1970 Ford Cortina Revisited: Form

Some time back I promised that I would return to the topic of the form language exemplified by the 1970 Ford Cortina. Well, here we are.

1970 Ford Cortina: source
1970 Ford Cortina: autoevolution.co.uk

Prompting this much-delayed exegesis is the coincidence of an academic paper (Carbon, 2010) which I came across (check out Google Scholar) and the fact that someone parked a new Mazda3 outside my front door.

To start with the easy part, we can talk about the concepts of angular and curved. Two prototypical examples might be the VW Beetle (rated as very curved in Carbon’s paper) and angular as embodied by the 1968 Carabo Concept (Carbon showed a 1986 Alfa Romeo 75, please note). So, where does the 1970 Ford Cortina fit in? What is it like?

Note A, B, C and D angles.

If we look at the form-language of the car we see that on one level it is angular (above): we can make out sharp junctions at the windscreen to the bonnet and at the top of the A-pillar. The grille area is quite upright.

Sections A to F
Sections A to F are quite curved

If we turn to the form of the body panels we find a different condition: the sections are all curved, especially the body-sides. Where the body sides flow to the horizontal surfaces of the bonnet and boot (A and D)  we again find curvature: distinctly large radii which have rather highly elaborated lead-in curvature. On the bonnet the power-bulge is expressed with smooth transitions (E). There’s no clearly flat section between the main part of the bonnet and the raised part. Putting it in plain language, if you were to run your finger from the main part to the raised part you would not feel any point where the surface stopped curving.


And finally, if we study the shoulder line of the car, it has the famous Coke-bottle curve that Vauxhall shamelessly copied on the 1967 Victor FD. That is also not an angular feature. So, what do we call this compound of angular elements (the car’s profile) and the curved elements (most of the rest)? It’s a mix defying simple classification.

A counter example is the Carabo concept which has low angles making up its more horizontal profile but has very flat surfaces making up the panels (and a smooth profile in part). It isn’t upright – decidedly pointy, in fact.

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The 1986 Alfa Romeo 75 (below) has both strongly angled, upright profile and flat surfaces coupled with small radii for the transitions.

1990 Alfa Romeo 75.
1990 Alfa Romeo 75.

Which element is dominant when judging angularity? Carbon’s 2010 study asked respondents to rate the attractiveness of cars from a period 1950 to 2000. From that period participants rated cars 1970-1980 as the most angular and also the least attractive (sales were no different). The paper also assumed the general hypothesis that people rated curved forms as being more attractive than angular ones.

The evolutionary-psychological explanation for this was the association of pointy things with danger (teeth, spikes, thorns) and curved things with attractive human forms. Carbon discussed what he termed exceptions such as “angular” male faces (found attractive by women) and straight-edged things such as pieces of paper and window frames which were not viewed as unattractive.

I would contest the assumption that a male face is absolutely very angular and whether angularity actually describes a face at all; also, the linearity of a window frame or piece of paper is not the same as pointiness, resemblance to a spear. While not found in nature, oblongs are inert and the corners of an oblong can’t really be seen to suggest any kind of threat. However, even the quite roughly pointy, curvy horns of a goat are a clear hazard. Window frames and paper are smooth and inert in comparison. So, straight lines don’t equate to pointiness or sharpness.

1989 Citroen XM (example shown is the 1990 model).
1989 Citroen XM (example shown is the 1990 model).

The Cortina and anything which mixes gross oblong forms with curved surfaces treatments confound a simple antinomy of curved and angular. The fabled Citroen XM is almost the reverse of the Cortina. It has a highly rounded profile but very straight feature lines and flat panels. It is perceived as being angular due to a few key features which interfere with the perception of smoothness (the up-kick on the window line). The Cortina is however, by current standards “boxy” which is not a description of the surfaces but of the uprightness of the main volumes (I think we might have touched on this before, some years back).

