A Short History of Automotive Design - Muscle Car

A Short History of Automotive Design

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Written by Elise

14th December 2020

A Short History of Automotive Design
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A Short History of Automotive Design

By Charlotte Iggulden

How Culture Has Shaped Car Design

Like most things in life, automobiles do not exist in a vacuum. Their design and engineering respond to the zeitgeist: the spirit of the times. Throughout history, car designers and visual futurists have been profoundly influenced by technological and scientific advancements, politics, artistic movements, cultural trends and philosophy, whether optimistic or pessimistic. 

Where industrial design is broad, automotive design is specialized, concerned primarily with a car’s appearance and, to some extent, ergonomics. Designing engines is uncommon, but technical aspects may be affected; modern designers often work closely with engineers. 

Depending on the political or cultural mood, automotive design has adhered to the principle ‘form follows function,’ coined by architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), or function follows form.

This article ambitiously aims to briefly cover the extensive history of automotive design.

Form follows Function: Utilitarian, Motorized Buggy

The early motor car’s design history has been marked by engineering advances, such as the invention of the steam engine and the 1806 hydrogen-based internal combustion engine powered by an electric spark (rather than gunpowder!), fitted in 1808 by Francois Isaac de Rivaz to a primitive working vehicle. 

1886 is regarded as the birth of gasoline-powered automobiles, where high motor buggies like the Benz Patent-Motorwagen replaced open air, animal drawn carriages. Hand-built cars from the Edwardian brass era heralded steel bodies, with the engine and chassis as a single unit.

The first vehicles, such as Henry Ford’s 1896 quadricycle, were aimed at bicycle owners, consisting of a platform, seat, steering device, and engine. Cars became covered, lights added, then windscreens and lamps. 

Rapid automotive engineering advancements from 1896-1915 meant pre-WWI cars were powered by steam, gasoline, electricity, or a combination.

Introduced in 1908, the affordable Ford Model T democratized road travel, becoming the most widely produced four-seater until 1927. Mass produced in a variety of body styles like tourers or roadsters, its first incarnations were runabout styles to handle poor road conditions, connecting rural Americans to the rest of the country. Although it is thought that most pre-Art Deco cars were black, the Model T sported green, light blue, or maroon, amongst others. Black was simply more economical and dried faster. 

Fun fact: According to automotive colour historian, Gundula Tutt, some early automotive painters painted naked! 

After the First World War, designers borrowed features from military vehicles, such as the Jeep’s straight lines, higher hoods, and steel wheels.

Art Deco

Longer, lower, and more elegant car designs appeared in the early twentieth century. The economic boom that followed the 1920-21 stock market crash and short depression led to the age of excess, jazz, flappers and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, the latter warning against an exuberant lifestyle. It was the era of radio, cinema, and the automobile. Skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building symbolized innovation and modernity.

Circa 1910-39, Art Deco originated in France as a simplified version of Art Nouveau, with geometric, upward forms. France’s modern road network popularized civil and competition motoring; the 1935 V12 Delahaye 165 convertible, with its long hood and streamlined shape, gave the appearance of speed and motion.

Affluent consumers demanded glamorous and fun automotive styling with sweeping fenders seen on luxury cars like the Rolls Royce Phantom, Bugatti, and the futuristic 1939 Duesenberg Coupé Simone Midnight Ghost, which looked like artwork on wheels. Some Lincoln models featured painted birds and butterflies. 

General Motor’s 1927 La Salle was the first mass-produced car to be styled by a professional designer. It had a solid enclosure, roof, and doors, making it sturdier and more reliable.

Between WWI and II, sports cars like the Auburn Speedster were more Art Deco than dual-purpose vehicles intended for road motoring and racing.

Modern cars like the Bugatti Veyron Hypercar and the Chrysler PT Cruiser have Art Deco styling, (the former to help with aerodynamics) but are less decadent.

Streamline Moderne 

Otherwise known as Art Moderne, or American Modernist, this movement was late Art Deco; its curves, horizontal lines and nautical elements resulted in vehicles designed and inspired by streamlining and aerodynamics.

