Sex on Wheels: A History of the Automotive Design Industry 27 November 2011
by Jay North
The year is 1963; in the distance of the tranquil agrarian region of West Michigan a great mechanical roar tears through the air. Rapidly coming into view is the visage of a wild-‐eyed American youth at the helm of a brand new Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray. Its lighter frame, accompanied by the tried and true V8 engine, gives the machine what it takes to scream down the country road at dangerously unruly speeds. The vibrant red
paint job, the seductive new body type, and the exuberantly confident young man behind the wheel are but a blur to those standing by. For the majority of its history this type of imagery has been what has sold automobiles. This was the world of American automotive design; sex on wheels.
Undoubtedly, there was a universal appreciation for an effective and aesthetically designed vehicle. People wanted their cars to be expressions of individuality, as well as a sound and reliable means of transportation. Automotive design was the field that developed and strived to meet this public desire. The world of automotive styling was and still is a truly cut-‐ throat business. From its very beginning, the industry has been driven by style; it was to be how the car looked that sold the car.
An examination of the history of and factors at play in automotive styling is best obtained by speaking with those that were at its forefront. David R. North is one such character. David North grew up in Billings, Montana, and graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He was the Chief Designer for General Motors (GM) from June 1959 until September 1991, leaving his mark on the industry, which he grew to know intimately inside and out.
Interviewing North brought on a history lesson in itself. He answered the question of where auto design stemmed from, and then proceeded to provide a lengthy discourse on
automotive history in relation to its design. Setting out, he emphasized the lack of differential design in the early days of the automobile. When the car first came to be in the 1900’s, it was not a major means of transportation, but rather a new status symbol for the elite. This came to change as the roaring 20’s whipped through America and its culture. Where cars had once been the playthings of the rich, Henry Ford and his Model T provided the avenue for the common man to become mobile. The affordable and mechanically simple Model T made itself
accessible to the greater American rural populace, whom had previously been unaffected by the advances in automotive history.
North was also careful to point out that from the
automotive industry came the American middle class. When Henry Ford started paying his workers five dollars a day, where all that was needed and regularly paid before was a dollar a day, he effectively brought about a wave of
discretionary income, and opened the door for the middle class. However, these Model T’s were plain, and when asked of different colors, Ford is known to have said, “You can have it any color you want, as long as it’s black.” During this period the function of the car took precedent over its aesthetic appeal, yet this would all change very soon.
In the middle of the 1920’s, there was a clamor in the automotive world, with the waves coming from sunny California. Cadillac found an increasing number of orders coming from the state, but not for whole cars, only the chassis. General Motors looked in the matter, and found the orders to come to the founder of CBS, Don Lee, who also owned a large dealership in the region. Through Lee the majority of the chassis found their way to Earl’s Body Shop, owned and
operated by Harley Earl, the father of the art of auto styling.
Earl had been acting as the custom car provider to the stars, and gotten the attention of General Motors in the
process. He was a tower of a man; North spoke of him in good humor saying, “He was nearly seven feet tall! But when you look up to the guy and talk to him, he has a teeny little voice.” Regardless of physical stature and tone of voice, the man possessed the strength of will and showmanship it took to press his designs forward. On being brought to Detroit after the meeting in Hollywood, Earl was given the task of designing the smaller bodied 1927 Cadillac LaSalle. Never much of a designer himself, Earl relied on those who worked for him as well as what he saw in the world around him when designing cars. His design was a close replica of the European built
Hispano Suiza, but went over just as fine with the executives of GM. Through a clever exchange of words, Earl claimed to need to catch the train back to California to go back to work. GM quickly countered, just as Earl had hoped, and offered him a much more permanent position working as the head of a new department. And so, General Motors Styling came to be in 1927.
However, the time span in which Earl had to work was soon to be cut short. From these booming times, the auto industry as well as the rest of American industry fell prey to the world wide Great Depression. This facilitated a very significant lull in vehicle production, but did not bring it to a halt altogether. The advent of the Second World War brought about the absolute stop on all automotive manufacture and design. The major companies involved in the industry had become militarized in their output. The rebirth of the car industry would have to wait until the close of the war and the return of America’s fathers, sons, and brothers.
