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In the late 1800s, the first automobile was invented for its function: to improve human transportation. In the decades following, style and substance have been competing factors in the longevity of the automotive industry. Today, cars are part of our larger identity, as a group and as individuals.


Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Jets vs Sharks.”

In the late 1800s, the first automobile was invented for function to improve human transportation. For the following decades, style and substance have been competing factors in the success of the car, challenging aesthetics to keep up with ever-changing technologies. Today, cars are part of our larger identity as a whole, and as individuals.

Paul Snyder: When you’re pulling up into a driveway and pick somebody up for an evening out, or to drop off at the valet, to go into the restaurant, before you open the door, you’re signaling something about yourself.

That’s all ahead on Articulate.

If you’re like most Americans, you’ll probably spend more of your money on cars in your lifetime than anything else, other than housing or maybe food. Yet cars are not an actual human necessity like shelter or nutrition, and they don’t just exist to get us from A to B. Yes, they are extraordinary feats of physics, engineering, and technology, but more than mere personal transportation, they have become among the most personal and public statements of who we think we are. Or maybe even who we hope to become.

Doug DeMuro: I don’t care about clothes or watches or anything like that. So that kind of stuff, I don’t have nice things, but cars, yeah let’s have some fun.

Doug DeMuro is an automobile journalist whose review videos on YouTube have been viewed more than one billion times. And they’ve gotten him behind the wheels of everything from million-dollar supercars, to practical minivans, and everything in between.

DeMuro: This is a 1987 Aston Martin Lagonda. This is a 2018 Polaris Slingshot. This is a 2020 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4.

Paul Snyder: Cars have transcended their function and they’ve become something much more.

Paul Snyder is a former designer at Honda and Ford and currently chairs the Transportation Design program at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. He believes one of the most important functions of a car is to act as our own personal avatar.

Snyder: So when you’re pulling up into a driveway of let’s say to pick somebody up for an evening out, or to drop off at the valet to go into the restaurant before you open the door you’re signaling something about yourself. For sure, and I think everybody kinda can understand that once it’s put in those terms, but I don’t think that’s what car designers are concerned with when they put the pen to paper.

One of the world’s premier collections of racing sports cars was assembled over more than six decades by retired neurosurgeon Fred Simeone and his father, Anthony. He has a deep understanding that a truly remarkable car must combine form and function, acceleration, and anesthetic.

Fred Simeone: The actual beauty was in many ways the reason that you could sell the car, somebody liked to be seen driving the car as well as winning driving the car.

The designer responsible for some of the most iconic car designs of the last half-century is Henrik Fisker. These include the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the best-selling Aston Martin of all time, and the BMW Z8, one of the most collectible cars of the past 20 years. And since 2005, Fisker has produced cars under his own name.

Henrik Fisker: By the end of the day design is emotional, it’s something that you gotta have some talent for it. There’s no defined formula to how to make a great design, but timelessness for me is really how well does the design stand the test of time, and do people still appreciate it after 10, 20, 30 years? I think that’s what good design is about.

At the dawn of the automobile era, appearances didn’t matter much. Early tinkerers were more concerned with function than form—the machine just needed to move. The first cars didn’t even have a shell or a body, just an engine, wheels, and a frame. Even Henry Ford, the most famous car creator in history, prioritized motion over style as he built his empire in the early 20th century. He’s famously quoted saying about his Model T cars, “You can have any color, as long as it’s black.”

One color made it easier to produce more cars and black paint dried quicker.

Assembly lines allowed carmakers to switch out specific parts of a vehicle without changing the whole design. But as more and more Americans bought cars, how your car looked, became more and more important. By the middle of the 20th century, cars had begun shaping cultures, as much as cultures have been shaping cars. Amid post-World war II industrialization, cars designed for the masses took off around the globe. But the designs themselves didn’t travel much. Rather, they stayed mostly within their own country of origin and became a source of national identity.

DeMuro: I’ve always found it a very interesting thing that each European country had its own people’s car. The Volkswagen Beetle, the 2CV was in France, the Fiat 500 and of course, Britain had the mini. And that was interesting to me but that’s car production really started becoming a thing. Everybody started to get cars at that point.

AJC: Right, but even the people’s cars, I mean, if you look at them now they’re iconic.

DeMuro: Totally.

AJC: But I look at them now and I go, “Somebody thought about how that looks, somebody didn’t just throw that together.” You may not like it, but you almost feel like there was a human hand involved in the creation of it.

DeMuro: Although, one wonders if maybe we think that only with the perspective of today. Where we look back and see, “Wow, those things were kind of charming.” ‘Cause at the time, everybody had those cars and they all uniformly complained about how slow they were and how unreliable they were. But now we look back and say those cars mobilized those countries, those cars changed the lives of the people who lived there both from a production standpoint because they were able… They helped get their economies going again. And from you could go somewhere point of view, you know.

AJC: To me, that sort of the mecca of the design is Italy, right? They make Ferraris, they make Maserati, they have incredible music, they have an incredible fine art history, the food, the geography, everything, right? To me, they’re the people that know how to live. Is that what it is that makes their designs so attractive to us all? Because it’s not just like, “I wanna be Italian,” it’s like, there’s something visceral in Italian design that seems to speak to us on a very sort of almost lizard-brain level.

