Sports cars

Multicolored muscle cars lined up at Cruise Fruit Cove car show in Jacksonville, Florida.

At East Carolina University School of Art and Design (SoAD), the subject of aesthetics is one that we often discuss, debate and sometimes argue. All tend to enrich classroom critiques, and often broaden otherwise narrower points of view. 

For example, during the many years I’ve taught there (SoAD), I’ve heard ongoing dialogues in which students and colleagues have argued the merits of abstract expressionism and photorealism. In the realm of painting, those are two entirely different schools of thought, each with its own form of aesthetics. Along those lines, the list of topics in the visual arts is endless.

In terms of aesthetics, I don’t think anything has suffered more than the automotive industry. For most of the twentieth century, cars were designed with unique styles that made them identifiable as brands. Placed side by side, a ’66 Ford Mustang and a ’66 Pontiac GTO were easily distinguishable. While they both filled the same market niche, Ford and Pontiac loyalists drove one or the other exclusively, without betraying their beloved brands.

But, over the last many years, automotive design has taken a backseat to economy, technology and reducing the carbon footprint. While these features have excelled substantially, aesthetics have declined dramatically. Case in point: in the 1960s, the Jaguar XKE was the “pièce de résistance” in automotive design. 

Sleek, sexy, curvilinear lines, leather appointments and with a growl akin to the cat for which it was named. An article in “Sports Car Digest” summed it up this way, “Such is the inherent rightness of its proportions, stance and purity of line, that it is a permanent exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.” Few automobiles can lay claim to such an achievement.

However, a look at today’s Jaguars reveals an “aesthetic” that resembles any of the cheap, generic, look-alike imports. Once the undefeated champion of automotive styling, a contemporary survey of Jaguar’s stance, lines and character produces a score something less than zero. This is clearly a brand that’s been reduced to an intrusive heap of visual blight.

I’m privileged to have grown up during the heyday of automobile design, and I had the good fortune to drive some of the great marques before they were upstaged by the onslaught of minivans and other automotive rubbish. Among the most memorable were a 1966 427 Shelby Cobra and a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing. 

My education in industrial design taught me that “form follows function,” but those were cars that achieved both simultaneously and with perfect synchronicity. Once upon a time, auto designers could actually walk and chew gum at the same time.

If you want speed, drive a Tesla. But, the car’s less-than-ordinary “design” will bore you to tears. And the speed comes without the rumble, the smoke and the aesthetic rush that stimulates the human senses.

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