December 20, 2022
Bristling with tail fins, chrome, two-tone paint, and white sidewall tires, the American cars of the 1950s were works of art in motion. Growing up in that era, I watched the pageant roll by our living room window with such rapture that I learned to identify most any car by nothing more than its hubcaps or tail lights. I could say “1955 Chevy” almost before I said “Mommy.” What was it about those attention-grabbing, colorful fins that, like so many exotic fish in an aquarium, stamped itself on my consciousness?
As my powers of analysis grew hand-in-hand with my beanpole teen body, I came to realize something fundamental: not only were the fins and chrome flourishes a way for Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors to distinguish their products from one another, but each company was in a race to mimic airplanes, or even rocket ships. Was it any wonder that Oldsmobile named one of its cars the “Rocket 88?” The car-makers had seized on the same thing TV advertisers were doing: tail fins communicated a powerful subliminal message about how fast their cars were. There were tall, chunky ones reminiscent of a jet’s upright tail (the 1959 Plymouth’s fins were the tallest and chunkiest of all); there were elongated, gently sloping ones like a fighter-jet’s graceful wings viewed in profile (take a look at the 1957 DeSoto); and there were ones resembling a bat’s wings (the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful 1959 Chevy.) As the decade progressed into the 1960s, the fins lay down to sleep and the cars got lower and wider, as if speed itself had flattened them.
It was not the first time that Detroit had used styling to evoke speed, and it would not be the last. The rounded, bulky cars of the 1940s exhibited a heavy forward-massing. Like the Roadrunner in the cartoon, they expressed speed by appearing to lean forward across the finish line, so quickly had they stopped at a red light. This created the impression that, like at a drag race, the car was itching to lunge forward the moment the shot rang out. Undoubtedly, that is why the 1949 Mercury two-door coupe was so popular for hot-rod conversions.
Later, the influential Italian car designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, expressed speed the opposite way. His famous “wedge” profile, exemplified by the 1972 Maserati Boomerang coupe and many other designs, featured a sharply tapered front end sloping down from a higher greenhouse. Like a baseball player sliding feet-first into the base, the impression Giugiaro created was not that the car had crossed the finish line, but that it had braked so quickly that it skidded to a stop, leaning backwards.
Variations on Giugiaro’s wedge—low hood with higher massing on the trunk–continued to dominate car styling from all brands until just a few years ago. Then Mercedes and BMW abruptly abandoned it, building sedans with lower trunks, and Hyundai followed suit with the newest Sonata. An entirely new paradigm seems to have occurred in automobile styling, abandoning the goal of evoking speed in favor of expressing modernity in its purest essence. The only tool the stylists have at their disposal besides massing is how they decide to stamp the sheet metal. You can either curve it or you can crease it. The cars of the 1980s were all severely creased, with nary a curving fender to be found. Then a backlash occurred in the 90s: all the creases were smoothed out into rounded forms. One of the roundest of the rounded cars was the 1993 Infiniti J30, which basically looks like three clay blobs. A tall blob, housing the driver and passengers, rises above two lower blobs for the engine and trunk. Stylists famously work from clay models, and, in this case, they decided to abandon anything like a palette knife to shape the clay.
But now, creases are suddenly back in fashion, and I call it steel origami. The most extreme examples appear to be constructions folded out of steel rather than paper. Not surprisingly, the trend emerged in the mother country of origami, Japan. I speak of the most recent Toyota Prius, which, oddly enough, also appears to sport modest fins, bringing auto styling full-circle back to the Fifties. With all due respect to the Prius, though, the steel origami style has reached its apogee with two Hyundai models – the Elantra and the Ioniq 5, neither of which have fins. By now it’s obvious to everybody that electric cars or “EVs,” as they called, are supposed to look weird. The Ioniq 5 accomplishes that goal by having so many folds that it looks like you could press the car down into a cardboard box while charging it overnight. Like a hat getting blocked, you’d simply remove the lid the next morning, and “voila”: you watch as the car stretches its creases back into their proper, upright form.
Where will car styling go next? Will steel origami predominate or will there be a return to curvaceous bodies? It’s anybody’s guess, but SUVs have thrown a wrench into the whole thing. With an SUV, you can either conjure sleek modernity (the Porsche Macan or the Land Rover Evoque) or Jeep-like, tough sturdiness (the Toyota 4runner), but in a vehicle so tall and bulky, it’s hard to express speed.