Only a few puritans and some design dogmatists dislike chrome. However, a bit of tinsel would have made all the difference to emphasize the inherent goodness of some plain-Jane cars of recent years.
Chrome’s application on car exteriors is based on its capacity to resist corrosion, ease cleaning and increase surface hardness. It also has the pleasing ability to draw attention to the outlines of door frames, lamp housings and bumper pressings, among other features. Even at dusk, a chromed window frame shows up clearly and reveals the car’s character which would otherwise be hidden.
A chrome strip applied to the side of a car emphasizes the horizontal aspect of a form. Ideally, chrome has some crown or curvature so that it catches the light and reflects it. Since it is highly reflective chrome does not require the bright lighting conditions that would be needed to bring out the sculpting of a piece of pressed, painted bodywork. Handled with some restraint, chrome is as uncontroversial as the use of subtle patterns in cloth, the string course in brickwork or the use of fine stone lintels and ledges.
Given the taste preferences of North American customers and the implied expense of chrome, there has been a generally greater predilection to apply it excessively in vehicles aimed at the US market; in the exuberant period of the 1950s and 1960s, this resulted in vehicles that Europeans viewed as being in poor taste. Chrome was sometimes a substitute for good judgement, not a signal of it. The Japanse have sometimes had a hard time deploying it gracefully (I find it charming, though).
That said, a characteristic of the serious and dignified designs presented by Mercedes in the same period is indeed the generous use of chrome, correctly applied. It is there to protect the fine metal of the door frames, for example, or to protect the window rubbers from weathering. Paired with lustrous black paint, the result is very satisfactory and in keeping with the patrician style of Benz’s best cars. Many other makers in the top ranks used chrome with a judicious hand: Lancias of the 60s, Jaguar and Ferrari. Then something changed.
Around the middle 1980s designers decided to reduce or eliminate the amount of brightwork on car exteriors. Compare the two Opels, for example.
The three photos above show a key moment in the changing taste for brightwork. The 1985 Senator has plenty of the stuff. It is a very cheerful car. And then in the same year, 1986, Mercedes and Opel decided to eliminate the material. The Omega and the W-124 did without. At the time it must have appeared very Modern, in that harsh, puritan manner that Modernists seem to enjoy.
The semantic impact is that the cars are signalling efficiency, restraint and caution. It was a curious move since both cars sat at the high end of the price scale and historically, the absence of chrome meant economy and thrift. The lack of chrome on commodity cars such as the Escort, Kadett and Golf was something one put up with.
Yet here was chrome in all its absent glory in 1986, stripping Opel and Mercedes’ costly products of an important ingredient that distinguished them from base model Sierras, Asconas and, above all, French cars such as Renault, and Peugeot. Volvo kept the chrome on their 240 but painted some it black in the middle 80s.
The retreat of chrome was a tide that took a long time to turn. Why? The W-124 was a car almost without peer nearly every respect, a benchmark and a gold standard that other, lesser cars sometimes tried to equal. Rover’s 1986 800-series looked crass by comparison. The Rover’s chromework appeared to have been glued on to the door-frames, ready to fall off as soon as the car was given a push-start. And the Rover lacked a proper grille too.
Jaguar, of course, ploughed its own furrow, with a design process stuck in molasses. The 1986 XJ40 had several kilos of good, heavy and aristocratic bright-work around its side-glass, a good idea from 1970-something. The rear lamps, though, lost their chrome accents and looked for all the world as plain as those found on a Ford Granada, or indeed the Opel Omega (A). The Mercedes’ cold restraint must have made the doubters even more critical of Jaguar’s design path, rear lamps notwithstanding.
For French modernists this elimination of wasteful, heavy and expensive chrome was a vindication. Cars such as the Peugeot 505 (1979) and Peugeot 405 (1987) did without, as did all the smaller French vehicles. The 1982 Ford Sierra was chromeless but it seemed very correct in this regard. Mercedes had given its imprimatur to a look associated with thrift, perhaps troubled by the political mood of the mid-80s (or perhaps late 70s when the W-124 was being planned).
Citroen used almost no bright metal on their 1988 XM saloon though drawings from long before 1986 show no indication any was ever intended: the design is such that adding chrome would involve a complete re-engineering of the glasshouse.
The chrome-free trend ran on for a while: the 1992 Toyota Carina-E was unchromed as was the 1992 Renault Safrane (making it look unfinished and unworthy of the price asked). Porsche’s 2002 Cayenne had chrome but it was darkened (from shame, perhaps).
