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Automobile In American Life and Society

Tough Guys and Pretty Boys:
The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History

by David Gartman

The automobile is the most important technological innovation of the twentieth century. This tool of transportation has profoundly transformed the lives of people around the globe. But nowhere has it had a more profound impact than in the United States, where the modern system of automobility was pioneered. The American auto industry invented the method of mass production that made cars available to the majority. And this mass mobility afforded by the mass-produced car transformed every aspect of Americans’ lives, including their culture--their beliefs, desires, and values. The automobile long ago stopped being a vehicle for getting passengers from here to there, and became an embodiment of American dreams and desires--for freedom, progress, individuality. In fact, Americans’ investment of cultural meanings and desires in the automobile has increasingly impeded its development as a safe, efficient tool of transportation. Throughout the history of twentieth-century America, there has been an ongoing conflict between the car as an efficient tool and the car as a carrier of cultural dreams and values. The latter has generally won out.

This conflict between automotive utility and meaning has been expressed within the industry as a contest between two professions, each representing a different vision of the car. On one side have been the engineers, or the “tough guys.” They have fought to make cars “tough,” that is, durable, efficient, and safe tools for transporting people from one place to another. On the other side have been the stylists, or the “pretty boys.” They have fought to make cars “pretty,” that is, the carriers of cultural and aesthetic meanings beyond usefulness, the realization of Americans’ deepest aspirations and desires. This professional struggle between the “tough guys” and the “pretty boys” has been inextricably linked to and determined by broader struggles in American society--between competing firms, between workers and capitalists, between men and women. At the broadest level, the struggle between stylists and engineers is part of a historical struggle of the American people as a whole to define their culture and themselves, to decide who they are and how they should live.

Throughout the twentieth century the advantage in this battle of tough guys and pretty boys has shifted back and forth. But the general trend since about the mid-1920s has been toward the defeat of the engineers' vision of the car as a transportation tool by the stylists' vision of the car as a dream machine. Since then, technological innovations to make the car a more efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly tool have taken a backseat to aesthetic changes to make the car a more meaningful dream of power, individuality, and freedom. This defeat is part of a broader redefinition of America over this period from a society of producers to a society of consumers. Over the course of the twentieth century, through various struggles, Americans shifted their social and psychic center from producing things useful to others to consuming things gratifying to the self, from the work ethic to the consumption ethic. They ceased defining themselves by what they did, and began defining themselves by what they bought.

My automotive drama is a microcosm of this larger national drama. It has two major antagonists, symbolic generals for these opposing camps. On the side of the engineers and the work ethic is the well-known automotive icon, Henry Ford. This tough, stubborn Michigan farm boy fathered the efficient mass production of utilitarian automobiles like the Model T, and thus put America on wheels. On the side of the stylists and the consumption ethic is the less-well-known Harley Earl. This Hollywood coachbuilder for the stars fathered automobile styling, launching Americans on flights of consumer fancy far beyond earthbound utility. The curtain goes up on our drama in the early 1920s, with Ford strutting the stage as the undisputed ruler of the American automotive domain. But in order to understand how he achieved this position, we need to fill in a bit of historical background.

The Utilitarian Vision of Henry Ford

The automobile entered the American scene around the turn of the century as an expensive toy for the rich, for its high price ($600 to $7500) put ownership beyond the reach of all but the affluent. Wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers used their cars not as utilitarian transportation but as objects of sport and display in a leisured lifestyle. The rich conspicuously displayed their wealth by racing, parading, and touring their expensive vehicles in public. The bodies of these early automobiles also displayed their good taste, for they were works of the coachbuilding art. Designed and built separately by the skilled craftsmen of coachbuilding firms such as Brewster, Fleetwood, and Judkins, the bodies of these cars were molded into fashionable forms and finished with layer after layer of lacquer paints. Above all, the early American car was testimony to the freedom and wealth of the privileged few.