Streamlining was conceived by industrial designers during the Great Depression, simplifying Art Deco ornament to its pure line concept of speed and motion developed from scientific thinking. 

The V-16 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe announced the Moderne movement at the 1933 ‘Century of Progress’ World Fair in Chicago, with contemporary front and sloping tail, forecasting the fastback trend. Pastels replaced bold Art Deco colours.

Hungarian-born engineer Paul Jaray redesigned the zeppelin airships from tube to streamlined shapes, their lower body covering the chassis and wheels. His decision to turn to car design led to the teardrop Ley T6 in 1923, otherwise known as the world’s first aerodynamic car, removing air resistance and increasing speed. 

The 1926 Burney Streamliner precedes today’s ultra-streamlined cars, created by English airship designer Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney. 

Teardrop shaped production cars included the 1938 Phantom Corsair, Chrysler Airflow, Lincoln-Zephyr, Pontiac Streamliner, Citroën DS, land speed race cars, and experimental vehicles like Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion.

Germany’s1930s automotive industry was limited to luxury cars, so Hitler wanted a basic vehicle for two adults and three children, with a powerful engine for the autobahn. Ferdinand Porsche was instructed to copy Jaray’s Tatra T-77 layout into a small economy streamliner that became the 1934 Volkswagen Beetle. The car was literally a ‘people’s car,’ becoming the most commercially successful of the original streamlined cars. 


After Germany’s defeat in WWI and their second industrial revolution, people moved to the city and the birthplace of industrial design. The modern and functional Bauhaus style was inspired by abstract expressonist art, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Morris. The philosophy lasted through the 80s with the boxy hatchback, FIAT Ritmo/Strada

Recently, Audi has been inspired by Bauhaus in its first gen Audi TT coupe and A2 model.

Jet Age

The size and exuberance car designs after World War II reflected America’s prosperity and optimism. Pastel colours dominated and interiors had an aviation feel. Most 1950s fighter planes had jet engines, followed by passenger planes, revolutionizing air travel. 

Aeronautical design elements were introduced into automobiles with the 1948 Cadillac’s tail fins and the 1951 Le Sabre’s wraparound windshield, both style idioms until the 60s. By this time, the British had finned Zephyrs and Zodiacs, with quad headlights on Rolls Royce’s, mirroring American culture. 

Named after the F-86 jet, Harley Earl’s Le Sabre concept car was possibly the most significant ‘50s show car. It was an innovative, power operated convertible whose roof rose when it sensed rain. 

GM’s 1950s Firebird concept series proved automotive design and engineering was synonymous with jet themes, pre-empting the Pontiac Firebird.

Firebird XP-21, II, and III, were exhibited at Motorama exhibitions. XP-21 was a fighter jet on wheels and the first gas turbine-powered car tested in the US. Firebird II was family-oriented, with autonomous driving sensors for the ‘highway of the future.’

Speed-oriented Firebird III was the only concept to influence production cars like the ‘59 Cadillac, which shared its surface development and rocker panel. The series experimented with technologies like anti-lock braking, cruise control, self-levelling suspensions, and rear facing cameras. 

Coke bottle styling was pioneered by jets like the Northrop F5 to reduce drag at transonic speeds. Its narrow center was surrounded by flaring fenders, resembling the ubiquitous Coca Cola glass. Introduced by industrial designer Raymond Loewy on the 1962 Studebaker Avanti gran turismo, it featured on ‘60s muscle cars such as the Oldsmobile 442, Plymouth Fury and Barracuda, Dodge Charger, Chevrolet Chevelle, and Corvette Stingray.

Chrysler’s Virgil Exner viewed automotive design as ‘art made practical.’ He developed the mid-50s ‘forward look,’ lowering the roofline to create a wedgelike shape, long hood, and short deck. He used the wind tunnel to justify tailfins, moving from boxy ‘40s designs towards the aerodynamic Plymouth Valiant and Fury

Space Age Design

This movement preceded and was influenced by Streamline Moderne. Although simultaneously Midcentury Futuristic Design (1950-65), Jet, Atomic, and Googie Age, Space Age design originated with nineteenth century science fiction authors Jules Verne and HG Wells, alongside futuristic films like Un Voyage Dane La Lune in 1902. 

