Monday, February 17, 2014

Bland Cars

Automobile styling fashion swings to and fro across several dimensions.  One such dimension is simplicity versus complexity.  I sometimes refer to the complex extreme of styling as "Baroque," a condition that seems to be prevailing at present.  The other end of that continuum might be called blandness, if one is feeling prejudicial.

Modernist ideology in the fields of architecture and design has contended that simplicity is better than complexity.  Form should follow function and ornamentation is to be avoided.  This "purist" point of view was held by industrial designers in the 1930s and seems to have infected some (but not all) American automobile stylists in the late 1940s and again around the year 2000.  A variation on this was the notion that the shape of a car should be its most interesting visual feature, so ornamentation is best minimized, if not eliminated.  My impression is that some General Motors stylists of the 1990s held that sculpturing sans-ornamentation was the way to go.

Today's post presents some examples of cars with simple body shapes and not much ornamentation.  This is not to say that such an approach to styling is bad; my point is that it is not necessarily a means to aesthetic success.


An example of General Motors' styling policy of promoting sculpting and minimizing ornamentation is the third-series Chevrolet Cavalier introduced for the 1995 model year.  The publicity photos shown above used dark-colored cars and lighting to emphasize the body sculpting.  But light colors and scattered lighting tended to make the cars look bland and anonymous.  Nothing really wrong with the styling, but nothing to grab and hold one's attention either

Shown here is the 2001 Cadillac DeVille DTS sedan, another example of GM's thinking in those days.  Here sculpting is minimized along with ornamentation to yield a "pure," but truly bland design.

The 1948 Kaiser design is a prime example of late-1940s simplicity.  Ornamentation was so minimal that Kaisers and sister-brand Frazers even lacked hood ornaments, an item potential buyers expected because all other new American cars had them.  Kaiser later had to add a bolder, chrome-laden grille and a hood ornament in an effort to stay competitive, but the basic design was awkward and sales began to dwindle.

The 1949 Ford was a styling success.  It was better proportioned and shaped than the Kaiser, though simple as well.  Another Ford advantage was that ornamentation was not minimized.  For instance, the chromed strip along the sides helped to break up a form that was otherwise featureless aside from strakes related to the tail lights.  The key feature was the bold, chrome-plated grille with the distinctive round "spinner" and the echoing cut-out on the face of the hood.  Plus, there was a hood ornament.  If the Ford lacked the ornament, strake, side strip and spinner (imagine the grille having only the horizontal grille bar continuing uninterrupted by the spinner), the car would seem pretty bland.

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