Were old cars designed to look old, or what? There’s nothing so dated as an old car, is there? It’s clear when a car was designed and built just a few years back. The lines, the materials, the interior. Wheels. Lights. It just says “old”.
But why? My other appliances look fine for years. My fridge is good. My washer. My bike — there are newer models, but the current ones don’t make their design year a feature. But cars, somehow, do.
Granted, some of it has to do with manufacturing techniques and technologies. In the 80’s they came up with a way to get rid of sharp, angular lines so every car produced for a few years looked like a jelly mold. Right now, they’ve figured out how to produce crazy angles in all sorts of materials, so we have ludicrously exaggerated points and zigzags that pretty soon are going to scream “early 21st century”.
I think the car manufacturers all get together, like the computer chip manufacturers and the home designers and the people that make wireless home security cameras, in some retreat somewhere — perhaps in the Austrian mountains where Hitler used to hang out — to set the agenda for obsolescence.
Because functionally, cars last much, much longer than they do aesthetically. That much is unavoidable; you can’t sell unreliable cars these days for long. So the key to keep selling replacement ones is to design into them aesthetics that are desirable today, and embarrassing tomorrow.
This works because while most people can’t afford supercar performance, they can afford mass produced aesthetics. The manufacturers know this, so they stress the look over the performance (never hurts to throw in a few cheap gadgets, of course), and build cars with a look that people will tire of, be embarrassed by even, before long.
This is not easy. People have to be taught to like the distinctive, generation-specific design. Partly, this is achieved simply by exposure. Suddenly, the new design is everywhere. All the manufacturers, sitting round a table somewhere in the Swiss alps, agreed on a new design ‘language’, so everywhere you look you see it, on TV, on the road, on billboards, on your neighbor’s drive — everywhere.
The initial consumer shock soon gives way to acceptance, then expectation, and finally comparison with previous years’ cars. Cars that don’t speak the new language age almost overnight. That headlight shape, the built-in spoiler, the black wheels, the front grille — it no longer looks right. And current models drop in value not because their performance is suddenly comparatively poor, but because they’re previous generation.
Today, aggression is in. Even the most otherwise unimpressive cars look like they’re sneering at you as they seek to devour air, road, and anyone who gets in the way. They’re pointy and sharp. Their lines are extreme. They are nasty looking pieces of work, and if you ask of any of those design choices “why”, they will snarl “because we can.”
Perhaps the car makers’ cabal is leveraging a more aggressive political environment these days. Keying into some sort of shift in the overall expectations of their major markets. Maybe that’s why they feel they can characterize this moment with slashed tail lights, intimidating scoops, and sly, cold-blue front-end squints.
If you want to avoid the almost masochistic desire for a current Stephen King inspired design, maybe the only option is to stick to supercars. Then you get a truly individual, evolutionary design but more importantly, you can give the mainstream car makers the finger by totally smoking whatever they put on the road, regardless of what it looks like.