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May 15, 2006

End of Evolution: Passenger Cars

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A while ago I wrote (here) about how airliners evolved to a (nearly) common shape by the early 1930s followed in the mid 1950s by some adjustments related to the innovation of the gas turbine engine. Because airplanes need to fly, constraints on their shape are stringent.

Automobiles are less constrained than passenger airliners. Nevertheless, constraints exist and cars experienced an evolution to a "final" shape by the late 1940s.

Since then, automobile styles have exhibited variations -- sometime considerable ones (1950s tail fins and wrap-around windshields) -- but keep returning to the form attained shortly before 1950.

In my post about airliners I hypothesized that a major change in appearance was only likely if there was a major technological change. For airliners, the advent of jet engines meant a speed increase to near trans-sonic levels, resulting in swept-back wings. By eliminating propellers, there was greater freedom in engine-placement.

As for cars, technological changes have been considerable, but more in the realm of refinement rather than revolution. Regarding appearance, car makers can make greater use of curved glass than they could around 1950. Improvements in sheet steel stamping and forming allow for more sculpted exteriors. But these factors are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

From about 1890 when the very first automobiles appeared to around 1910 or 1915, there was considerable variation in mechanical layout and appearance as manufacturers tried alternatives before settling on a widely-accepted layout. This layout had the following features: (1) four wheels, the front two steerable, (2) a water-cooled engine in the front of the car along with its radiator, (3) power transmitted to the two driving wheels in the rear via a driveshaft and a gearing system, (4) the driver positioned on a seat near the middle of the wheelbase and steering by means of a wheel, and (5) most additional passengers and cargo placed behind the driver.

During the 1920s a major focus continued to be mechanical reliability and refinement. The main change in appearance was the closed body that could now be built economically thanks to various technical improvements. By the late 20s, mass-produced bodies began be designed by professional stylists, resulting in cleaner, better-integrated appearance (for example in the transition between the hood and the passenger compartment).

The Great Depression of the 1930s spurred manufacturers to innovate so that their cars would be as attractive as possible to the Depression-reduced pool of potential buyers. The Thirties was the period of greatest change in the general appearance of the automobile. Chrysler produced its 1934 Airflow model that featured somewhat aerodynamic shaping and the engine moved forward so that it was partly over the front axle-line rather than behind the axle -- the common practice till then. By moving the motor forward, the passenger compartment also was moved forward with the result that the rear seat of a sedan was in front of the rear axle rather than above it. This meant that the body could be lowered and that rear-seat passengers got a more comfortable ride. The advent of independent front suspension a few years later made the between-the-wheels engine placement more practical and allowed further reduction in body height.

At this point (the late 1930s), the evolution of the mechanical layout essentially ceased. The only really important change since then was the widespread adoption of front-wheel drive (FWD) during the 1970s followed by all-wheel drive in recent years. FWD allows lower bodies because the driveshaft is omitted. FWD cars also tended to have their engines positioned even farther forward, resulting in considerable front "overhang." But the effect of FWD on appearance tends to be fairly subtle, not dramatic.

Automobile exteriors evolved between 1930 and 1950 approximately as follows. Transitions between major body planes became rounded, rather than sharp-cornered. Sheet-metal "valances" were added to the sides of fenders. Fenders became somewhat teardrop-shaped during the mid-30s, providing an aerodynamic appearance along with a little actual aerodynamic improvement. A real aerodynamic improvement came in the form of slanted and (later) split windshields in place of vertical windshields whose aerodynamic properties were made even worse by an exterior sun-shade lip immediately above. Headlamp housings evolved into teardrop forms and then began to be merged into the front fenders. Bodies became lower and more rounded. Grilles in front of the radiator also assumed aerodynamic shapes. Spare tires moved from the front fenders (on large cars) or behind the trunk (on smaller ones) to the trunk, which itself became blended into the body.