DeMuro: Yeah. I completely agree. It is unusual when another country’s automaker designs a car as beautiful as an Italian car, but it is unusual when an Italian car is designed poorly.

Simeone: The goal seemed to be, whether it’s shoes, furniture, painting, statuary, automobiles even some people don’t know the highest rated piano in the world is not a Bösendorfer or a Steinway, but it’s a Fazioli. So they only make a few of them but they have to be the best. And the idea is to produce a pinnacle object which induces both joy in the design and the way it looks and the finish, as well as performance. There’s no perfunctory knock it off the table, the Italian mind is to make the best and to please the customer. You wanna step back when you’re done and look at it, whether it’s a sofa, pair of shoes that you made, or a Ferrari, you wanna step back when it’s done and be proud of it.

DeMuro: And I think that the Italians, to some extent almost feel they have a responsibility. The Germans were off creating cars in the German way, they were built properly. But the Italians were like, “We don’t need to think about that crap, we’re just gonna build it the most beautifully.” And that tradition is generally continued to this day.

The decades after World War II brought a so-called “Jet Age” for automobiles. All smooth shells and flowing lines. As highways proliferated, cars became bigger and lower-slung as they no longer had to provide as much stability, as on the bumpier roads of old. They also became smoother, to go faster. This new found speed opened up more possibilities for the car. It wasn’t just a tool for transportation, it could be a toy, for sport. After a while, the desire for faster race cars put new technologies in the hands of regular motorists.

Snyder: Most of the technologies frequently start on the racetrack. Getting more power out of smaller engines that starts on the racetrack.

AJC: Turbos and superchargers.

Snyder: Exactly, yeah. And just handling characteristics and handling characteristics do lead to safety to some extent. Non-slip driving, you know that also started in Formula 1.

The first Formula 1 race was held in 1950. But people have been racing cars since the century before. Car racing began in Europe, originating as glorified test runs, but quickly turning into a spectacle. The first official car race went from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895, with competitors reaching heady speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. The first US race was from Chicago to Evanston and back, later that year.

Today racing speeds have increased tenfold reaching over 200 miles per hour. Most cars on any road can surpass the speed limit, but very few of us are using the machinery at full power. The capabilities of our cars are expansive and arguably meant for nothing more than fun.

AJC: Are we kidding ourselves that we care more about performance than comfort?

Snyder: I think you’re gonna have a really good time with a four cylinder and a manual transmission. I mean, the speed limits are 70. Everybody drives 80, but even then, you could blow through that speed limit easily with any new car. So beyond that, I think there is the hedonistic quality. What do I wanna be seen in? For sure. I mean, it’s a fashion statement, what do you…some people decide what they’re going to wear and take great care of that. Other people just put on the same thing every day, because it’s more of a function than it is a statement.

The hunger to always own the latest best car began in the US in the 1950s. Thanks to some canny marketing, middle-class families constantly strived to keep up with the Joneses or to become the Joneses, by being the first to drive the latest, greatest model through the neighborhood.

AJC: Why have we got this crazy messed up emotional relationship with a collection of metal and rubber and oil?

DeMuro: Don’t you think that that’s kind of true of any of our possessions, right? Like I think that your house or your… I mean people have this about their barbecue grill in their backyard. They got the better one than their neighbor, you know anything and a car, of course, is a big purchase and so, you’re in it all the time, you’re commuting in it, you’re sitting in it, people see it in front of your house in your driveway, whatever. And so it’s a big way to show people, yeah, who you think you are, that’s an excellent way to sum it up. It’s a representation of who you think you are, maybe not necessarily what you actually are.

And carmakers became ever more responsive to this notion. Zoning in on how people saw their cars as statements of self by creating evermore unique, evermore iconic vehicles the kind of designs we still yearn for today.

DeMuro: You know, they change the model every year. And so you would know if your neighbor didn’t have the newest phone, and you would go out and get the newest phone. And that was cool.

Snyder: That was the next one was the one you wanted to have. And we always wanted to aspire to the next brand out. So you might start with Chevy and then go to Buick or Pontiac, and then eventually end up with Cadillac.

Cars in mid-century America were all about optimism and comfort. They were named after the lifestyles they were created to evoke. Like the Chevrolet Malibu, meant to be driven down the Pacific coast highway. The Cadillac quickly became a signifier of rock and roll when Elvis Presley drove his iconic pink Caddy and sang about it in his 1959 hit, “Baby Let’s Play House.”

Fisker: The sixties are still in my view, some of the highlights of auto design and probably I kinda put the reason for that design really matured in the sixties and technology. And it was also just before legislators really came into play, so there was a sense of freedom. Once we got fed and we had our bread and potatoes and meat, now we’d like to go and see an amazing chef create a beautiful meal, beautifully set out, we know his heart is in it. And I think design is the same, you know once your basic needs are done with transportation, the next step is I would actually like to be chauffeured around a beautiful car, I would like to drive a beautiful car would like to own a beautiful car.