The fabled golden age that was the 1950’s was recalled with utmost admiration by North. Though these were in fact his glory days, there was a lot going on to be proud of at that
time. There was a huge influx of both income and manpower to the American workforce with the boys back home. The bomb that had ended the war ushered in the “atomic age’, where the public demand for items that were the latest and greatest was insatiable. This was also the age of the
automobile, and the curious youth culture that accompanied it. Through cars, young Americans could convey a public self
expression everywhere they went. Young men became
particularly emotionally attached to their cars as a direct result of this. North recalls, “Back then guys expressed themselves through two ways: cars and sports. If you were good at sports then you were pretty cool, but if you had a car, then you really had it going on.” People began to desire vehicles that had a voice all their own; the cars now had bright two and three tone paint jobs, and an unimaginable variety of fins adorned each voice of self expression on the road. North looks back to this time as a truly great period in his lifetime. Not only is this when his own personal career took flight, but this was a time when money was still in abundant and legitimate supply, and rock and roll was turning things upside down all through the night.
It was during this time that North joined the General Motors Corporation. Looking back on the experience, he equated it to what the modern day image of the Google
workplace has become; “it was the place everyone wanted to be.” North was fortunate enough to find his way into
management soon after joining the company, and avoided the average span of two to three years that most automotive
designers are at regular work. Working through the sixties, North claimed that the best cars came from this period. At this time, the styling department effectively had a blank check. The cars were now being sold largely in part to the aesthetic
appeal, which pushed the world of automotive design to a breakneck pace. This prosperity was not to be ongoing, and
with the 1970’s came a great snag in the development of the automobile.
North claims two things brought about the less desirable vehicles of the seventies: the gas scare and the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Similar to today, there was constant complaint that gas was too high, but more notably people were genuinely afraid there would just be no gas whatsoever. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was brought into existence by long time political activist Ralph Nader through a joint effort by the insurance companies and the federal government.
Ralph Nader was known for his dogged persistence, and dedication to his task at hand. He gained his notoriety at first with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which called General Motors to address the safety of the Corvair model. After pushing the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act through Congress, Nader founded the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) in 1970 to act as a countermeasure for consumers against powerful automotive industry lobbyists. The center cites itself as “representing the interests of consumers before federal regulatory agencies on auto safety, reliability, quality, and efficiency as well as
highway safety and environmental issues.” The center continues Nader’s crusade for the consumer’s behalf, and currently is incessant in its cries for the auto industry to meet current safety requirements.
Though North recalled the act as being responsible for hard times in the auto industry, he did admit to there being mistakes made. One particular memory was the blunder of the Nash car company, and its decision to cover the front wheels in addition to using narrower treaded tires. This made the
vehicle near impossible to control as the wheels made contact with the covers around them on a regular basis. Another was that of hearing tales of cars being at the mercy of the
crosswinds as they would catch the unsafely oversized fins of a car. But the incident that stuck with him for the rest of his career was being taken to the hospital to see firsthand the morbid pedestrian injuries suffered by those who were unfortunate enough to come into close contact with the
popular pointed fins of the time. This imagery stuck with him throughout the rest of his career, and cemented even more the old design maxim he had learned in school, “form follows
This theory of design came to dominate not just
automotive, but nearly all pursuits of industrial design. In the recent article “Object Design: Twelve Concepts to Know,
The statement “form follows function’ by Louis H. Sullivan emphasizes the functional nature of design (Hauffe, 1996). This concept has had a wide range of influence on design, including Bauhaus, German Werkbund, and other design philosophies. Design is not just aesthetics, nor a decorative cover for the mechanical or electronic components of objects. Rather, design is a process of analyzing the
relationship of form to function, and function to form—each informing the other. This concept continues to have a significant impact on modern and contemporary industrial design.
By this definition, all things of industrial design are held in accord. This standard is what guided designers such as North in their pursuit of what the style was to be. The relationship of form and function is what made sense of design.