The tide turned, unevenly. Rover themselves may have led the way with the 1992 facelift of the 800.
The 1995 Mercedes E-class (W210) remained chromeless but did not have its predecessor’s astonishing clarity to otherwise support it. And today it looks as unremarkable as anything from Toyota (arguably worse) but at a much higher price. In 1995 Opel decided they’d overdone it and the Omega (B) was given modest strips of what appeared to be stainless steel around the bumpers and rub-strips.
Ford, late to the party, removed the chrome from the side-glass of the 1995 Scorpio but piled it on to the grille and rear-lamps. Then they quickly painted it black. The 1995 Lancia Kappa saloon had subtle chrome edges on its doors though it was otherwise a very, very quiet design (too quiet?)
Showing the way forward to the strongest effect was Rover’s step back to the 1950s, the 1998 Rover 75 which had plenty of crowned-chrome on its doors, bumpers, sills, side-strips and even around the wind-screen rubbers, just like a Citroen CX or ancient Benz.
Rover had noticed that a little chrome had helped the 600 get noticed and so thought more would be a good way to signal Britishness (important at the time, for various reasons). As an aside, the 600 can even be granted the accolade of showing that a corporate grille was a necessity, something Audi took to heart a decade later.
What was it that had been learned following 1986? Chrome had functional uses, yes, and other materials and processes could do a similar job. Opel’s brilliantly resolved, futuristic Omega used anodised grey metal which appears to be very durable indeed. Mercedes just used plain old paint and black rubber.
But there was an aesthetic effect in chrome too, perhaps just something we had become accustomed too, but real nonetheless. Chrome added visual weight. It attracted the eye to where it ought to be drawn. It was just as valid as using the right bias in cutting cloth or adding frames to paintings and cut-masonry to the apertures on building facades. Design is not just about actual, blunt function. It is also about expression of value. It is valid to express the value of something through the use of materials.
The inspiration for severe, unchromed minimalism may have come from architecture where less is supposed to be more. But in truth the moral value of severe economy is outweighed by the harsh and unwelcoming effect it creates. We don’t live on vitamin-rich, calorific sludge though we could. We only need boiler suits to keep us covered. But we prepare our food with care. We worry a lot about our clothes. We speak with inflection, mood and accent.
So it is in design where we need to show that something has been designed and to give it the same sort of accent and expression which we require in all other areas of our lives. Designers realised that in abandoning chrome they were underselling their cars and depriving customers of what Harley Earl at GM called a visual receipt.
Yet oddly, the custom of unchromed cars carried on into the last decade, led perhaps by a false sense of moral seriousness or just mean-spiritedness. The 1995 Volvo S70 is drabness embodied. The otherwise commendable 1996 Peugeot 406 remained chromeless to the end of its days. Had it been so properly decorated it would have had the visual punch to support the integrity of its engineering. The 407 was similarly denuded.
Mercedes persisted with a chromeless E until the 2009 version came along, and even then the impression is of an afterthought. Their 2005 B-class has especially thin, flat and reedy strips swamped by black plastic. But the new version has plenty of flashing metal appended.
Ford’s 2000 Mondeo started life without chrome and it was added on as the years went by, to greater and greater effect. At the end it looked like the car it ought to have been, a neat bit of styling with grace-notes, not unlike the best Lancia saloons of the 1960s.
Why did Peugeot, Ford, Citroen and Renault persist in desisting from using chrome when already by 1992 its value as a design signifier had been shown? I would argue that the reasoning depended on a very stringent and narrow view of form and function. The French think of themselves as Modernists (I say with a sweeping hand) and chrome’s history spoke against it.
This is the kind of Modernism that designs houses with square windows, without window ledges, and gives main doors no articulation at all. Perhaps the French felt there was something bourgeois about chrome (or something American) and its absence would speed forward the day the workers would seize control of the means of production. It was a statement of inverse-snobbery too.
Ford doubtless felt insecure in 2000 and this was based on criticisms of the sometimes over-loaded Granadas of the ’80s and the un-loved final Scorpio. Whatever the reason for doing so – avoiding chrome – failed to take account of a human need for accent and articulation.
The lesson has been learned and chrome is now found as generously applied to Insignias, Mondeos, Lagunas, and Avensises as to Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. And it is found gracing the current Opel Astra, if you tick the box, but the VW Golf is still going without. VW would argue they don’t need it. I would argue that food needs flavour.