The Final Wounds Hurt Not At All

Modernity or futurism are not what they used to be. It’s only a little over three years since DTW addressed this subject*. I’ll return to it today with some more focus.

Modernist, futurist: source

Prompted by a recent discussion of the relative modernity of the Citroen CX and Citroen XM (less modern) I will mentate on the finitude of futurism. The core of this relates to the observation that if one compares a futuristic car (a concept car) from thirty or even twenty years ago with what one is driving today, the older designs are still fresher and more advanced-looking in many large ways. Furthermore even a good number of production cars from the middle-distance past can claim to be more futuristic than what is available now.

1993 Wolseley Hornet: source

I should admit that finding a supposedly ‘typical’ old-fashioned car proved to be harder than I thought. Among the 1930s cars were some (from Adler) that already grappled with very raked profiles. In the end I found the data to support my argument (which is not an orthodox scientific-rationalist approach, I know). So, we start with the 1933 Wolseley Hornet (above) as being roughly, approximately representative of motor cars in the stage between the motorised horseless-carriage and the full-on unified fuselage (Cisitalia gets the credit for that).

1947 Cisitalia 202. Image from Bonhams. Auction your goods with them and not eBay.

Whichever car really gets the credit for integrating the fuselage, the fuselage was integrated, around the middle of the 1930s or late 1940s, the first big step towards concentrated, consolidated modernity. This and other forces driving change in car morphology emerged from the collective will of car designers and engineers and designers to make progress; the forces also emerged, to some extent, from the desire for some car buyers to have something different than what already existed. I consider these to be the weakest forces, almost cancelled by other car buyers longing to have something familiar.

The demands of aerodynamics pushed against the vertical lines of the 1930s. The demands of aerodynamics pushed down the height of the car too. And further, the same demand caused engineers to question the need for protruding shapes. The ultimate form of this is the Kamm-tailed teardop.

1982 Ford Sierra: source

In parallel with this quest for aerodynamism, production engineers provided the possibility for simpler construction methods and more robust structures. Even if aerodynamics had not been such a strong motivator, the flush unibody made structural sense.

1982 Audi 100. Image:

From the aesthetic side, the basic principles of orderly forms, massaged into shapes with refined curvature quality led to vehicles whose overall form had a structural order – not just rational but something that looked rational, satisfied the emotional need for alignment, parallelism and homogeneity. I contend these are fundamentally based on hard-wired human preferences for certain shapes (ceteris paribus).

Flush with graphical integration – 1985 R25 limousine: source

In 1982 the Sierra and Audi 100 arrived, both of which cars today are still aesthetically meaningfully modern, just 30 years after the technically modern DS. Yes, the Ford is less aerodynamic than it looks – blame the boring exigencies of pricing for that.

1990 Toyota Sera. Flush, integrated, efficient, safe with advanced production: source

The key restraint on further development was the rather slow pace of change in manufacturing processes and the fact cars still had to enclose four people, an engine and some luggage. Another socially-driven factor is that the mood for high-concept cars has been and gone. We live in conservative and insecure times. The taste for the future peaked in the 1970s and matured somewhat (the XM is from that time) before beginning a slow recession.

Pretty now, pretty tomorrow: source

None of the key signifiers of full, mature modernity arrived together. In general:, aerodymic forms arrived first; flushness arrived in force a bit later and complete graphic unity turned up somewhat towards the end and then only patchily so. Each of these qualities has a zenith, a summit beyond which further change is either meaningless, purposeless or retrograde.

Corrupting the quest for the most modern form possible is the demand for novelty. Like cutlery, doorhandles and footwear – archetypal forms all – where all change is meaningless. The car is in the post-modern phase. The current Ford Fiesta is by anyone’s measure a delicously surfaced car (take a look at one as soon as you can, it is something of a jewel) and made to a standard well beyond any sane person’s requirements.

Like every contemporary car it is characterised by complex surfaces at odds with the simplicity of Modernism; it (sanely) meets the expectations of its customers (Ford is not an artistic charity) and it is very much as nice as the last Ford Fiesta, a vehicle where the graphics and construction elements wrestle for supremacy. Chris Bird´s 2003 car represented graphical and construction unity. Inevitably customers had to have something else, curse them.

(Market) leader. 2018 Fiesta. Image: cardissection

The Ford Fiesta is very much not the only car I could have chosen, but we know it so it serves to illustrate the case and so represents the fate of all car companies: they passed the peak of modernity two decades ago or more, dragged as if by wild horses of consumer expectations and the cultural tides no-one can resist.

(Post-script: this is a Eurocentric explanation, with nods to Japan. In N. America rather different currents have flowed and perhaps at another time I will risk the wrath of our more knowledgeable N American readers and try to recount how modernity played out on the other side of the Atlantic.)

*That article was written when DTW had about two readers. I recommend our current readers take a look at it if they have not done so already. Or save it for a Christmas holiday read.

Author: richard herriott

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

15 thoughts on “The Final Wounds Hurt Not At All”

  1. Good afternoon, Richard. Nice to see the long forgotten Renault 25 getting a mention:

    It’s one af my favourites from the 1980’s and by far the most successful design from Renault’s “rectilinear” period, which also produced the execrable 9 and 11. The 25 is a deceptively simple design but has lots of nice, subtle details, such as the way the clamshell bonnet shut line incorporates a step to extend the waistline shoulder forward. The glazing of the rear hatch is lovely, and a lesson to present day designers (accountants?) who use large expanses of glass, only to black out much of it to hide the structure of the tailgate, hindering rearward visibility badly.

