pleasing looking car with just enough individualizing quirks to make it appealing as a first or second choice for car shoppers. Had I been looking for a sedan in the low-$20,000 range, the Malibu would have been on my short-list. But what concerns us here is that ratio we've been discussing, and the Malibu complies pretty well.

Toyota RAV4 - 2009
To keep things fair, here's a picture of the kind of car I bought a few months ago (mine is a cheaper variant and a metallic very dark green). As a crossover SUV, its height is noticeably more than twice wheel-diameter. Obviously, when I chose the car I opted for features other than aesthetics; sometimes that bullet needs to be bitten, even by a styling junkie like me.



posted by Donald at August 17, 2009


I own a Subaru Forester, very close in dimensions to your Toyota RAV, and the reason I traded in my perfectly good and better looking Subaru Outback for the Forester was in order to sit higher. Low slung cars often look great but the number of huge full size SUVs on the road that come up behind you and almost over you when you drive an even moderately low slung car is intimidating to say the least.
Like I'm telling you something you don't already know: sports cars are not for the timid.

Posted by: ricpic on August 17, 2009 8:23 PM

That Bucciali is gorgeous! Do you suppose it has a 16-cylinder engine?

I once saw a car - a very sporty looking car from the 1930s or 1940s - with huge wheels and a V16 engine. Wow, that was awesome.

Dave - Erstwhile Urban Wanderer

Posted by: Dave Eriqat on August 17, 2009 11:16 PM

that bucciali gets my vote. im with dave, its lovely and classy at the same time...miles

Posted by: miles on August 19, 2009 10:46 PM

I agree with everyone here. If nothing else, this blog introduced me to the Bucciali TAV 12. Absolutely gorgeous. I'd love to see some similar designs with some slightly more modern touches, but I wouldn't change that car. Now, where did I put my millions of dollars (after all, I'll need a chauffeur as well..)

Posted by: Arlo @phareon on August 20, 2009 3:23 AM

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