It looks like the folks at Vox.com have a new video up about the history of car design. And it’s wrong about, or oversimplifies, almost everything. Including the years of the vehicles in its opening graphic.
European cars, especially those penned by Italian designers, led the way to boxiness starting in the mid-1960s in an effort to modernize their holdovers from the postwar rationing era. Cars like the Volvo 140-Series, Fiat 124 sedan, and Lancia 2000 were major early examples of this extremely square trend. By 1971, you had flat Italian wedge designs like the Countach and Stratos concepts wowing the auto industry from Wolfsburg to Tokyo.
At the same time, Americans were having a love affair with the curve. The 1968-82 C3 Corvette reached peak curviness. Chrysler launched their curvy “fuselage” cars in 1969. The 1975 AMC Pacer was widely derided as too bubbly in an era of square VW Golf/Rabbits, Fiat 131s, and Volvo 140s. And countless other examples of Detroit Iron were proudly sporting “Coke-bottle” sheetmetal as the ‘70s began.
The real reason American cars switched to square shapes in the mid ‘70s was to follow European fashions as imported car sales grew in the US. An example would be Ford’s curvy Maverick (below), which was supposed to be replaced by the boxy Granada. The Granada even sprouted “ESS” trim, which stood for “European Sport Sedan,” and featured ads comparing it to the very European, and boxy, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and SLC.
After the Energy Crisis of 1973-74, American manufacturers also used square designs to provide maximum interior space so they could downsize their big, curvy cars into the smallest, lightest possible packages without sacrificing interior space. Anybody who’s admired Volvo’s old boxy Swedish designs can tell you that this concept pays dividends because you can fit more in a square than a circle with the same diameter.
American cars went boxy in the ‘70s as their first steps at becoming more efficient. By the ‘80s, almost every car - foreign or domestic - was boxy. So the better designers began to distinguish their new designs with curves again, and could afford to do so as gas prices worldwide began to ease. Aerodynamic research also improved, but that didn’t have nearly as much effect on improved efficiency as lightweighting and improved engine design and technology. It also isn’t true that streamlining a car body is cheaper than making an engine more efficient. Car bodies cost far more to design, engineer, and tool for than engines do. And that’s always been true.
Vehicle styling, much like clothing design, goes in cycles and trends. And there’s never been a clear “Euro = curvy, US = boxy” delineation. Or even “curvier = more efficient.” We see cars go from curvy to boxy, back to curvy and back to boxy again. Look no further than the C-body Chrysler New Yorker vs. the Chrysler LHS vs. the Chrysler 300.
What bothers me about the Vox article isn’t as much the history it gets wrong, but the presumption that European designers knew more and were more sensible in their vehicle designs all along, and that American designs were always dull, clumsy, and excessive. And Vox attempts to couch this European superiority vs. American excess in terms of curvy vs. boxy. It’s just not true, though. Not in terms of car styling, anyway.
What’s worse is they call the boxy car in their opening graphic a 1977 LeBaron. It’s actually a 1980-81 LeBaron. The 1977-79 had a curvier roofline! And Dodge didn’t even make the Neon for 1993. It came out in mid-1994 as a ‘95 model!