    If I were to be hyper-critical, the junction of the bright trims at the base of the A-pillar is slightly messy in that the gutter trim drops below the level of the horizontal trim at the base of the door window when viewed side-on. Also, there is a slim strip of bodywork between the leading edge of the fuel filler flap and trailing edge of the right-hand rear door. Ideally, the filler flap should have been located 50mm further back to avoid this, although it is very nicely integrated into the shoulder below the C-pillar.

    Overall, although the 25 is very linear, the subtle curvature of the panels give the design fullness and strength. ( The aforementioned 9/11 pair had multiple horizontal creases on flat panels, which looked fussy and insubstantial by comparison.) It is an example of a quietly confident design, where the designers knew exactly when to put down their pencils (or exit their CAD program).

  2. This is how not to do it:

    This was the 1982 European Car of the Year. What were they thinking?

  3. Lovely looking carriage, the 25; in many ways the Audi 100 (also pictured) grabbed the headlines and attention, but I still see them both coming from a similar theme.

    Oddly, I think that R9 looks rather better today than I remember it at the time – which says everything about the state of today’s car parks.

  4. I can very much relate to Daniel – the 25 is easily one of my favourites as well. Is it correct that the dseign is attributed to Robert Opron? In this case, my preference is only logical, given how much I value GS and CX.
    While it might not offer the same level of suspension refinement as the CX, it was certainly superior in noise suppression and build quality. The rich interiors were only later matched by the XM.

  5. Richard, your suggestion that peak modernity lies some decades in the past is well illustrated by the cars of the future in the excellent film Gattaca; Rover P6, Studebaker Avanti and of course Citröen DS.

    1. Or the inhabitants in Gattaca could just be classic collectors having converted their favorit steeds into electrics much as we are now seeing today!

    1. Today we have the likes of the lofty BMW i3 that doesn’t even look aero beating that drag 0.31 coefficient with a 0.29 figure so the viewed shape is not always an indicator of an aero design.

    2. Markus – the dear old Fuego has few supporters and that is a pity. Like the more recent Laguna coupe it did not really register. We only differ on the relative merits of the cars. For me the Fuego and R25 landed on a sweet spot together. I like both of them equally. The R25 deserved far more acknowledgement than it received. If I was running a design museum I´d be very tempted to have a small show about 80s functionalist car design. The R25 would be there, with the Fuego, the Sierra, the Audi 100 (shown above), the 124 with some carefully selected American cars (the 1982 A-body cars) and some Japenese cars (I need to research which ones).

    3. A difference between the Fuego and the Renault 25 are the more visible signs of aerodynamic effort on the Fueago. The hidden door handles. the design of the alloy wheels etc. These contemporary details (the black side-strip too) are typical for a car of the 80ies, the Renault 25 is the much more timeless car.
      The Laguna Coupe is one of the most elegant modern car, the BMW I3 one of the most modern modern car. The I3 is the white sheep among the dreadful BMW range.

      Is the Mercedes CLA the car with rhe lowest drag coeffitient at the moment? I cannot remember any remarks about the drag coeffizient or aerodyamic results in a car ad for a very long time.

  6. Thank you for this great article! I very thoroughly enjoyed it and would not mind an (almost) infinite expansion of this, relating all meaningful examples of automotive history to the particular Zeitgeist that gave birth to them… I don’t think I have ever appreciated neither the Ford Sierra nor the Audi 100 as much as in this context.

    What comes after post-modernism? Will the electric vehicle put an end to two- and three-box based designs? Will the baroque, post-modern present be followed by a more simple concise post-post-modern future? Maybe this is wishful thinking, but to me cars like the Honda Urban EV might be hinting to such a development…×425.jpg

    1. Yes, that Urban EV prototype is a huge relief after the hideously overwrought recent designs from Honda. Every time you think they must have reached peak automotive Baroque, the next model goes even further. Let’s just hope it has had a sufficiently warm reception to cause Honda to use it as the basis for a new design theme.

      If, like me, you were wondering what inspired this “revolutionary” new design, take a look at this:

    2. Thanks Max. I have an image of a dye creeping up litmus paper, with the different constituents stopping at different heights on the paper. The elements of car design remind me of this – drawn out over the decades.

  7. I wonder if speed has something to do with the way things are.

    In the past, it was assumed that faster was better, and ‘faster’ meant physical speed – travelling fast by plane, train or car. Since the 1980s, however, speed has increasingly become virtual, or electronic. Physical speed, except in very carefully controlled environments is now often seen as antisocial or dangerous.

    This could mean that the traditional expressions of modernity, including indicating speed and dynamism through (what looks like) aerodynamic efficiency, are now seen as less relevant. A futuristic / light / efficient SUV / CUV / crossover? It’s a contradiction in terms.

    However, the search for alternative (non-fossil fuel) alternatives where efficiency matters could bring us back to the future, as it were.

    To build on what dgatewood said – today’s vehicles are more aerodynamic than ever, but don’t always look it and I think that’s a shame. It seems that you can get away with chunky forms and messy detailing, as long as other factors are taken care of, such as screen rake and underbody airflow management. It’s probably true that what looks aerodynamic to me, actually isn’t. Here’s a list of today’s most aerodynamic vehicles (no SUV’s, of course).

    1. I agree – there is a gap between overt aerodynamism and the actual cD a form can achieve. It is something of a tribute to engineers and stylists that the crinkly shiatsu puppies on sale are actually as slippery as greased eels. Mind you, Citroen achieved 0.28 with the XM back in 1989. Evidently aerodynamicists cracked that problem and found ways to work with the “envelope” so as to allow the addition of feature lines without ruining the cD.

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