It offered escapism in the 1930s, then optimistic innovations in the ‘50s, with computers, television, atomic energy, jets and space exploration, the latter highly influential on automotive design. Rocket designs like the Cadillac’s rocketship taillights became heavily utilised following the unmanned flying German rockets and V2 space rocket in WWII. New, lighter materials like chrome, steel and fibreglass were used. Concept cars by designers like Syd Mead envisioned a technological utopia.

Modern environmental concerns have led to a resurgence of interest in a ‘New Space’ race.

Car Design Futurism & Retro Futurism

As with production vehicles, concept cars result from the zeitgeist. As 1940-50s car shapes and functionality were evolving, some were purely visionary artworks. 

Predictions for flying automobiles spanned Hugo Gernsback’s 1923 two-wheeled flying car to the ‘50s Aerocar, the Jetsons ‘space car’ and beyond. Concepts like the 1930s ‘Giro car’ illustration graced science magazines. Although flying cars have not materialized, autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality. Modern concept cars rotate on the spot and (car design news!) feature solar panel roofs.

Norman Bel Geddes desired architecture, industrial design, and transportation to be unified. Although after Jaray and Burney, his aesthetic set the standard for streamlined car designs, with engines powering from the rear. 

Designer J Mays’ philosophy focused on the past informing the future, responding to underlying emotional and cultural associations, and the idea of being in your living room. Similarly, designer Frank Stephenson believes futuristic cars should be organic, rooted to nature and our past, like the 1980 Citroën Karin or Buick electric car. Stephenson believes automobiles should ensure a post-pandemic future is hopeful, as opposed to Cybertruck’s brutalist vision. 

Sixties Muscle Car Race Wars

The Ford Mustang was marketed as a custom-made, midsized sports car for baby boomers; ‘designed to be designed by you,’ representing the power of the people, luxury, and performance for all. Muscle cars appealed to their obsession with NASCAR, Le Mans and drag racing. 

The 1968 Dodge Charger R/T revealed a country at war with itself, amidst Vietnam protests and race riots. 

Cinema and Car Design

Futuristic, high-tech automobiles seen in James Bond, I, Robot, and Knight Rider were designed to inspire audiences. Mercedes-Benz credited the Delorean for the autonomous F 015 Luxury in Motion model with its space age interior. 

Designed alongside director James Cameron, Mercedes-Benz’ 2020 concept Vision AVTR, incorporates augmented and virtual reality from the film Avatar.

Aside from side and diagonal rotating wheels, Daimler Chairman Ola Källenius, says its oval controller vibrates with your breathing and heart rate, merging man and machine.

While the ejector seat from James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5 hasn’t made it into a production car yet, the map screen has. Tesla’s Cybertruck was partly inspired by Bond’s minimalist ‘70s Lotus Esprit submarine car in The Spy Who Loved Me

Environmental Awareness

The 1956 Suez Canal Crisis pressurized car manufacturers to produce cars with greater fuel efficiency; the resulting 1959 Mini Cooper had small exterior and spacious interior.

Similarly, the 1973 oil embargo led to US consumers desiring smaller, fuel-efficient cars with reduced emissions; four-cylinder Japanese imports and European cars became popular. Muscle cars lost size, horsepower, and sporty appeal, becoming boxy, compact cars for families. 

Although not new, electric cars like the Mach E are appearing due to environmental concerns and climate change. 

Automotive Design: Form or Function?

Cultural movements and political moods have significantly informed the car’s contours, whether boxy or curvy. American vehicles especially have mirrored the country’s highs and lows. Rather than straightforward evolution, automotive design has at times been utilitarian, others a work of art, and at best, both, responding to a society’s needs. 

As most automotive designers would probably testify, it has strived to become a beacon of hope in a technologically reliant society. Even modern cars are designed with a combination of 3d computer designs, clay, and handmade drawings, where human touch is important. 

For those interested in learning how to design a car body or sports car, various car design apps and software can be used such as Blender, SketchUp, and AutoCAD.

Author: Charlotte Iggulden

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