After the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed, and for a good while afterwards, GM became the proverbial whipping boy for the politicians of the day. In addition to adjusting to the newly instated safety regulations, an early “green” initiative was placed on the automotive
industry. Cars were to be better on gas mileage, and manufacturers were also responsible for investigating
alternative fuels to power their machines. This was all done in an attempt to address the gas shortage crisis. The question of gas mileage was readily solved through the application of aerodynamics to automobiles. However, according to North, the expectation of utilizing alternative fuels at this time was unrealistic, and was by no surprise a failed endeavor. He
provides to examples of the effects on Cadillac and Oldsmobile. To address this issue, Cadillac developed an oscillating engine that would reach a certain rpm then cut from eight to four cylinders powering the engine. This function undermined
the integrity of the engine, and brought about many headaches for owners that found them to break down. They had bought Cadillacs with the perception of buying one of the best cars money could buy, only to feel ripped off on the side of the road. By compromising the standards of the car in favor of federal mandates, Cadillac undermined its own self image with a car on the road that was simply sub-‐par by their track record.
An even greater travesty was to occur to the Oldsmobile company. In compliance with the new expectations, the
company had the engines of its most popular model, the
Cutlass, converted from gasoline to diesel engines. The Cutlass had been praised as the “little Cadillac,” and was widely
considered one of the best bargain vehicles available for
purchase. Yet, when the switch from gasoline to diesel engines was made, it turned out catastrophic for the entire company. Since they were converted engines, their structural integrity was not as great now meant to handle diesel fuel combustion. Cars that were meant to last were beat to hell after forty
thousand miles. Oldsmobile never recovered from this, their financial workhorse, the Cutlass, had been slaughtered in the market, and the company never regained the prominence it once held.
It is truly remarkable the irony that hindsight often
brings. In the January 1961 issue of the Journal of Marketing, a study was done on the dominance of car brands through the years, as well as on the variety of brands studied. It describes the happening as such:
Although forty-‐four new brands of automobiles entered the market during the 1920-‐ 1960 period, there has been a steady diminution in the number of brands; during this same period, eighty-‐six brands were withdrawn. Today five firms are producing nineteen brands. Some of these have survived depressions, wars, and changes in
considered the “survival of the fittest.” However, age of a brand is not a guarantee of continued success.
To think that Oldsmobile, the oldest on the list given in 1961, would come crumbling down by the hands of shoddy
converted diesel engines is both ironic and telling of the industry even then.
The Eighties brought back gas to a regularly available standard and price, and so put to rest a lot of the fuss and pressure to develop more efficient vehicles. The older bigger models took the place of the newer smaller ones that had just been desired. With the gas crisis gone, it was no longer a problem of how far a car could go, and on what fuel. It was during this period that one of North’s major achievements in design came to fruition in the three sisters: the Toronado, the Eldorado, and the Riviera; all with their own smaller
there was literally no way that it could make any money. The United Auto Workers contracts had a stranglehold on the
finances of the automotive industry, and had effectively turned GM into a financial broker rather than automotive
manufacturing corporation. The design and styling branch, which had always been there to even out the bottom line, held no sway in this dilemma. There was simply no way for GM to develop revenue profitably. This financial struggle between the auto manufacture corporations and unions would prove itself to be the downfall of GM, and the source of its bankruptcy to come.
The end was coming, but staved off momentarily by the sudden popularity of the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV).
Desperate for answers, GM brought in market research
specialists to determine what move to make next (one that had been made previously by those in the styling department). The research they did indicated that in the top one percent of
American households with multiple vehicles, most of them possessed a Jeep Wagoner. It provided a family with the peace of mind of being a luxury vehicle capable of being much more than just that. GM took this ball and ran with it, and coupled with the extreme anxiety that Americans faced after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the populace more than ever wanted to have a vehicle that would be able to handle itself in case all things suddenly went to hell. Another stroke of fortune for GM found itself in the acquisition of the Hummer brand, and the great success it provided. Through the high yield production of vehicles such as the Denali, Escalade, and Hummer GM was able to get itself through the early 2000’s. But the toll for GM had already rung, and the great controversy that was the Federal Government buyout of GM, the “too big to fail” dilemma, and public upheaval to follow had all been set in motion with no stop available.