Early on, however, automotive pioneers like Henry Ford saw the potential for the auto as a tool of mass transportation in a nation of great distances. The farm boy Ford was motivated originally by a desire to lighten the toil of farmers and help them haul goods to market. In 1908 his Ford Motor Company introduced a car for the masses, the Model T. It was the epitome of a no-frills utility vehicle--light, sturdy, plain, stripped of accessories, and selling for the low price of $825. In order to build his utility car cheaply, Ford pioneered mass production, combining elements invented by other industries and individuals into a new system of manufacture. He took the skilled crafts that dominated the early automotive production process and divided them up into simple, individual tasks, which could be performed by unskilled workers using specialized machines. Then he laid out these tasks in closely spaced production and assembly lines. These lines increased productivity by minimizing the amount of time and labor spent hauling work between dispersed tasks. But they also increased work intensity by transferring the control that workers once exercised over the speed of work to managers. Since the unskilled workers employed by these new methods were also cheaper and more plentiful than skilled craftsmen, mass production greatly lowered the costs of manufacturing automobiles. But to achieve the high volumes required by these methods, cars had to be standardized to a few simple models, and their parts had to be designed specifically for rapid, mechanical production. Thus, in 1910 Ford dropped production of his other two models and produced only the Model T for the next seventeen years.

With the rise of mass production, the task of designing the auto body was taken away from coachbuilders and their aesthetic traditions and given over to body engineers, whose main concern was the cost-cutting production of strong, durable shelters for the human occupants of cars. They redesigned the coachbuilt body for these criteria, resulting in mass-produced cars like the Model T that were flat, square, black, and fragmented in appearance. The flatness and rectilinearity were dictated by metal presses and welding machines, which had difficulty stamping and welding the curved panels characteristic of coachbuilt bodies. The unintegrated, fragmented look resulted from quick assembly, which allowed little time for close fitting and finishing. And with respect to paint, Henry Ford dictated that customers could have a Model T in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. This was not because he was chromatically bigoted, but because he sought the quickest and cheapest method of painting cars. The craft method of finishing coachbuilt bodies required up to twenty coats of lacquer paint and a month to complete. Ford pioneered a method of flowing on enamel and quickly drying it in mechanized ovens, which reduced the requisite time to about four hours. The only drawback was that high oven heats changed all color pigments, except black.

So Ford's Model T was not only cheap, but it looked cheap as well. But this mattered little to most Americans of modest incomes who bought them, for they were looking mainly for a cheap, reliable, and efficient way for getting from one place to another. And Henry's little tin lizzie fit this bill to a T. They sold in droves. By 1923 mass-production efficiencies had lowered the price to a mere $265, and half of the autos in the entire world were Model Ts. Ford ruled the automotive world with an iron fist.

General Motors Style Overtakes Ford Efficiency

Ford's market dominance gave the competition fits, especially General Motors, which was a distant second in sales. In 1920 Pierre DuPont took over this sprawling, disorganized conglomerate of auto firms assembled by Billy Durant in his attempt to create an industry-dominating trust. DuPont appointed to run the reorganized firm a brilliant young manager, Alfred Sloan, whose first task was to devise a strategy to crack Ford's lock on the market. He quickly ruled out head-on price competition, concluding that a capital fund the size of the U.S. Treasury would be required to do so. Sloan decided that GM should offer not cheaper cars but better quality cars in a greater variety. He based this decision on the presumption that consumers with rising incomes who were buying a replacement for their first car wanted something beyond basic transportation. But just what did "better quality" mean? This question would be answered only after the first major battle between engineering and aesthetics.

GM's engineering staff at this time was led by the legendary Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric starter, the high-compression V-8 engine, and lead gasoline additives, the latter of which subsequently proved to be a dangerous pollutant. He and his engineers defined better quality in a utilitarian way, as improved performance and economy. In the early 1920s they were working on an innovative air-cooled engine that GM planned to incorporate into the 1923 Chevrolet in order to make it competitive with Ford's Model T. It was called the "copper-cooled engine" because of the copper fins on the block for dispersing heat. But the engine was delayed due to technical problems, and Sloan grew impatient, declaring that this "engineering dream" undermined the "commercial-mindedness of our strategic plan." In other words, the goal of perfecting the functioning of the car was cutting into profits. He ordered development of the air-cooled engine sidetracked, deciding instead to offer in 1923 a Chevrolet with nine-year-old-technology but a new body of the latest style. This gave the mass-produced car the look of an expensive craftbuilt luxury car, with a lower roof, higher hood, and more rounded lines. Brisk sales of the new-looking Chevrolet convinced Sloan that to compete with Ford it was not necessary to lead in engineering, but merely to offer consumers better looking cars with more variety. As a result, there emerged an expression among the engineers at GM: "Whatever you do, don't let GM do it first." Technical innovation was expensive and unpredictable; the best ideas required long development and could ultimately prove infeasible. Aesthetic innovation--changing the cosmetic look of the car--was relatively cheap and predictable.