What this means is that Carbon’s analysis of viewers’ judgements, based as it is on the poles angular/curved might not be capturing something else, namely the extent to which boxiness interferes with perceptions of curvature and how curvature of some profiles dominates curvature in other attributes. Further, smoothness can be paired with angularity and being curved.

2016 Mazda3: source
2016 Mazda3: source

And the Mazda3? Is this not directly equivalent to the Ford Cortina’s compound of curved feature lines but with a smooth profile and sharper transitions? So, if we try to plug this into Carbon’s framework of angular-curved, one must ask oneself, which is it? There are angular elements (the sharpness of the creases) coupled with the open, sinuous lines of the creases themselves. If people view this as curved are they not overlooking the angularity present at other levels?

I would propose that in assessing form that a matrix of elements is considered rather than just overall form, since even if one’s aesthetic perception is made up of the entire phenomenon not all elements carry the same weight.


Carbon, Claus-Christian (2010) Cycle of preference: long term dynamics of aesthetic appreciation. Acta Psychologica 134, pp. 233-244.

1968 Alfa Romeo Carabo: Car and Driver

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

5 thoughts on “1970 Ford Cortina Revisited: Form”

  1. You don’t mention it in the extracts, and I haven’t read the paper, but the title “Cycle of preference ….” suggests that perception of design changes. So, although there might be eternal good or bad associations (shark’s teeth) there are more fleeting ones (Nigel Farage’s mouth). Having lived through the 70s, crap though much of it was, we didn’t spend a lot of time wishing the cars were more rounded – we liked them that way. Also design is viral, and depends on chance. So if everyone sees the Alfa Carabo in 1968, it could spawn a generation of chiselled cars, but if instead Bertone had showcased a chiselled proposal for an electric golf trolley that might not happen. I might be unfair to Carbon, since I don’t know how subtle his questioning of respondents was, but showing people a mass of photos of cars which for most of them will have cultural associations of some sort based on their perception of the age of the vehicles, the surroundings and even, say, the colour saturation of the photos, will inevitably come up with a skewed response.

    Ford’s design of the Escort Mark I and Cortina Mark III is interesting. The Vauxhall equivalents, Viva and Victor, also used the coke bottle shape, but were arguably smoother and more elegant. And they weren’t significantly worse to drive. Yet, both at the time and since, people have been fonder of the Fords. Is it that the relative stubbiness of the Fords appealed more because it was a bit cack handed? The situation was similar in the US. Were the GM cars too good looking for their own good?

    1. Carbon used monochrome photos with brand identifiers removed. It’s a study showing how people in 2010 view appearances – though he did try to control for the “Zeitgeist” effect and found curviness less important.
      Products are designed in relation to existing ones. So when the angular theme is exhausted another tack is tried. I’d be interested to see how the profiles and proportions altered over time. I think the curvature/angularity parameters are insufficient and also ambiguous.

  2. Fabulous lines, Cortina’s chubby front cheeks, superb attentions to detail for what was a perfectly common 70’s car.
    We are witnessing on this website topics on all issues with in-depth analysis from authentic appassionati! Are you sure this is still “the world’s least influential motoring site”?… 🙂

    1. Hello: thanks for that. We are always pleased to please.
      This Cortina certainly enjoys a broad appeal. I don’t think they expected that when they styled it. My neighbour has a later model, the last Cortina and it’s much flatter but it still has some wavy lines. The Escort and Granada achieved angular and flat and boxy – the Cortina didn’t.
      Are we still the least influential? Fourth least influential maybe?

  3. “And finally, if we study the shoulder line of the car, it has the famous Coke-bottle curve that Vauxhall shamelessly copied on the 1967 Victor FD.”
    Isn’t this the other way round, or does time sometimes flow backwards in the motor industry?

    It is interesting that the body of the German Taunus, though based on the same basic underpinnings, was noticeably less curved along the waistline with a more upright rear to the passenger compartment, though there was a coupe version, pointless on the Cortina as the two-door looks like a coupe anyway.

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