Tough Guys and Pretty Boys:

The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History

by David Gartman

Stylists Fight Back with "AERO"

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the nation underwent a period of grueling and traumatic transformation from an industrial economy based on the production of things to a postindustrial economy based on the production of services and images. During this transition, the market for cars was rather flat, as lay-offs and inflation eroded consumer buying power. But America’s culture of compensatory consumption did not fundamentally change during this period. So when the oil shortages abated and the new postindustrial economy started to grow in the mid-1980s, Americans searching for meaning in these uncertain times once again looked to automotive fantasies. The leader of this new phase of automotive consumerism was a newly enriched class of young urban professionals and entrepreneurs, many of whom had been full-fledged members of the VW-driving counterculture of the 1960s. Also known as the yuppies, these affluent people looked for a way to express their newfound success without being too ostentatious or violating their environmental values. They found an automotive match in German luxury makes like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW. Although they were expensive, these cars were designed with a severe, high-tech functionalism that was certainly not indulgent or extravagant. And bringing back a theme from the 1930s, these German cars were aerodynamically designed to cut drag and save fuel. Taking note of this new, more responsible and efficient consumerism, Detroit stylists also caught the "aero" bug, with Ford Motor Company leading the way with innovative models like the Thunderbird, Tempo, and Taurus. Newly renamed auto designers--they dropped the “stylist” label due to its negative connotations developed in the 1960s--saw in aerodynamics a new claim on power to counter engineering dominance. They enthusiastically embraced wind-tunnel testing of their models to prove that their profession now had a technical basis. They also argued, often convincingly, that it was less expensive to increase fuel economy by designers creating new aerodynamic shapes than by engineers creating new engines and transmissions. The designers thus paraded their drag coefficients before the public and corporate executives, as if to say: "We are no longer flighty, pretty-picture boys. We are now responsible automotive technicians." Although the actual efficiency achievements of aero were modest, the designers fought their way back into the good graces of their corporations, although the older members of the profession still resented the power that engineers had wrested from them.

<<Previous Section       -       Next Section>









About the Project | Credits | Contact Us | Student & Teacher Resources | Site Map
©2004 Automobile in American Life and Society