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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.