A thing of beauty may be a joy forever, but then there’s the Nissan Cube. Its shape conjures up a slumping loaf of banana bread that has been outfitted with doors and licence plates. And no, your eyes are not deceiving you – the Cube actually is asymmetric, like a mutant flatfish that evolved over millions of years in the deepest, weirdest reaches of the ocean until both eyes arrived on the same side of its head.
Taste may be subjective, but there’s no mistaking true beauty – or sheer, untrammeled ugliness. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in his ruling on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” (He wasn’t talking about the Cube, but he could have been.)
Considering that companies can spend as much as $6-billion to develop a new vehicle, there is an obvious question: Why aren’t all cars good looking? The answer involves taste, judgment and the not-always-sublime art of corporate decision-making.
“Everyone wants to design a beautiful car,” one Detroit designer told me. “But this is art, not science. And there are a lot of people involved.”
The history of vehicle design is a checkered one. For every stylistic home run (like the original Ford Mustang), there are countless designs that have gone off the rails: consider the 1980 Cadillac Seville; the Reliant Robin three-wheeler; the opera-windowed Chrysler LeBaron ; and Pontiac’s lamentable Aztek, a hunchbacked, slab-sided SUV that has gone down in history as an example of how not to design a car.
Bad design is usually not for lack of trying. By the time a car comes to market, hundreds of designers, engineers and executives have seen it and tried to make it great. Opinions are offered, changes are made, and one day, there is a finished car. On occasion, this process yields a classic such as Jaguar’s stunning new F-Type coupe, or the 1963 Corvette Stingray. But when it comes to committee-driven design, tragedy is only a few bad decisions away – a company may set out to make the Sistine Chapel, but more often than not, it ends up with a Taco Bell outlet.
By way of example, consider Chevrolet’s late and unlamented Lumina van. When the original concept was unveiled in the early 1990s, it was somewhat cool, with a wedge-shaped body and fat tires that gave it to the look of a road-going missile. But by the time it hit the showroom, the Lumina had morphed into one of the nastiest kluge jobs in the history of car-making. The accountants had ordered smaller wheels, and the once-striking shape was now an incoherent mess after a series of changes designed to cut costs and ease production. (The finished Lumina was often compared to an anteater or a Dustbuster vacuum cleaner, which did a serious disservice to anteaters and Dustbusters.)
Even the world’s best car designers can get it wrong, as though Leonardo da Vinci had suddenly produced a black velvet oil painting. Ferrari may be famous for creating timeless classics such as the 250 GTO, for example, but it has also authored some truly hideous rides – like the lumpen 2009 California, and the Mondiale, a Miami Vice-era travesty that resembles a pimped-out Pontiac Fiero.
Then there’s Porsche, which gifted the world with the iconic 911, but also made the gigantic Panamera, a four-seat car that looks like Kim Kardashian would if you gave her a V-8 engine and a swing-out tailgate. The Panamera sells far better than the 911, which explains Porsche’s corporate motivation – and proves that H.L. Mencken was right when he said that no one ever went broke underestimating public taste. (In fairness to the Panamera, it drives better than it looks.)
Many car companies go through ups and downs in the taste department. Take Jaguar, a company that was once known as the Chanel of the automotive world thanks to inspiring, trend-setting designs such as the XK-120 and the E-Type (a car that Enzo Ferrari himself declared the most beautiful ever built). Then came Jaguar’s dark age, when it was absorbed into the government conglomerate known as British Leyland, then sold to Ford. Gone were the days of the E-Type, replaced by a new lineup of sedans that looked like Ford Tauruses tarted up with wood trim and leaping cat-hood ornaments. (Fortunately, Jaguar is now making beautiful cars again after being bought by Tata, an Indian conglomerate.)
One of the trickiest styling challenges is resurrecting a legendary car. Take the new Chevrolet Camaro, which is patterned on a 1960s model that has gone down in history as a classic. The new car, however, looks like a Hasbro toy, with exaggerated lines and cartoonish details. (Not surprisingly, the new Camaro was featured in a Transformers movie.)
Many of the most enduring car designs succeed because they put function ahead of form – humble vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler, VW Beetle and Citroën 2CV have become lasting style icons because they eschew “prettiness” for utility.
On the other end of the scale are cost-is-no-object machines where designers are given virtually unlimited reign to chase their aesthetic vision. This is the realm of cars like the $2.7-million Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, a machine that has more than 1,000 horsepower and a platinum interior trim. It is also one of the ugliest cars ever made – a swollen, scoop-bedecked monster that resembles a lacquered cockroach, fitted with a pretentious grill meant to evoke a 1920s Bugatti Type 35. (Unlike the Veyron, the Type 35 was a spare, minimalist machine that still looks good almost 90 years later.)
If someone digs up a Veyron a century from now, I doubt it will be seen as a timeless classic. As poet Dorothy Parker once said: “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
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