With concept car design from the world’s leading automakers looking sleeker with each passing year, it’s easy to get caught up in all the excitement. But to fully appreciate the elegant lines and trim chassis that populate 21st century roadways, it’s important to realize just how far we’ve come since the first Model T’s rolled off the lot.
There’s a rich design history between the strictly utilitarian designs of the early 20th century and the double-take inducing designs of modern day, and like many forms of progress it has come in fits and starts. We’re taking a decade-by-decade look back at the history of automobile styling and design to pick out the details that defined each era.
Though the first combustion engine automobiles started tooling around Europe as early as 1807, it wasn’t until Henry Ford applied the concept of assembly line production to the process that an affordable and dependable vehicle became widely available. Consequently, the Model T sold 15 million units between its debut in 1908 and its discontinuation in 1927 and set the template for car design going forward. The first iterations of the Model T carried over the “runabout” body style from earlier automobiles, bereft of doors, windshield, or windows and more reminiscent of horse-drawn buggies than modern automobiles to come.
Over the first quarter of the 1910’s and into the 20’s, the snubbed chassis and box-like wheelbase of the Model T and its competitors would lengthen considerably and closed-body designs would gain precedence over the open-air carriage style. The rapid expansion of infrastructure (paved roads!) in the US meant that the rugged, tractor-like build of turn-of-the-century vehicles could be swapped for longer, lower, and more elegant designs that became symbolic of the Roaring 20’s. The Gatsby-like opulence of this decade featured long eight- and even 16-cylinder engines that required long-nosed bodies accented by curvaceous runner boards. Pearlescent paint jobs and enamel details also gained popularity as carmakers strove to reflect the art-deco inspirations of the day.
A huge engineering innovation known as the monocoque, or single hull chassis made cars lighter, easier to produce, and more structurally sound. It impacted aesthetics as well, as previously distinct features like fenders, headlights and runnerboards all started to be integrated into the body and two tone exterior color schemes fell out of favor. By the late 30’s cars like the Cadillac Sixty Special were incredibly popular as family vehicles that offered a sleek look via a teardrop-inspired design that would dominate for decades to come.
Another family vehicle, the Chevrolet Suburban, was introduced as a forerunner to the modern SUV (and remains the oldest nameplate still in production). Henry Ford quipped that a customer could have the Model T in any color they wished so long as it was black. However, as cars became status symbols for the middle as well as upper-classes, styling and aesthetics became ever more important and eventually an integral part of the car design process.
Though WWII was a major interruption to commercial car production, it also resulted in one of the most important car design innovations: Ponton styling. From the French for “pontoon,” this was the culmination of the decade-long trend to blend things like runnerboards, headlights and fenders into a single uninterrupted form. First refined for popular consumption in the USSR with the 1946 Gaz-M20 Pobeda, the result dominated the US and Europe as the design lynchpin of the 40’s and 50’s into the 1960’s. Aerodynamically sound and visually cohesive, the bulging hoods and bulbous headlights that flowed continuously with the car’s surface also created a svelte and muscular effect that jived well with the cultural attitudes of the James Bond era.
While the years following WWII saw many American manufacturers bulking up, European manufacturers were scaling down to more compact and economical forms. In fact, some of the most enduring vehicles of the era include the Cooper Mini, Volkswagen Beetle, and Citroen DS, all of which deviated from the excessively finned, chrome widebody designs that hallmarked US auto production. Cars like the Chevy Corvette and Cadillac Eldorado typified the brawny and swaggering aesthetic of American cars of the decade, though few managed to outlive their more economical European counterparts like the Fiat 500. Carmakers also started to experiment with fresh colors; ice cream parlour pastels and multi-colored exteriors defined the decade.
The 1960’s saw a shift from the boat-like designs that captured the imaginations of the “Big Three” automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler), as European, and particularly Japanese, imports began to flood into the United States. The smaller, less cumbersome design ethic of cars from companies like Toyota, Nissan and a range of European companies filled a sizeable gap in the US market. At the same time, a new generation of US brawn was being born. Pony cars, like the iconic Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro, featured extended hoods and low-profile cabins in a compact and affordable package. Metallic paints showed up for the first time, with metal-flecked blue, turquoise, and green adding some sheen to the compact model. This basic build would be expounded on by high-horsepower muscle cars that were fast, loud, and distinctly American.
Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, a point proven to the auto industry when the oil embargo of the early 70’s forced affordability to the forefront of considerations. The Muscle Car era had its last gasps with the likes of the Pontiac Firebird, as American companies began to create their own compact and subcompact designs to meet the trend and counter the influence of foreign imports, hard lines and sharp edges became the stylistic norm. While petite makes like the Ford Pinto or infamous AMC Gremlin gained popularity as economy cars, larger body vehicles courted customers with options like shag interior and vinyl roofs that were [for some reason] massively popular. It was a big decade for color experimentation: Models popped up in arrays of bright colors — yellows, oranges, blues, greens, and reserved-for-race-cars red — after Porsche issued their 911 in 39 choice hues, but earthy browns and greens also remained popular.
With a few notable standouts, like the time-machine-worthy DMC DeLorean, the 80’s saw a trend towards generic, boxy and generally uninspired car design as consumers pushed the market towards new concerns with safety and fuel efficiency. (In fact, some of the most fuel efficient, but slowest, cars of all time are from this decade). Some might call this the year that color died, as vibrant hues were ditched in favor of metallic paints as the coat of choice. In lieu of sleek exteriors, interior design and ergonomics began to be taken more seriously.
Though not all 90’s cars have aged well, there was a definite reaction to the humdrum concepts of the previous decade; fluid curves and contours had a renaissance, especially with higher-end sports cars like the Porsche 911 or even the more modest Mazda Miata. The wedge-shaped sports cars and breadbox sedans of the 80’s were being phased out in favor of the elegant lines of the 30’s and 60’s, indicative of the cyclical tastes of the automotive community.
The aughts saw an explosion of car design in all shapes, forms, and styles, making it difficult to tack down a common thread in their look. The variety in form has not translated to a variety in hues: white, silver, black, and gray are the most popular exterior colors of the day. However it’s undeniable that the preeminence the SUV was cemented over the course of the last decade, in many ways replacing the elegant sedans and roadsters of decades gone by. Third generation Range Rovers carried the torch of the 70’s and 80’s with hard lines and a well-defined chassis while the ubiquitous Lexus RX embodied the tear-drop styling that has proven durable since the 1930’s.
It’s not just car design that has evolved — the way cars are advertised has changed drastically as well. Learn how Visual Effects studio The Mill makes commercials for every big car brand using The Blackbird, a custom-built car for CG replacements.