Last week’s posts on the fabulous Ghia Gilda had me wondering where has elegance in the automotive universe gone? The Gilda was way out there when it debuted in 1955, yet it still looks radical and beautiful six decades after it was seen. These days it’s very hard to find cars that are truly elegant and to highlight the point here are two masterpieces from the paragon of elegance, Pininfarina. The 288 GTO in the foreground was realistically the fastest car in the mid-1980s, while the 308 in the background has remained a landmark design. When talking about the world’s fastest cars today, it’s hard to say that any are truly “elegant.”
Elegance & Automobiles
How do you define “elegance” as it relates to the automobile? The American Heritage Dictionary describes the word as “refinement, grace and beauty in movement, appearance and manners”; “restraint and grace of style”; and “tasteful opulence in form, decoration or presentation.” It also notes that “graceful” is “showing grace of movement, form or proportion.”
Last week’s post on the Ghia Gilda really had me reflecting on those descriptions and the absence of elegance in the automotive landscape today, on why that is, and how elegance might be making a comeback. The Gilda was so out there, so daring for its era, yet thanks to its grace, restraint and an effective use of color, six decades after it was first seen the Gilda remains stunning. So what happened to grace and in automotive design?
If there’s one marque I equate with elegance, it’s Aston Martin. And if there is one model that seems to define the word, it’s the DB4GT Zagato built in the early 1960s. Interestingly, when speaking with designers about what caused them to enter the auto industry, one of the two cars they most frequently name is Aston’s DB4 GTZ.
A Little Backstory
Looking for insight, I spoke with David Woodhouse, the current director of design at Lincoln. He’s a total gearhead who was brought up in a car-loving family over in the U.K., where his father owned an independent repair facility. “Dad was a Jag man,” David reflects, “so I grew up with a string of them. He had a customer with a Dino, and when he drove it back to him I was a passenger. It was so cool, hearing that engine behind you. That Ferrari has been a massive influence on me.”
Woodhouse ended up graduating from the Royal College of Art in London with a Master of Design degree, and for the past two-plus decades has worked with Mini (another one of his youthful loves; he has a collection of them), Cadillac, Range Rover and BMW. After that came a stint at Ford’s Strategic Design Studios in London and California (the fantastic Shelby GR1 concept from 2004 is a car he lead the design team on), and for the past several years he has been at Lincoln, where he is one of the key individuals in spearheading the nameplate’s resurrection.
Ferrari and Pininfarina weren’t the only names with a lock on elegance. For decades Mercedes Benz SL’s have had an understated beauty to them, and here are two prime examples. In the foreground is the 300SLS from 1955; realistically this one-off is the starting point for every SL that followed, and it set a lovely precedent for wonderful proportions, simple surfaces and nice details. The SL55 from 2003-2008 in the background certainly followed that tradition. Today this type of simplicity and detailing is much more the exception than the rule.
“There is a cycle of what is fashionable and what is not,” he says when I query about the lack of elegance today’,”so there is always a reaction to this. Look at cars through the 1980s, and there was still a human scale as this was before the real strict standards of crash protection.
“For instance, a BMW 3-Series from this era had thin delicate pillars, but for the past 25 years regulations have required massive pillars, and now hoods for pedestrian crashes. Add in modern powertrain and their amenities, which caused the cowl to get larger. This created a ‘scaling issue,’ where you have to resolve bigger and bigger volumes, which is less elegant to execute.”
He then points to a recently fashionable trend: stadium seating. “This is where the second row of seats is higher than the first,” Woodhouse explains. This made rooflines higher in the back. When I came to Lincoln, I drove an MKS sedan for a year and observed how high the trunklid was…
“Every Era has Elegant Cars”
For decades, one could find purposefulness and elegance in a number of market segments. The fastback Mustang in the movie “Bullitt” took a good thing and made it even better, combining a well-proportioned shape with minimal ornamentation to make it brutal, purposeful yet still beautiful. Once again there is understatement and restraint to everything, two design elements that are rare in a world where even economy cars and midsize sedans have overly aggressive faces.
“So many cars today have an inelegant rake and attitude, where so much of it has been about attack and aggressiveness. With Lincoln, we really needed to get the car planted on the road, and one of the keys visually was to lower the rear deck—which was one of the things we did on the Continental. This is why volume and basic architecture is so important.”
We soon start ticking off some of our favorite “most elegant” cars, of which a number are pictured here. “Every era has elegant cars,” Woodhouse notes. “For me, the quintessentially elegant cars are the 1950s and ‘60s road Ferraris; they are so lithe and lean. I’m always amazed at how often they win at a concours.”
Three different eras of Lamborghinis, and three examples of the effectiveness of restraint that seems to be lacking today. The Miura on the right broke cover in 1966 and was a landmark, realistically the first of what today would be called a “supercar.” The LP400 Countach (center) made from 1974-1977 was audacious but also showed restraint. The one-off Raptor by Zagato was also quite a statement when it debuted in 1996, but still remained elegant with its balance and lovely surface treatments.
Return of Elegance
What’s interesting is, I’m now wondering if we may be on the cusp of a return of elegance. Look at what Woodhouse and Lincoln are doing, for the understated Continental is definitely a step in the right direction, and the Navigator SUV doesn’t look like some monster out of the movie “Predator” or “Alien.” Last year’s BMW’s Series 8 Concept was stunning in its surface treatments and proportions, and the Group’s Design Director Adrian van Hooydonk told me the production car would be 90+% like what was shown.
When Aston Martin’s DBS debuted in 2007, designer Marek Reichman described it as “a tough guy in a tuxedo,” which was most apt. It’s more chiseled than its Vanquish predecessor, but like so many Astons still has wonderful proportions, flowing lines so that your eye easily moves from front to rear without interruption and appealing details. And even though it has a more taut and athletic appearance than its DB9 stablemates, it still has an elegance that is rare to find today—outside of a DB11, perhaps…
And recently, Automotive News noted, “Mercedes will drastically reduce overly expressive cues…in all models as part of an evolution of its design philosophy.” It also quotes Robert Lesnik, Mercedes exterior head of design, saying, “If you look around at what others are doing, a lot are chocking their cars full of lines, trying to achieve the sharpest edge in the world with the smallest radius. It looks very aggressive—you don’t want to touch it. You’re afraid you could almost hurt yourself.”
Future of the “Hemlines”
In sum, this is what I’ve been seeing for a number of years. Today’s design trends have become so aggressive and exaggerated that in many ways, the face and exterior forms and details seen on many current models have become detached from the actual underlying purpose of the vehicle.
Speaking of automotive elegance, one can’t overlook spyders, roadsters, convertibles and barchettas. Here is one of the best, Maserati’s dashing Ghibli Spyder from 1969-1973. So how is it that such cars have beauty and grace that is so hard to find today? Lincoln’s current design chief David Woodhouse points to regulations that caused a “scaling issue,” where “you have bigger and bigger volumes,” and stadium seating. This last item caused the second row of seats to be higher than the first “which made rooflines higher in the back.”
“I want Lincoln to be like what Frank Lloyd Wright said back in the late 1930s, that the Continental was ‘the most beautiful car in the world,’” Woodhouse notes. “My aspiration is seduction, where the car’s front face draws you in, much like a photo of Monica Bellucci half hidden in the shadows.”
He’s on to something, for as former Chrysler design director Tom Gale told me many years ago, “The automotive business is like fashion. Hemlines rise, and hemlines fall, and it is much the same in design.” Here’s to hoping the new hemline is all about elegance, and beauty.