Indeed the main styling trend over this period was the integration or blending of formerly separate parts (headlights, taillights, fenders, the trunk, hood and passenger compartment) into an all-encompassing body having aerodynamic overtones. The term used for the ultimate result was "envelope body." And in the late 1940s the trend reached its end. To this day, most passenger cars sport one variation of envelope body or another.

Examples of the evolution of the general shape of the automobile are presented below. I feature Chevrolet and Ford cars because these were the top-selling brands. A few other makes are included to illustrate where Chevy and Ford were ever-so-slightly beaten to the punch (not that this matters much).


Ford Model A - 1929.jpg
1929 Ford Model A.

Chevrolet - 1929.jpg
1929 Chevrolet.

The Great Depression was launched by (but probably not caused by) the October 1929 stock market crash. The 1929 cars shown above represent the baseline from which the rapid changes of the 1930s are measured. Note the complete lack of streamlining. The various components (passenger compartment, hood, fenders, headlights, etc.) are separate objects attached to one another.

Ford Deluxe Coupe - 1939.jpg
1939 Ford Deluxe Coupe.

Chevrolet - 1939.jpg
1939 Chevrolet.

Ten years later, cars look quite different. Most of the components have been blended, giving a streamlined appearance (if not so much reality). Surfaces are mostly rounded and windshields are slanted rather than at right-angles to the wind. E.T. "Bob" Gregorie's Ford design is more advanced than Harley Earl's Chevrolet in that the headlights are buried in the front fenders; the Chevy's headlights remain separate elements, albeit in teardrop-shaped assemblies.

Ford - 1949.jpg
1949 Ford.

Chevrolet - 1949.jpg
1949 Chevrolet.

Ten years later (including a World War 2 time-out when no cars were built) automobile styling evolution is essentially complete. Both Ford and Chevrolet introduced their first all-new postwar designs for the 1949 model year. Evolutionary completion is particularly true for Ford (styled by Dick Caleal and moonlighting Studebaker guys, finished by George Walker's team). All elements are integrated in to a simple, smooth package. Harley Earl's Chevrolet is less integrated, the fenders being semi-distinct elements. This was probably an intentional solution posed by the fact that cars were still fairly tall in the late 40s and slab-sides often make cars look even taller. The dropped front fender line and separate rear fender serve to break up the body mass, reducing the apparent height.

Ford 500 - 2006.jpg
2006 Ford 500.

Chevrolet Impala - 2006.jpg
2006 Chevrolet Impala.

Today's full-size sedans' shapes are wind-tunnel tested, so they are more aerodynamically efficient than the "visually streamlined" 1939 and 1949 cars. However, both the Ford and Chevrolet shown here are far more similar to (especially) the '49 Ford than the '49 Ford is to the 1939 and 1929 cars illustrated above. This is what I mean when I assert that styling evolution was essentially completed by the late 1940s.

Kaiser-Frazer - 1947.jpg
1947 Kaiser and Frazer.

Studebaker Champion - 1947.jpg
1947 Studebaker Champion.

Cisitalia - 1949.jpg
Cisitalia, 1949.
Styled by Pinin Farina, this Cisitalia model first appeared in 1946.

Here are some other cars pre-dating the 1949 Ford that embody the end-of-evolution theme. The Cisitalia was perhaps the first to integrate the exterior components and do so successfully from an aesthetic perspective. The Kaiser and Frazer beat the Ford into production by two years, but their styling seems more awkward. The Studebaker has a more graceful look and features the vestigal fender theme General Motors used in 1948 for Cadillac and certain Oldsmobile models and that was passed down to the rest of its line for 1949.