Snyder: There are a lot of designers just consumed with nostalgia to the point where all they can do is complain. “We can’t do these beautiful cars anymore. There’s too much regulation. There’s all these different concerns of money,” but you know, it’s a different set of rules now and a different set of rules offers a different set of opportunities and possibilities.

Even though America was known for cars with big engines and even bigger bodies, the superficial comfort lacked proper safety measures. But by the 1970s, regulations began to limit everything from the size of taillights to the angles of metal edges. Shifting manufacturers’ focus back to function. Design became an evermore delicate balancing act between aesthetics and engineering, marketing and practicality, profit, and safety.

Fisker: Every time we introduce something new, not only is it more difficult, but it takes a long time for both designers and engineers to figure out how to work with that. And let’s say a very clear example was the bumpers that were introduced in 1974. And you saw, on all the cars here in America, for instance how suddenly these giant bumpers were stuck on these beautiful cars that was quite ugly. And it took probably five, six years until the designers and engineers figured out, “How can we hide the bumper without you seeing it?”

DeMuro: The seventies came and cars quickly needed to change. And the automakers had never really been through a change. They had pretty much only been through expansion. And so they didn’t really know how to change as quickly as they needed to. And they weren’t capable. And the Japanese cars came in relatively quickly in the late seventies and were easily able to make a big mark, and the Americans just had a very, very, very difficult time playing catch up. I think safety features just get developed and introduced as quickly as possible. There’s such a race in the car world now to get safety features together as soon as possible. And so that is more like, “As soon as we can get it let’s put it out on the market and sell ’em and we’ll be the first to have that.”

DeMuro: Some of these safety features are crazy. I always tell people the incremental increase in safety technology in the last 10 years is like the 40 years before.

After the oil embargo of 1973, fuel efficiency standards around the world began demanding evermore miles per gallon. But by 1975, the U.S. Congress had created a loophole in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE standards, allowing automakers to classify certain larger vehicles as “light trucks,” thus was born the SUV. Covered pickups for suburbanites, big and brawny. They screamed pioneer, free spirit, adventurer.

DeMuro: I think people wanna feel like they’re gonna go off-road. And the automakers really play it up. You see a lot of RAV4 commercials where people are driving through the desert and stuff like that. Half my neighbor has a RAV4. Nobody’s driving through the desert.

AJC: And the people who drive trucks, they’re not plumbers or electricians like nothing’s going in the car, maybe the groceries from whole foods are going in the bed of that pickup truck. But it says, you know, “rugged individual.”

Snyder: I heard once that people dress in three basic ways. And I think that it could be applied to car design as well or cars in general, it’s costumes, uniforms, and disguises. So I think most people choose the uniform which is just quality, safety, reliability, but the disguise’s in the costumes or where the real interesting stuff lives.

AJC: So go on, give me an example of a costume.

Snyder: Wall Street exec wanting to be a rancher for a day. I mean, that’s kind of like a costume or a disguise depending on his state of mind. It’s time, I suppose

But there’s one car that breaks all the rules.

DeMuro: You cannot assume anything about a Tesla owner. I know people on extremes of the political spectrum and one of the few things they can agree on, is Tesla. Everybody who’s into stuff likes the technology, everybody’s into tech likes how new it is. The design is debatable, but you know, this is what you have and that’s what you get. The built-in America thing, factors in I think for a lot of people who want the car, the innovation, the self-driving, the superchargers and they’ve created a whole culture around Tesla.

Currently, electric cars are only a sliver of auto history. Yet there’s no telling how the rapid pace of technology will shape the design of cars, moving forward. Even though electric cars don’t need a grille to provide airflow and cooling for a hot engine, many manufacturers have still so far are kept them on electric models. A mechanical necessity has become an aesthetic ornament. A reminder of the long road car design has traveled.

Fisker: We’re gonna get a sense of freedom again because we have understood how to deal with legislation. We have understood how to deal the most of the normal functional parts in the vehicle. And finally, I think going into electrification, will open up a whole new avenue for design as we’re not anymore restricted of a large gasoline engine, the large gas tank has to be placed in a certain place.

As car design becomes driven by ever more advanced technology, to the point that, before long they won’t need us to drive them at all, something human remains at their core. Perhaps that’s why Paul Snyder still advocates for the life-sized clay model.

Snyder: Losing that sculptor’s hand, that sensitivity. We haven’t figured out a way to digitize that, right? That human touch, the connection to looking at an object in three-dimensional space, not virtual three-dimensional, but real walking around it and feeling it and touching it, closing your eyes and really understanding what that surface is doing. And the customer understands that. Whether or not they’re aware of understanding it but that care is conveyed through the care in the creation.

Today, the “Jet Age” of cars has given away to the “Shark Age.” All angular designs and angry appearance. This is in part because designers are guided not only by intuition but also by data. They’ve turned to focus groups to test potential car designs, even going as far as measuring brain waves in response to different images. Now they’re peeking under our hoods into our subconscious.

Cars are symbols of power, of freedom, of possibility. We use them to tell the world who we are and even who we hope to become, even as they inflict labels upon us. It’s a dynamic interaction ever unpredictable, always in motion.