Sloan also decided to rely on aesthetics to differentiate GM’s five brands in a clear price hierarchy covering the entire automotive market. He slowly integrated the previously independent brands of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac into a scheme of parts-sharing, which cheapened production by increasing the economies of scale on which mass production relied. The different models and makes shared not merely mechanical parts, like transmissions and brakes, but also the structural foundations of the body, called body shells. The dozens of different GM models were all built on three shells of different sizes. The same shell was made to look different, however, by the addition of superficial features like fenders, headlights, taillights, and chrome trim that were unique to each model. GM also added cheap, superficial variety in its mass-produced cars by developing in 1923 a nitrocellulose lacquer paint called Duco, which combined the broad color range of lacquers with the quick drying time of enamel. Ford’s basic black cars were thus eclipsed by GM’s dazzling variety of brightly colored models. In the mid-1920s Sloan also introduced the annual model change, which similarly relied on aesthetics. Every year the body style of all GM cars was changed slightly to give consumers the look of newness and progress. However, underneath the dazzling new surfaces, the body shells and mechanical parts remained unchanged, often for decades. These policies focused on automotive style were responsible for propelling GM sales past Ford in 1927, when the Model T was discontinued due to plummeting sales. To compete with GM's more stylish cars, Ford was forced to introduce in this year the Model A, whose styling also borrowed the look of the luxury classics and inspired a popular song entitled “Henry’s Made a Lady out of Lizzie.”

The Changing American Character: From Work Ethic to Consumption Ethic

Several factors caused Americans to abandon Ford's focus on utilitarian engineering and cost-cutting efficiencies and embrace GM's emphasis on style. By the mid-1920s the basic technology of all makes was uniformly high, so the average buyer could take the car's utility for granted. Consequently, consumers began to focus their attention on the social function of the car as a symbol of status and distinction. Mere possession of an auto no longer served this function, as it once did, since ownership had now spread down the class hierarchy to the lower-middle class and even to some working-class people. In these circumstances, distinction was conveyed by the type of car one owned, and the cheap, mass-produced car was certainly not very distinctive. By the early 1920s, for example, the once-beloved Model T was beginning to be socially stigmatized as ugly and poorly constructed. One Model T joke of this era asked: Why is a Model T like a mistress? Because you hate to be seen on the streets with one. Another joke poked fun at the T’s loosely joined construction, with an owner stating he knew his speed without a speedometer: “When my Ford is running five miles per hour, the fender rattles; twelve miles an hour, my teeth rattle; and fifteen miles an hour, the transmission drops out.” These attitudes raise deeper questions about American consumers and their desires. Why were mass-produced cars aesthetically stigmatized? And why were Americans increasingly looking to consumption for status and distinction, and no longer to their work? The answers to these questions are found in the profound changes wrought in American society by the fragmented and deskilled mass-production process pioneered by the auto industry.

From the beginning, Americans were deeply ambivalent about mass production. On the one hand, they hoped that mass production would further democracy and equality by bringing goods previously confined to the wealthy within the reach of common people. Many philanthropists and reformers of this era, for example, believed that the mass-produced car would bring to the masses opportunities for economic mobility and revitalizing leisure previously available only to the few. On the other hand, some Americans feared that mass production would further dehumanization by reducing people to deskilled, standardized cogs in an impersonal industrial machine. This fear was not confined to high-minded intellectuals but shared by common working people. They, like other Americans, were imbued with the work ethic, and thus used to defining their moral worth by their work, that is, by their productive contribution to society. But workers found it increasingly difficult to display their morality, skill, and civic-mindedness in standardized, mindless work controlled by someone else. So early on workers revolted against the mass-production system, which confiscated their skills, sped up their work, and subjected them to mechanical despotism. A wave of class conflict, in the forms of strikes, turnover, and absenteeism, appeared among automobile workers in the early mass-production shops, raising questions about the human viability of the system.

