Tough Guys and Pretty Boys:

The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History

by David Gartman

Postindustrial Lifestyle Cars and The New Balance of Power Between Engineers and Designers

The aero trend was relatively short-lived, however, a victim of its own success and new cultural developments. As all automakers rushed to produce slick, aerodynamic cars designed in wind tunnels, a dangerous homogeneity once again plagued the auto market. And this sameness was particularly damning within the new culture of postindustrial society. In this increasingly fragmented and individualistic society, people sought meaning no longer in collective fantasies of progress and power but in individual expressions of leisure lifestyles. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the yuppies were seeking distinction from their parents’ generation of business professionals through the automotive expression of their unique styles of life and leisure. Consequently, they gave rise to an increasing differentiation of the auto market into niches dominated by “lifestyle vehicles,” cars geared to buyers’ age, gender, family status, and recreational preferences. Perhaps the first such vehicle was the minivan, a car that marked the transition of the yuppie generation from singles to parents. This was not a vehicle like the station wagon that their parents had driven in the 1950s, but a new kind of family car. The minivan symbolized a new style of active parenting--taking the kids not merely to school and back but also to soccer practice and ballet class, to the mountains for hiking and camping, to the ocean for surfing and sailing. And this was also a deeply gendered vehicle, large and roomy but also easy to drive for the new working mom, who had to efficiently squeeze her family duties into a hectic work week.

By the mid-1990s, however, the minivan was displaced by a different kind of lifestyle car, the sports utility vehicle. Originally popular as a functional necessity for enthusiasts of backcountry sports like skiing, backpacking, and rock-climbing, these off-road vehicles quickly spread beyond the back-to-nature set to most sedentary, urban-dwelling Americans. Perhaps their popularity was due to the increasing insecurities of the 1990s, which was a decade not only of economic growth but of corporate downsizing and international competition as well. Americans once again sought to escape their problems in cars with the ability to get out of town, into the country, off the roads. The size and bulk of SUVs had the added benefit of connoting safety and protection, creating an impregnable cocoon of steel in which to weather the economic and social storms that swirled in the new global economy.

Minivans and SUVs were merely the first trickles in an increasing flood of lifestyle vehicles that carved up the auto market into a dizzying multitude of micro niches. Next came retro car, character cars, generation-X and then generation-Y cars, eco-cars, multipurpose vehicles, crossover cars, neo-muscle cars, sports cars, and SUVs and trucks in all sizes. This exponential expansion of automotive variety created a new, more equitable balance of power between the designers and engineers within auto companies. Of course, individuality and differentiation had been watchwords of the industry since the 1920s, when Alfred Sloan decided to compete with Ford by offering American consumers a greater variety of constantly improving automobiles. But before the 1970s, this variety and improvement was achieved almost exclusively by the aesthetic manipulations of stylists like Harley Earl. It was they who artificially differentiated and changed cars that were mechanically similar from model to model, from year to year. But in the late 1950s and 1960s, Americans had begun to see through this style game and demand real engineered differences between automobiles. They finally got these in the 1990s.

This new diversity does not mean, however, that the tough-guy engineers have triumphed over the pretty-boy stylists or designers in their battle for power. The greater range of sizes, configurations, and power specifications does mean that engineers are called upon to design more automotive technology for these vehicles. But for the sake of economies of scale, several different vehicles intended for different market niches are built on the same “platform,” which includes basic drive-train technology plus structural architecture. For example, the popular Chrysler retro car, PT Cruiser, is built on the same platform as Chrysler’s economy compact Neon. And Ford builds all three of its luxury sedan nameplates (Jaguar, Volvo, and Lincoln) on the same platform. Consequently, the designers are still required to specify the platform for a particular lifestyle with a different body configuration and aesthetics. For example, much of the bulkiness and toughness of the SUVs that Americans love so much is merely a matter of style. Designers create the visual impression of weight with large-radius curves, and convey an image of toughness and power with fender bulges directly over wheel wells, called “shoulders.” But the design of different configurations of the body requires consultation with engineers to ensure that weight and other requirements are within the specifications of the mechanical platform on which it is built. As a result, a new team approach to design has emerged, in which designers and engineers work together on the same model. Instead of one of the two professions initiating design and forcing the other to conform to its dictates, the two now work together in development teams, along with marketing analysts and production personnel, to develop a new model from start to finish.

This team coordination of designers and engineers does not mean, however, that engineers’ quest for automotive technology to improve safety, efficiency, and performance is now given equal importance to designers’ concerns for aesthetics to provide meaning and identity. On the contrary, the contemporary priority placed on lifestyle diversity and individuality by the entire industry indicates that the quest to infuse automobiles with cultural meaning that was once confined to the stylist’s studio has now infiltrated the engineer’s laboratory as well. Engineers spend most of their time rearranging old technologies into new and different product packages to fit the fantasies of America’s fragmented lifestyle enclaves. Considerably less time is spent pioneering new technologies of safety and efficient propulsion.

In their own defense, the automakers claim they only produce what the public wants, and they are largely correct. But I have argued that what Americans want is not programmed into their genes, but is the result of a social process of the molding, steering, and diversion of desire that has occurred over the course of at least a century. The acquired desire to put meaning into cars in order to substitute for the draining of meaning from their lives has cost Americans millions of lives, trillions of dollars, and immeasurable damage to the landscape and environment. Perhaps it would be better to put meaning back into American jobs, families, and communities than to continue to burden a transportation machine with the task of saving souls.

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