This sets the stage for a future post about "Retro" styling and why it isn't as Retro as some people think.



posted by Donald at May 15, 2006


It's interesting that you mention the cars were fairly tall in the 1940's. After decades of "longer, lower, wider," cars seem to be getting taller once again. It's a recent development, too, dating back less than ten model years. Last week I drove my mother's 1995 Toyota Corolla for the first time in a couple of years and couldn't believe how low the seating position was; in comparison, my wife's 2006 Mazda3 has an almost SUV-esque high seating position.
Incidentially, the Ford 500 which you've pictured is popular among older drivers because the high seating position makes it easy for less-mobile people to get in and out of the vehicle.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2006 9:32 PM

Very informative, tks. Where car styling goes, a big mystery to me has been where, how, why and when the fender-as-separate-component thing ended. Actually, why did cars ever have fenders as separate components? Was it hard in some way I don't understand to build an envelope body? Was it some kind of previously-unattainable technological achievement to be able to do so? Or did people just think for years, "Hey, a car is something with a cabin that's flanked by fenders"? At the same time, it's interesting how the bulgey-flowy vestigial fender reasserts itself over and over in car design. I suppose the stylists don't have all that many elements they can play with, so they hearken back to wheel-bulges and quasi-fenders to jazz things up, er, "add interest."

For years, I'd thought that the Ford Taurus might represent the end of car-style evolution. Standard, nice, instantly-comprehensible ... The Wife and I made a point of renting Tauruses and Sables whenever we got out of NYC. I'm kind of bummed now that they're being phased out. No other car seems to be as friendly and accessible in a standard-issue kind of way. But then along came SUVs, and Tauruses started to look kind of dreary. Is there some trend that's edging the SUV to the side?

It's odd to be as out of car culture as I am. Feels un-American.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2006 10:18 PM

BTW, that Cisitalia rocks. But what is a Cisitalia? I was a car buff back when I was 12 and 13, and knew a lot about a lot of strange cars, but I don't remember ever reading about the Cisitalia.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 15, 2006 10:19 PM

"Is there some trend that's edging the SUV to the side?"

What with high fuel prices, there's a new generation of subcompacts being introduced, cars that supposedly are much improved over the econoboxes of the not-too-distant past: the Toyota Yaris, the Honda Fit, and the Nissan Versa. Of course they were designed well before the recent surge in gasoline prices, so the manufacturers (and dealers, who'll surely be price gouging) are benefitting from good timing.

Posted by: Peter on May 15, 2006 11:04 PM

Fender thing was (I think) a result of 70s & onwards crash legislation. They initially became huge, and then got incorporated into the bodywork.
Legislation is now a huge element in car design. For instance, pedestrian crash survival regs in Europe are tending to make a cars look the same.

Electric power, whether hybrid or fuel cell, will change thing again.

Posted by: Nigel on May 16, 2006 5:31 AM

What with the retro look that Chrysler has introduced, I'd be willing to bet that Ford would score a real coup if they re-introduced the '49 Ford chassis, with up to date mechanics under the hood. It's a beautiful car.

Posted by: ricpic on May 16, 2006 11:20 AM

Cisitalia was established in 1946 to build both racing cars and sports cars. The model 202 coupe (illustrated in the post) was introduced in 1947 (not 1946, though it was probably designed in 1946) and was powered by a Fiat engine. The 202 gained special notoriety because it was selected by the Museum of Modern Art as one of its 8 automobiles display of 1952 or thereabouts. (Some others, if memory serves, were the 1936 Cord, the 1941 Lincoln Continental, a pre-war Talbot Lago and a WW2 Jeep.)

The Cisitalia company, according to one source, hit the financial wall thanks to its racing effort, but staggered on until around 1964. My impression is that few cars were built after the early 50s, however.

So Cisitalia was never more that a bit-player industrially. Whatever fame it has was due to Farina's design for the 202 coupe, the first truly beautiful example of an envelope body (pre-war examples were clumsy).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 16, 2006 5:10 PM

So many cars of this period - the Kaiser/Frazer you mentioned, the '48 Packard, the "bathtub" Nash, the Step-down Hudson - went for full flow-through fenders, and every last one of them wound up looking short and squat and fat.

Then again, the '51 Kaiser was fabulous.

Posted by: CGHill on May 16, 2006 9:40 PM

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