Adventures in cute car culture…
The problem with ‘cute’ is that it’s such a nebulous term. It can be an adjective, a noun or an adverb, so its meaning has shifted markedly since its origins in the 18th century. After all, one person’s pretty or dainty is another’s contrived and calculating. So when it comes to cute, which is it? However you view the term, you simply can’t escape the cute. A cursory glance of the internet suggests that it consists almost entirely of babies and small animals amusing us.
You can be innocently about your daily business, only to be ambushed by something maddeningly adorable, entering your webspace completely uninvited just begging you to love it. We enjoy these clips because we are fools and know no better. But even more depressingly, research has demonstrated that as a species, we are hardwired to succumb to the whole fluffy bunny routine. It’s in the genes.
But in automotive terms, how do we quantify cute? Dimensionally for a start. Cute usually equates with small, although this suggests all small cars are cute, which isn’t necessarily the case. A battered Citroen 2CV in battleship grey is far too serious a car to be cute. But in lurid ‘Charleston’ livery, it’s a cheval of a different stripe entirely: Cute perhaps, in a stupid-ass way, as Scott Walker (via Jacques Brel) might have put it.
But are we simply talking magnitude here? Aside from modest dimensions, cute cars suggest friendliness, youth, and a certain joie de vivre. On top of diminutive size, the original Mini and Fiat 500 both possessed these attributes. Both were cute cars, but more by accident than design. They looked the way they did because their architecture dictated the style – such as it was. Certainly, it was never the intention of their creators to stoop to mere styling – in fact the very thought would most likely have given both Issigonis and Giacosa apoplexy.
Cuteness also inclines towards non-aggression. Ur-Mini’s and rear-engined Fiat Abarths retain a residual cuteness quotient despite any amount of war paint, spot lamps and wide tyres in the way a modern Mini Cooper or 500 Abarth simply can’t. Instead they just resemble really, really angry six-year olds. And there’s nothing cute about that. Similarly, 1950’s bubble cars come within a whisker of cute, owing to their miniscule dimensions and amusing styling, but given the sinister and somewhat tainted connotations surrounding names like Messerschmitt and Heinkel, it quickly leaches away again.
Uncontrived cuteness is one thing however, studied cute quite another again. Having fallen off the design agenda for decades, it took the Japanese to really put cute back onto the agenda. For some time now, Japanese culture has been consumed with imagery of doe-eyed cuteness.
From Manga animation through to the Kawii phenomenon, the Japanese love of cute really took hold in the 1980’s when Japan’s youth began a rebellion against the formality and rigid expectations of domestic society. This was taken to extremes with young girls dressing like dolls, and the rise of cultural and marketing phenomena like Pokemon and Hello Kitty. What begins as counter culture quickly morphs into the mainstream, becomes eminently exportable and next thing you know, we’re all drowning in fluff.
This desire to retreat into a world of Kawii also expressed itself in Japanese car design. Japan had been building tiny cars for decades, hemmed in – (literally) – by an extreme lack of space in Japanese cities and the restrictions on owning large vehicles. During the late 1980s Nissan led the vanguard of a cute car revolution with the Pike-Factory series. These limited-edition vehicles were really an amalgam of retro and cute – (cutero?) – but their cumulative effect was profound. The modern generation of cute cars owe their very existence to the likes of the Be-1, S-Cargo and Figaro.
Now of course, no discussion of cute would be sufficiently rigorous without at least mentioning cute’s more flamboyant cousin. Because the pink elephant in this discussion is how cuteness regularly gets conflated with camp.
There is a fine line between the two, and it is one manufacturers (and commentators) should approach with a certain degree of caution. Get it wrong and your target market becomes somewhat rarefied, or worse still you end up insulting people. It’s not so much an issue of intent but more one of execution. The dictionary definition of camp is one of ‘deliberate exaggeration and theatricality’ and certainly, there are cars that fit into this category.
However, another definition of camp is failed seriousness, which might suggest an altogether different list of vehicles. However amusing it might be to extrapolate upon which cars fit either definition, the subject remains one that too easily gets overrun with puerile jibes about ‘picking up twigs in the springtime’, so it’s probably best to put it back into the closet along with that feather boa you’ve been eyeing suggestively – and don’t think I haven’t noticed.
Meanwhile, the cute car’s march forward into our hearts and minds appears to be boundless. Resistance is futile – they know exactly what buttons to push. In a similar manner to an Ed Sheeran song, where emotion is skilfully engineered to literally pummel the listener into submission beneath the weight of its own towering ambition, these modern-era cars are simply too calculating to be cute.
But the cute car may not have it all its own way, because its very success could prove its undoing. We’ve all heard about limits to growth, but in this instance, growth itself may prove the limiting factor. The reason is simple enough. Cute doesn’t lend itself particularly well to enlargement and the current Mini Countryman/Paceman and Fiat 500XL aptly demonstrate what happens when designers confuse size and scale.
Cuteness enlarged is not cute. In fact, it’s downright alarming and the sooner you all stop falling for it, the better it will be for all concerned. So perhaps, if the foregoing proves anything it’s this: when it comes to cute, keep it small and keep it to yourself. And if your name’s Adam, fluff off.