Gradually, however, manufacturers found a solution to the conflict, and once again Henry Ford led the way. In 1913, there was an attempt to organize the Ford Motor Company by the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical anarcho-syndicalist group which sought not to represent workers but to form “one big union” to destroy both capitalism and the state. Although the attempt failed, it obviously worried Henry, motivating him to announce in 1914 the Five Dollar Day to head off further labor trouble. This program raised the wages of his workers in exchange for their submission to the inhumanities of mass production and adoption of a stable, consumption-oriented lifestyle focused on the family and home. To ensure that they used their higher wages in the ways he preferred, Ford created the Sociological Department and charged it with investigating the details of workers’ home lives and consumption habits. Other mass producers followed suit, and by the early 1920s many American workers were using their higher wages to purchase consumer goods and create in their homes a refuge from the demands of their dehumanizing mass-production jobs. In short, this period saw the beginning of a gradual cultural shift from a work ethic to a consumption ethic. Americans began to define themselves less by what they did on the job and more by what they bought, possessed, and consumed in their leisure time.

Automobiles assumed a central place in this emerging consumer society. The type of car one drove testified to one's character and worth. In such a society, the look of inexpensive, mass-produced cars like the Model T was unacceptable, because it visually testified to the cheap, degraded mass-production process to which these car owners were subordinated. The fragmentation spoke of a divided, unskilled work process. The uniformity of color and style testified to the standardization of human effort. And the flat, rectilinear lines spoke of the rigid, unbending discipline of machines and managers. Compared to the curving, integrated, varied designs of luxury cars, mass-produced cars testified to degraded social status. People who were trying to escape and forget about their work lives in the realm of consumption did not want to be reminded of the indignities of mass production by a car that looked mass-produced. So the Model T declined, and GM sales rose, for Sloan gave consumers the look of luxury in mass-produced cars. His cars had styles that covered over the reminders of work with beautiful, superficial illusions.

The Struggle For Styling in the Early Industry

The battle between beauty and utility in the automobile industry and American society was far from over, however, in 1927. Although GM's Sloan had discovered a strategy that resonated with cultural changes in America, he had yet to find the means to implement it. How do you routinely mass produce variety, novelty, and distinction? In 1927 Sloan did not know exactly how this could be done, but he believed he knew who could do it. His name was Harley Earl. Earl was the diametrical opposite of the no-nonsense, utility-obsessed engineers like Henry Ford who created and ran the early automobile industry. He came from Hollywood, the capital of consumer dreams, where he grew up in his father's coachbuilding shop building custom car bodies for the movies and their stars. He thus learned early on to think of cars as entertainment, not utilitarian vehicles. “People like something new and exciting in an automobile as well as in a Broadway show,” he stated. “They like visual entertainment and that’s what we stylists give them.” His special bodies for a California Cadillac dealer brought him to the attention of GM's Cadillac division head, Larry Fisher. He was planning to introduce in 1927 an inexpensive, mass-produced Cadillac called the La Salle. He hired Earl to design it, specifying that he bring the look of luxury to this cheap Cadillac. The 1927 La Salle was an instant success, hailed by critics as one of the most beautiful cars ever built. Sloan was so impressed with Earl’s work that in June of 1927 he hired him to establish the first styling department of a major mass-production auto firm, General Motors’ Art and Color Section. Earl did not like this initial name given his department. He complained that it was a "sissy name," and herein lay one of his major challenges.

Earl faced an uphill battle to establish GM’s new emphasis on style over engineering, and both he and Sloan knew it. Up to this point, the American automobile industry had been built and controlled by the "tough guys," the hard-nosed engineers and production men who thought of the car as an instrument of transportation, not an object of entertainment. The task of car-body design that Earl proposed to take over was controlled by a specialized group of these tough guys, the body engineers. Bill Mitchell, one of Earl’s stylists at GM, described these men as looking like house detectives, "wearing their hats all the time, suspenders and belts, button shoes, with pencils in their pockets and their taste in their mouths." They were foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, fist-fighting macho men, who believed that beauty belonged in the parlor and questioned the masculinity of any man who wanted to put it on a car. Earl, by contrast, was a perennially tanned Californian, accustomed to dressing in bronze suits, purple shirts, and suede shoes. No wonder the body engineers resentfully called the stylists “pretty-picture boys,” “fairies,” and “pantywaists.”