David North played the interesting role of being a
firsthand witness, and in many cases, player, in all of the events described. His intimate knowledge of the industry came from a passion for cars and their design. His value to this subject lies even deeper than helping set the historical context; his work dealt directly with the question of in what light a car should be designed. Returning to the saying “form follows function,” North affirms that auto styling was a unique art in the fact that those things fantasized were meant to be put into physical
everyday use. Throughout his career the cars that sold the best were the ones that looked the best. Albeit, there were gadgets and technological advances at play, but the majority of a car sales were initiated and closed based off of the aesthetic appeal of the cars. His haunting experience early on in the hospital stayed with him for the rest of his career, and reaffirmed the value of designing an attractive, but always functional
automobile as being most important. In reflection of his career as a whole generated a moderate response on the topic. He claimed, “It was the style that sold the car, but the function was always in the back of the designers mind, as basic legal code is to an attorney, or the use of building to an architect. It just has to be there.”
The future of the automotive design remains murky. North fears the worst for American automakers, and maybe legitimately so. With the government bailout, General Motors now has a new partner in the US Treasury department, which is much more of a boss than business associate. It restricts any expenditure by GM that will not yield an immediate profit, hence nearly all design and development have been shut down save for those initiatives still deemed viable by the Federal government. The remorse in the old designer’s voice was heavy on this subject. Having maintained contacts throughout the industry, North made plain that a great step was about to take place just prior to the bailout; the arrival of a car that
could drive itself. A world where there are no vehicular
accidents, and everything runs through an elaborate computer system. This topic excited North, but he had a bittersweet tone. The idea that cars could possibly load computer
programs, read data, and interact with human intervention fascinated him, yet he was remorseful that the US was falling behind. He was not alone in this claim, and the topic has been brought up in countries all over the world.
Alberto Broggi was the leader of a recent autonomous-‐ vehicle expedition from Italy to China. Broggi claimed,
“driverless cars are safer and they are the future.” When asked why he made the journey he replied,
I work on driver assistance systems -‐; to take control of a vehicle when the driver falls asleep, for example. We wanted to push these technologies to the limit and see if we could remove the driver altogether. We had
participated in some autonomous vehicle races, but these take place in a structured environment. We wanted to be in the real world with real challenges. We’re aiming to reach Shanghai for the World Expo.
Broggi sought to prove the capability of autonomous vehicles and did so, giving weight to North’s anxiety in the decline of the American auto industry’s global standing.
The article “Dashboard Magic,” from the July 17, 2008 issue of Design Week, discussed this possibility, and also presented a shift in design emphasis from the exterior to the interior of the vehicle. In the article General Motors product czar Bob Lutz is quoted,
Design is the last great differentiator.. There is no
leverage in the other areas any more. Once you’ve owned a car for a few months you don’t look at the exterior so much. The interior is different. If you can’t bear to
when you turn it, you’ll hate the whole car in three years’ time.
The change in discussion is truly a revolutionary one in design terms. Where before the exterior had been the emphasis, and the consumer had the rudimentary choice between an interior modeled after either a rocket or gentleman’s club; now there has been a shift towards a more ergonomic living room
setting. Slimmer seats, dramatic reduction of knobs and buttons, ambient lighting, panoramic fixed roof cabins, and starters via mobile phones are all on the menu. The not so far future is further described detailing the possible systems to recognize human gestures as controls, and as mentioned
before, completely autonomous vehicles navigate through GPS and sensors that communicate with one another.
This proposed future world of autonomous vehicles and full body gesture controls may seem farfetched, but is not altogether unfeasible. The technology already exists; it is just a matter of safely synchronizing it effectively within the
automobile. The design aspect of automobiles will always be there, and rather than favor either form of function absolutely, it creates with a respect for the significance that relationship that has always been.
Now think back to that American youth racing through the West Michigan farmland. He carries his speed at a reckless pace, comes up a sharp curve, and finds himself no longer
amongst the living. Public outcry is for the neglect of the manufacturer. Cars should not be made to go so fast. There was a wanton disregard for the proper function of the vehicle, and it was just a sexy metal deathtrap. Yet, a little digging will prove that function was always a major role, and the kid was exactly that, a kid; one whose capabilities were lacking as he tore through the country side, and were unfortunately not fully compensated by virtue of automotive design.
“Car Interiors:Dashboard magic.” Design Week 17, (July 2008):
Holloway, Robert J. “Which Automobiles Will Be Here Tomorrow?” The Journal of Marketing 25, no. 3 (January
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