What Happened to All of the Beautiful Cars?
In our latest Festive Campaign, you might have noticed a particularly striking vintage Porsche 911. Why, we wondered, do cars not look like that anymore? If not a Porsche, then at least a retro BMW E Series, Defender, or Fiat Panda When did contemporary car design become so... dull? Writer and car expert Will Hersey digs into the Golden Age of automotive aesthetics and asks whether beautiful cars can make a comeback.
Illustration by John Molesworth.
If you’ve ever wandered around a car park trying to work out where you left yours, a thought might have flickered in your brain: why do so many of them look the same? Or worse, how did modern cars get to be so ugly?
Perhaps partly this could be put down to the nostalgia effect. Not all old cars look like a glorious 1950s Ferrari 250GT or a 1968 Maserati Ghibli after all. Or indeed an original 1963 Jaguar E-Type, only the third car to make the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and with its long, curvy bonnet is regularly talked about in breathy, almost sexual undertones. So a grey 2017 Nissan Qashqai on floor three of a multi-storey is never going to come out of such comparisons well.
But it’s no longer just cars from that Fifties and Sixties golden age that stack up well against the current crop. Take the booming classic car market. Increasingly it’s cars of the seventies, eighties and even nineties that can spark a bidding war. The E30 BMW 3 series, once a blocky saloon for sales reps, is now being reappraised as a design original. Much younger buyers are coming on to the scene too. So what’s going on? Clearly old cars have rarity, simplicity and character that new cars just can’t match. But have our aesthetic tastes also changed? And how much is emotion also at play?
Psychologists might say that hankering after the cars from yesteryear is pretty natural in times of great flux. The car back then was a machine pitched to help us explore and engage with the world outside. Today they are becoming closer to highly complex gadgets. Electric battery technology and the drip-feed of Artifical Intelligence will soon make them unrecognisable from the car your grandad spent his Sunday afternoons underneath.
As the industry has changed, so too has the role of the designer. Huge design teams now service advanced computer programs; one individual could spend years working on a brake pedal or a USB socket.
It’s a far cry from design legend Flaminio Bertoni (responsible for the Citroen 2CV and beautiful DS) whose preparatory modelling was produced like a sculptor and is said to have designed the Citroen Traction Avant in one all-night creative fever dream. Andre Citroen signed it off the next day, which in today’s corporations might take years.
This was the Thirties of course, perhaps the most exciting era for a product which everyone knew was set to change the world. Ninety years on, is it also harder to produce new and interesting ideas? Just as music inevitably looks back and borrows, so do cars. The deliberately retro-styling of the 21st century MINI, for example, borders on the pastiche. Lamborghini has been doing a version of Marcello Gandini’s stunning 1970s wedge shapes for the past forty years. Though it’s notable that the limited-edition 2021 Lamborghini Countach has been publicly rejected by Gandini, who designed the ground-breaking original.
The modern-day obsession with aerodynamics, as each new model must outperform its previous version, is also often cited as a reason why sport cars are not as elegant as they once were. It’s interesting to note though that the fabled E-Type was designed by a mathematician and aerodynamics obsessive in Malcolm Sawyer. He just did the sums in his head not on a computer.
As with everything we don’t like, we can also blame the government. Jay Leno, now more famous for being a car collector than a TV host, says 1966 is one of his favourite model years because it’s the last time car design wasn’t compromised by safety regulations. Yes, damn that legislation protecting the limbs of pedestrians from our sweeping bonnets.
As drivers, we aren’t going to get away scott-free either. Our modern-day love of high seating positions and increased luggage space has spawned the astonishing success of the SUV; a car that no manufacturer has managed to make pretty, although Aston Martin’s DBX and Lamborghini’s Urus have at least tried the hardest. The SUV also highlights a strange modern trend toward smaller windows. It’s amazing how glassy many vintage cars seem in comparison, with elegant windows for watching the world go. Even big cars today tend to have poor visibility, partly due to misguided styling which attempts to make them look sportier than they actually are. That SUVs make up nearly 50% of new car sales, it’s no wonder we can find today’s car parks so uninspiring.
Of course, there are plenty of good-looking exceptions from the 21st century. It’s easy to see the Alfa Romeo 8C, Audi R8 becoming classics of the future. The BMW i8, Porsche Taycan and Polestar One represent the new aesthetic of the dawning electric era.
And the 911, after 55 years, remains beautiful and brilliant, largely because Porsche has somehow managed to make it technically futuristic whilst also protecting its heritage like a grade-2 listed building.
As technology moves on, our eyes are instinctively drawn to the past. Given we can’t imagine what a car will look like in even a decade or two, it’s likely that even the most nondescript modern car you can think of will look quaint one day.
The march of time waits for no man, or, it seems, machine.