There was definitely a gender dimension to this conflict, one that originated in the division of labor between men and women in early industrial society. At this time, earning a living was physically separated from the home, and became the exclusive province of men. All the nonutilitarian attributes of life--art, beauty, culture--were left behind in the home for women to tend to. So any concern for beauty became defined as feminine and hence unwelcome in the manly, efficiency-obsessed world of work. This gendered division of utility and beauty seems to have been one of the main sources of the infamous conflict between Henry Ford and his only son, Edsel. For the father of mass production and down-to-earth automotive utility, not only was history “bunk” but so were art and beauty. His son Edsel, by contrast, grew up to be a sophisticated and stylish man with artistic tastes and a great interest in auto aesthetics. In 1922 he convinced his father to buy the luxury-car firm Lincoln and quickly became involved in body design there. And it was Edsel who also convinced Henry to finally replace the dowdy Model T with the stylish Model A, which he helped to design by bringing a touch of his Lincolns to his dad’s Ford. But although Henry tolerated Edsel’s aesthetic tinkerings at Lincoln, he believed his son to be insufficiently manly for the rough world of mass-produced automobiles, and he resisted Edsel's efforts to introduce more style into Ford cars. Although he eventually made Edsel president of Ford Motor Company, Henry often delegated real power to rough, fist-fighting men like Charles Sorensen and Harry Bennett. Sorensen, who ran Ford’s River Rouge plant for years, was known to show his disapproval for a worker’s performance by tipping over his bench or crashing a stool over it. As head of Ford’s infamous Service Department, Bennett and his fellow toughs launched a reign of terror against workers’ efforts to unionize Ford that culminated in the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, in which they attacked union organizers, killing one.

Alfred Sloan and Harley Earl understood, however, that the gendered division between beauty and utility was breaking down in the 1920s. Men subjected to the savage utility and efficiency of mass production were looking to the home and its nonutilitarian consumer goods for compensation. Thus, beauty could no longer be confined to the feminine parlor but spread to masculine consumer machines like the automobile. But in order to break the feminine stigma of style and produce cars that hid the ugly world of work, pioneers like Harley Earl had to fight long and hard with the defenders of the old order of automotive utility. The battles he fought with the body engineers were monumental, especially those with the Fisher brothers, who controlled GM’s bodybuilding division. Bill Mitchell, an early GM stylist, recalled that the differences in automotive philosophy between the stylists and engineers were symbolized by the contrast of personal styles between Earl and the Fishers: “The Fisher brothers were small,... they wore homburgs, and what a contrast to this 6'4" man who had a bronze complexion. He’d wear bronze suits, suede shoes--flamboyant was the word and outspoken, a tough man, and he’d cuss those Fisher brothers out.... He’d say, 'goddamn, you don’t know what you’re talking about.'”

It helped Earl’s cause that he was an imposing hulk of a man (6'4", 235 pounds), had played football at Stanford, and could swear, drink, and carouse with the best of the engineers. In fact, another of his early stylists, Frank Hershey, suggested that he consciously cultivated this super-masculine demeanor in order to eradicate the feminine connotation of style and win over the macho engineers. Also helpful in his battle were the backing of GM president Sloan and the general trend toward a style-obsessed consumer society. Progress was slow, however, because initially Earl had no real organizational power but could only advise divisional executives on style. Even when an executive accepted one of his designs, the body engineers often altered it before it went into production, claiming it was technically impossible to produce. To undermine the engineers’ monopoly on technical knowledge, Earl hired his own engineers in Art and Color to help stylists technically realize their designs. As a result of these struggles, Earl gained more and more control over the design of GM cars and began to implement his personal design philosophy. The main goal of this philosophy was to give consumers escape and entertainment, to lift them out of their boring, standardized lives momentarily. He stated: "I try to design a car so that every time you get in it, it's a relief--you have a little vacation for a while." His idea of entertainment was modeled on his idol and former neighbor in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille. Earl sought to create in sheet metal the entertaining spectacles that De Mille produced on the screen.

The Depression Era Battle for Streamlinging

Although Earl's entertainment philosophy gained ground over the engineers' efficiency at GM and throughout the industry, automobile stylists continued to face formidable challenges. The years of the Great Depression were crucial. America’s consumer society was just getting off the ground when the economy crashed, touching off renewed class conflict. But business leaders offered the nation a way out of the crisis--consumer engineering and streamlining. Believing that the Depression was caused by consumers’ unwillingness, not inability, to buy, they proposed to apply science and technology to consumption, making the design and selling of products as rational and efficient as their production. Streamlining was part of this strategy, an attempt to use the science of aerodynamics to create advanced, fast-moving transportation machines that cut effortlessly and efficiently through the air and stimulated the interest of reluctant consumers.

