Monday, November 21, 2016

Functional Design: 1929 Chevrolet

When I was a lad reading up on pioneering industrial designers, modernist architecture and the like, along with taking the first-year architectural course at the University of Washington (I majored in ID for a while), the big deal was Function -- to which Form should follow.

A lovely ideal, that.  But utterly pure Platonic function-shaped forms are hard to come by.  Setting aside the exquisite chicken egg, I really can't think of a single example of architecture or industrial design that is universally acclaimed to be perfect.

In part, that's because objects used by people usually have more than one function to fulfill.  For instance, a knife has to have a blade that will cut.  But different kinds of things are best cut by different kinds of blades.  And knives must have handles, and those might vary in shape and material.  So there is no real-world Platonic knife.

Automobiles, as I've pointed out more than once, have the function of being sold, something that at times can be at odds with design purity.  Setting aside the current needs for aerodynamic efficiency and compliance with government safety regulations that affect appearance, one might consider functionality in terms of the visual expression of a car's major visible engineering components and how well the forms express these.

As it happened, such conditions and expressions began to disappear when cars designed by styling staffs began to dominate the American market in the early 1930s.

Let's take a look at a typical American car design at the point when they were about to be succeeded by professionally-styled models.  In this case, the 1929 Chevrolet AC.


Harley Earl, General Motors' first styling supremo, made his mark with the 1927 LaSalle.  The new 1929 Buick design came from his new studios, though details were supposedly altered while the car was productionized.  GM's high-volume brand then and now was Chevrolet.  As the "Sheet Metal" list above indicates, 1929 Chevrolet bodies were minor modifications of 1928s that would have been designed before that year, so Earl had little or nothing to do with 1929 Chevrolet styling.

This, and the following photos were taken by me in September at the Saguenay, Québec cruise port.  This 1929 Chevrolet was on display.  The card behind the windshield describes the model (click to enlarge photos).

Everything is pretty clear.  Passengers are carried inside a box with doors and windows.  At the front is a radiator requiring a nice blast of air while the car rolls along.  Behind it lies the motor that is protected by box that folds up for access.  Headlights are prominently placed so that their beams can illuminate darkened roads.  At the very front is a bumper to protect the car's front from impacts.  Fenders are present to protect the body from splash.  Between front and rear fenders are running boards, steps allowing easier access to the passenger compartment.  Many functions, each clearly expressed.

Side view.  That small lip above the windshield is an external sun visor -- inferior to internal visors, but common in the late 1920s.

Rear three-quarter view.  One hint of things to come is the rounding of the aft part of the top.  For instance, 1927 Chevrolet tops were angled.

The two lower tail lights are not stock, being added to make this car street-legal nowadays.

View of some front end details.  Very spare, very functional.  Attractive, in a way, though I can't call it beautiful.

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