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Car design today: Is baroque back?

Chris Haining August 7, 2018 All Things Hoon, Diss-ign 22 Comments

Hey, yo, slam your eyeballs against this. Few cars are as iconic as the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, especially in its convertible Biarritz form. There can be few people of any age who aren’t aware of its form, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. As a non-American, my curiosity was piqued by seeing it in animated form as the transport of choice for Rude Dog and the Dweebs in 1989, but its outlandish befinned silhouette had plagued my subconscious since I was far younger.

Today, the ’59 is celebrated for almost ironic reasons. It’s more of a symbol of the age than it is an object of design triumph. There are many stories of its rapid plunge from high fashion to loathed throwback, with folk sawing the fins from their Eldorados in an effort to distance themselves from a particularly faddish fad. Indeed, the fact that restoration candidates invariably end up pink is a strong hint that we’re looking at what has become a novelty item.

Thing is, though generally accepted as being among the most overwrought designs ever to be signed off, the ’59 achieved immortality through being fiercely individual. Visually, it represented the very most of everything, with more stuff for the eyes to process than virtually anything else on the road. And today, well, blow me down if we haven’t come full circle. And yet, will any of today’s wildest designs be celebrated at all 59 years from now?

The Eldorado Seville and Biarritz were the very embodiment of what Detroit was best at during the era, namely; marketing. We may moan and mutter about built-in obsolescence with every waking moment today, but the fast moving world of late ’50s car design was all about making people want something new today. From ’56 to ’60, the Eldorado, along with many of its contemporaries, was barely changed under the surface. The garnish, though, up to and including the body panels, were changed annually to ensure that the hungry, car-mad buying public had ample reason to upgrade.

And none of this garnish was cohesive. It was just stuff. Wanton detailing. Wildly excessive makeup, trowelled on top of a physical form that was imposing rather than beguiling. No brand in the late 1950s achieved much in terms of determining the direction of automotive design – they just took whatever stodgy recipes had been cooked up so far and made them tastier. And, with every subdivision of the American big three playing the same game, competition was helpfully fierce.

And in the great economic scheme of things, this kind of cosmetic fiddling was pretty affordable. If nothing mechanical needed to change, a ‘new model year’ automobile could be created on a relatively tight development budget. This was fantastic news for the the automakers, who could release something ‘new and exciting’ every year, and warmly welcomed by consumers who loved to be seen driving the freshest shape on the road. Everyone’s a winner.

With the ’59, though, GM jumped the shark. Where can you go after two-foot fins and afterburner tail-lights? It didn’t take long for the Eldorado to look a bit silly, and the ’60 toned the fins down dramatically, sacrificing the rocket-flame rear lights. But, hey, the turbofan era was drawing close anyway…

Almost 60 years later, it strikes me that it’s 1959 all over again. Today’s car designers have an easier job than ever before. Many physical obstacles that thwarted creative design have been long overcome, and today’s clever manufacturing techniques make almost anything possible. Any plastic bumper can be formed, any metal body panel can be pressed, and headlamps can be made to any shape you can imagine. It’s literally a design free-for-all — the only hurdle remaining is the will of the accountants, who are directly responsible for imposing a limit on what gets the green light for production.

And where is all this creative flexibility getting us? Frankly, not very far. Those brands whose corporate identity is especially precious appear to be deliberately stifling their creativity – it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to visualise exactly what the next generation of cars from Audi or Mercedes will look like, for example.

At the opposite end of the spectrum comes those brands with nothing to lose. All they want to do is create a hit product, and this bring us cars like the Toyota C-HR. A fine car, but one with so much conflicting surface detail as to border on visual white noise. Yes, there’s a load of design going on here, but it doesn’t look particularly considered, nor like it’s trying to achieve a particular objective other than to be different. Its like much of the heavily marketed dirge that fills the music charts today. If it’s got a killer hook and the right attitude, it’ll get a bunch of sales. And when the kids get bored, there’ll be a new one next week. The Toyota C-HR is just the most recent hit single to come from Toyota’s Marshmello-style production line.

And then we have Lexus, who appear to be playing a very strong game where it comes to quick ‘n dirty styling trickeryd. Their core product is litte more visually sophisticated or refined than the Toyota, but the sheer audacity of that ‘Spindle’ grille sends an incredibly confident message. The brand’s designers might not be creating the classics of the future, but they’re certainly among the front runners where it comes to capturing the public’s imagination. If they could only persuade people to buy their cars, rather than saying ‘that looks neat‘ and then signing up on a BMW.

Basically, there’s a whole load of styling going on, but it’s hard to see if any progress is being made. Equally, though, it’s hard to imagine where the next step into the design unknown might take us. With any luck, it’ll spell the end of grasping at straws for immediate gratification, and the rebirth of intelligent design.

And what better day than Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 80th birthday to discuss just exactly where the world is at in car design today?

(Eldorado images Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018.)