The automobile was certainly a candidate for improvement through streamlining. Industry engineers sought to use the science of aerodynamics to seize full control of auto design back from the encroaching stylists and turn it once again into a utilitarian activity. During the Depression the Chrysler Corporation, which was still a stronghold of no-nonsense auto engineering, took the lead in functional streamlining. In 1934 it introduced a radically streamlined car, the Airflow, which was engineered by Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton, and Carl Breer. It was a marvel of functional engineering, designed from bumper to bumper for efficiency and safety. The Airflow introduced several revolutionary engineering innovations: unitary body construction, which made the frame and body one strong, stress-bearing unit; a new auto geometry that placed the seats entirely between the axles, making for a smoother ride; and a sleek, aerodynamically engineered body that reduced the drag coefficient and saved fuel. But it was a commercial disaster, with poor sales nearly sending Chrysler into bankruptcy. The problem with the Airflow was not only that its sloping hood and curving forms departed too radically from the traditional look of cars. The car’s design was also too reminiscent of the machines of mass production, to whose ruthless efficiency many Americans attributed the unemployment of the period. Industry stylists like Harley Earl jeered the engineers’ failure, and introduced their own vision of aesthetic streamlining. Although totally conventional in engineering, these aesthetically streamlined cars, like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, had the sleek and exciting look of rounded airplanes and trains, and they sold extremely well. The stylists again triumphed, as the aesthetic illusion of technological progress took precedent over its engineered reality. By the end of the 1930s, Harley Earl had gained complete control over the design of cars for all of GM’s divisions, and stylists in other automakers also made inroads into the power of engineers.

The Triumph of Stylists in the 1950s

From 1942 to 1945, the battle between stylists and engineers was eclipsed by the international hostilities of World War II. Civilian automobile production was suspended in these years, and the factories of automakers were converted into freedom’s arsenal, producing millions of tanks, trucks, jeeps, planes, and guns. With the coming of victory, however, the auto industry entered a period of rapid expansion that ensured a similar triumph of the pretty boys over their tough guy rivals. Beginning in the late 1940s, the nation experienced a postwar economic expansion that created an explosion of consumer spending. Auto sales skyrocketed, due both to the pent-up demand from the war years and the entry of a vast number of newly prosperous consumers into the new-car market for the first time. Because the Depression years had eliminated many small automakers, this rapidly expanding auto market was left almost entirely to the control of what came to be known as the Big Three--General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Within this automotive oligopoly, competition through price and engineering innovation gave way to the less costly competition through style. Consequently, styling departments in the Big Three expanded exponentially, and the stylists reigned supreme in all the automakers. They unilaterally dictated auto designs, with engineers reduced to trying to make their increasingly outrageous dream machines run. If, for example, stylists wanted cars closer to the ground to make them appear sleeker and faster, engineers scrambled to redesign frames, suspensions, and engines to facilitate this.

During the 1950s Harley Earl set the direction of style, dictating that cars become not only lower but longer and wider as well. Following the precept of this expansive period that “bigger is better,” he sought to offer consumers the psychic compensation of big cars to convince them that their lives were indeed better. As George Walker, head of styling at Ford, told Popular Mechanics in 1959: “The American public is aggressive, it’s moving upward all the time...and that means bigness. When the American workingman gets a little money he wants a bigger house and he wants a bigger car.” Earl and other stylists also offered consumers the dream of flight, and earthbound autos sprouted tail fins, air scoops, jet exhausts, and canopy windshields. Plagiarizing jet plane and rocket design was popular because these connoted advanced technology and exciting escape from terrestrial worries and cares. Further, during this period of escalating Cold War tensions, these visual associations with America’s military technology swelled consumers with feelings of national pride and power.

Despite the purely symbolic nature of most of these 1950s features, stylists felt compelled to offer some flimsy functional excuses for their design excesses, perhaps to assuage consumers' guilt about such automotive extravagance. Tail fins were said to stabilize cars in crosswinds, despite the fact that tests showed this effect was achieved only at speeds higher than sixty miles per hour. Big, heavy cars were said to be safer, for they "held the road" and protected passengers in collisions. But in reality these larger cars were more unsafe, for improvements in steering and braking lagged substantially behind increases in power and size. Lower cars were said to improve handling and lessen the dangers of rollover, but both claims were largely erroneous. Finally, wraparound “canopy” windshields were said to improve the driver’s vision by eliminating corner pillars, while in reality the curved glass created dangerous distortions of sight. These problems mattered little to the industry, however, for it was convinced that consumers were unconcerned with safety. And indeed, this conviction seemed to be validated in 1956, when Ford tried to catch Chevrolet sales by making safety a selling point. In this year the company promoted its Lifeguard Design cars, which came equipped with safety features like seat belts, padded dash, dished steering wheel, breakaway rearview mirror, and crash-proof door locks. But the safety campaign failed to boost Ford sales past the stylish Chevrolets. And Harley Earl himself offered an explanation of why “safety doesn’t sell.” People drive for fun, Earl stated, and being conscious of the possibility of accidents spoils their fun. "If you were on a boat, you would not want life preservers all over the table; it suggests too much."

