By Patrick F. Cannon
On many a misty morning while walking the dog, I have been struck suddenly with terror by the approach of what appears to be the open maw of a gigantic shark – only to be returned to reality by the realization that what appeared to be a basking shark was in reality the front end of an automobile.
Of course, one need not fear a basking shark, since their mouths are open not to swallow you whole, but to allow easy entry to the plankton and other little bits that constitute their diet. I’m not certain why auto makers feel they need to have similar gaping openings in the front of their cars, since the only reason cars have grills at all is to permit air to flow to the radiators that are a part of the cooling systems of most internal combustion engines. In the past, more discrete openings were considered quite sufficient.
I know my friends who own such cars will forgive me, but the current greatest adherents of the basking-shark front end craze are Lexus, Audi, Toyota, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Ford was once an offender, but has since toned down its front ends (although they may have actually started the whole trend). Other brands have sometimes flirted with the fishy look.
You may have noticed that most of this shark attack has come from foreign makers. What you may not know is that most of the cars they sell here are not only manufactured in this country, but also designed here. It seems car designers are like lemmings – they love to follow their fellow designers off the trend cliff, whether the design makes sense or not. Leaving the gaping maw profusion aside for the moment, have you noticed that one car now looks much like another? I have recently rented mid-size Toyotas, Nissans and Hyundais and you would be hard pressed to tell them apart. Indeed, the driving experience itself – comfy but dull – was nearly identical. It is no accident I think that most of the folks who design our cars are graduates of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Birds of a feather?
This was not always the case. When I was a kid, I prided myself on the ability to identify every make of American car (pretty much all one saw until the 1960s). Here, in no particular order, were the brands that were available in, say, 1952: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Packard, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, Willys, Kaiser, Frazer, Henry J, Checker, Rambler, International and Crosley. I may have missed one or two, but you get the idea. The only foreign cars one was likely to see were MGs, Jaguars, and Mercedes; and increasingly as the years went on, the VW Beetle. Some of the American brands were ugly, but at least they were distinctive! The Europeans, who then couldn’t afford the gas to run them, heaped abuse upon them in their usual superior way.
The Big Three each cultivated a corporate look, even though individual designs might miscarry (who can forget the hapless Edsel). Nowadays, only brands like BMW, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Bentley stand out, and then only from the front, as they try to retain some vestige of their traditional grill shape.
To me, there are two periods of unsurpassed car design – the 1930s in France and America; and the 1950s and 60s in Italy. It’s 50 years later, and no one has improved on Pinin Farina’s design for the Ferrari Daytona. Google it and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, car design might have to change radically when driverless cars become common. Perhaps they’ll run on some unseen force, levitate through the air or even swim with the fishes. But they better beware of those basking sharks!
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon