I’m a human being who was born with an insatiable love of the automobile. Not for its performance. Not for its utilitarian purpose of transporting people and things from point A to B. Not as a status symbol. To me they are objects of art. Since a little kid it seems every time a car passes by my eyes automatically scans the vehicle exterior surfaces and sends a signal to my brain. My grey matter instantly determines if the vehicle is a design success. I keep thinking that someday my brain will wear out and stop caring. But it doesn’t and to this day my eyes and brain work constantly tallying up the score on all the new cars that come my way.
I’ve wanted to be a car designer since forever. It’s why I applied for and took a job at GM as a clay modeler back in the late 1960s, because I knew it would put me in the studios where all of the company’s cars and trucks are designed. Who knew, I thought at the time, maybe the powers to be might recognize my design genius and I would be invited to be a designer. Never happened, obviously. In fact, I was told later that in GM’s entire design history (since 1927) the occasion that a clay modeler was elevated to a designer happened only once. I only wish it had been me.
My desire to design cars remains strong and many times in the past I’ve daydreamed about asking a designer friend to help me set up a small shop somewhere (my garage maybe?), and we’d obtain the necessary equipment for creating a full-size clay model. Of course this would require tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars and it never happened. But I can say this: in my head is a perfectly designed automobile and it sure would be satisfying if I could find a way to put it into clay for all the world to see.
There is no way of tallying how many times I’ve seen a new car for the first time and exclaimed, “why in the world did they put that chrome strip there” or “that grille texture doesn’t work.” There are vehicles on the road, now and in the past, with looks so egregious to me that I want them banned from the highways. I rejoice when they are finally taken out of production. I’d list a few here but I don’t want fans of the cars to send me nasty emails.
Over time a number of vintage automobiles have risen to the top on my list of design masterpieces. They are perfect in every way, at least as determined by my likes and prejudices formed over the decades. Most of the vehicles on my list were selected the minute I saw them, and a few have gained favor over time. The cars I’m about to reveal have stood the test of time. They are the sweetest of the sweet in appeal to me. Not a single design element needs to be changed. With few exceptions, I’m confident to say many of my picks would probably appear on lists posted by any number of seasoned automotive authorities as well.
With my deeply American bias, almost all of the cars were offered by the Big Three back in their heydays and most are post-WW II efforts prior to the 1970s, when government safety standards forced on the auto industry such things as strict 5-mph bumper and roll-over protection standards that dramatically changed the look of vehicles. Exceptions to my American/post war picks are a landmark auto designed in the mid-1930s during the Classic car era, and a British and German sports car.
My two foreign perfect car picks are the 1961-75 Jaguar XK-E roadster and the 1954-63 Mercedes-Benz SL coupe/roadster. My American perfect car picks include Gordon Buehrig’s 1936-37 810/812 Cord, the 1956-57 Continental Mark II, 1961 Lincoln Continental, all 1957 Chrysler Corporation offerings (with tip of the hat to the Imperial and the Chrysler 300C), 1960 Chrysler 300F and the 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix.
What attributes can be identified that constitutes a perfectly designed automobile? Items that come to my mind include:
• Purity of line – no unnecessary appendages or unnecessary or random lines, slots, vents, indented surfaces or wing elements.
• Mature fluidity – a vehicle should be designed as a whole, as one; from front to rear all the surfaces must merge in harmony.
• Most have exterior surfaces reminiscent of a smooth rock formed by eons of rushing water, as opposed to a folded piece of paper.
There are hundreds of other cars worthy to be placed on my “perfect” list. I like them immensely but for a minor design flaw or two they didn’t make the cut at this moment in time. I might add that cars fall off this list and new ones are added all the time as my taste in car design evolves.
I’d like to think that many car buyers today, with regard to one popular car in particular, subscribe to my design sense. I’m speaking of the success of the present Dodge Challenger pony car. Here is a 12-year old body design (with one very minor freshening in 2015) that is still competitive with its rivals the Mustang and the Camaro. Both the Ford and Chevy pony cars have been freshened with all new designs several times over the past 12 years, yet the Dodge consistently outsells the Camaro and puts up a reasonable fight against the evergreen Mustang. Granted, Dodge’s emphasis on high performance (hello Hellcat and Demon!) has helped to motivate sales momentum, but I also maintain that the clean, downright classic shape of the smooth flanked and unadorned Challenger has contributed greatly to its success as well. Plainly said, a nicely designed, perfectly proportioned car will sell, regardless of how long it is in production.
If I could design a car just for me, I’d take inspiration from favorite vehicles from the past like the BMW 2002 Ti or 1960 Corvair four-door. The greenhouse (roof and windows) would have lots of glass (thin A, B and C pillars) to let light in and create an airy environment for driver and passengers. All the body lines would be horizontal unless a curve is needed to avoid running through a wheel opening (like on the Dodge Challenger, BTW). I prefer front ends that have a grille designed simply for its purpose – to let air into the radiator. It’s natural then that I lean to an ovid shape, ala 1955 Chevy or any number of Ferraris. Of course if my perfect car is an electric car, then a new challenge presents itself with the front end design that doesn’t need air for cooling.
Do readers have an all-time favorite vehicle? Email me your pick and tell me why you love it. I’d like to hear from you.
• Trivia answer: Model Y
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. What is the name Tesla has picked for its next new model, a compact crossover? (The answer is at the end of today’s column.)