Contradictions of Fantastic Styling and the Stylists' Fall From Grace

The 1960s, however, brought questions about these dream machines that were part of larger doubts about America's prosperity and its costs. The remarkable success of the auto industry in selling Americans substitute satisfactions for their suppressed desires revealed the contradictions of the system of mass consumption. The more people tried to escape their individual problems in bigger, more powerful dream machines, the more crowded, dangerous, and environmentally devastating the roads became, which prevented all from achieving the escape they sought. The first sign of trouble came in 1958, the year of the Edsel debacle. The Ford company introduced this new car line named after Henry’s now-deceased son to compete in the expanding middle-priced market. In order to stand out in this crowded segment, executives demanded that the Edsel have totally distinctive styling. What Ford stylists produced, however, was a car that merely exaggerated the styling excesses of the day, with horizontal fins, concave sides, and a peculiar horizontal grille. The release of the Edsel in the fall of 1957 coincided with the start of the first postwar economic recession and the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, both of which raised questions about the nature of America’s consumer economy. In the light of these serious developments, the car seemed silly and self-indulgent. Besides, the Edsel protested its difference so loudly that consumers began to notice that it was really very similar to all the other oversized and overdecorated family sedans Detroit was producing. The slow sales and consequently quick cancellation of the Edsel signaled serious problems in the industry. Another ominous sign of America's growing doubts about its automotive fantasies was the steady rise in sales of the German Volkswagen. The appeal of the VW for many consumers was its real difference. The small, cheap, and unpretentious little car certainly stood out in the sea of gaudy, gargantuan, look-alike sedans produced by Detroit automakers. Many Americans, especially the growing number of countercultural youth in the 1960s, embraced the Volkswagen as the anti-car, a symbolic rejection of the homogeneity, waste, and extravagance of American cars and consumer culture as a whole. Increased sales of the little bug indicated that something was seriously wrong with the assumptions that had driven stylists for thirty years.

In the 1960s Detroit tried to address consumers’ perception of automotive homogeneity by offering an increasing variety of car models. Instead of relying on the artificial differentiation of the same big family sedans, American automakers pioneered structurally and mechanically new auto types, such as the muscle car (a powerful performance vehicle), the pony car (a sporty, youth-oriented vehicle), and the personal luxury car (a high-end vehicle geared to the comfort of a single driver). To compete with the VW and other imports, the Big Three also introduced compacts, and it was the controversy over one of these that galvanized popular sentiment against stylists and Detroit automakers in general. In 1960 GM introduced its Corvair compact, a rear-engined, air-cooled car. But there were problems with the swing-axle rear suspension that caused dangerous oversteer at high speeds and resulted in scores of deaths. This defect was featured in Unsafe at Any Speed, a 1965 book authored by a young auto-safety crusader named Ralph Nader. Nader charged that GM executives knew of the defect and, despite the pleadings of their own engineers, refused to install the $15 stabilizing bar to correct it. His book generally accused the Big Three of being too obsessed with sales and styling to build safe, efficient cars. In a chapter on automotive engineers, Nader argued that they submissively catered to the stylists and merchandisers, who had the real power to determine design. He testified to these facts before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, and when GM executives were caught trying to intimidate him, they and the entire industry were publicly humiliated. What followed was a series of landmark Congressional acts in the late 1960s that established safety and emission standards for cars.

But the real day of reckoning for stylists and their dream machines did not come until 1973, the year of the OPEC oil embargo. When gas shortages spread and prices soared, Americans got a rude awakening from their automotive dreams, and for the first time in fifty years concerns for efficiency and safety assumed priority. In the corporate hierarchies, stylists got their comeuppance, and the engineers regained the power to design cars in order to meet new government regulations of emissions, fuel economy, and safety. But because they were under severe cost restraints, engineers were not very innovative, giving consumers mainly copies of the econobox cars like the Volkswagen Rabbit that were flooding the American market from Europe and Japan.

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.

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 cars, 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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