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Automobile in American Life and Society

A History of Scholarship on American Automobile Design
by David Gartman


Appearance is undoubtably the most important feature of the automobile for the vast majority of American consumers. “Style sells cars” has been common wisdom in the industry since at least the 1930s. Market competition and government regulation long ago ensured that all cars would take their passengers from one point to another with roughly comparable levels of safety, efficiency, and reliability. Besides, automobile technology has become so complex over the years that most of us find the actual functioning of our vehicles a mystery. Given such technical ignorance and institutional assurances, most of us choose the car that looks best from the broad category that meets our transportation needs.

Scholarly Inattention to Auto Design

Despite its long-recognized centrality to consumer decisions, however, auto aesthetics has received surprisingly sparse attention from scholars. Hundreds of scholarly books and articles have been written on automobile production, technology, workers, labor relations, safety, marketing, management, and environmental impact, but only a handful have treated the design of the auto’s appearance. Of course, the popular automotive press produces a constant stream of books and magazines documenting the twists and turns of the automobile styles of the past, present, and future. But serious scholars have studiously avoided the topic. What accounts for this inattention to the design of the material artifact that has been at the center of America’s popular culture for almost a century? Surely, it is the cultural preferences and prejudices of intellectuals themselves. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated, cultural tastes are determined by social class, and the class of people who make their living by creating and transmitting knowledge generally prefer high culture over popular culture. In other words, intellectuals prefer culture that is focused on pure form and aesthetics--art for art’s sake--not culture that is useful, even if only for giving immediate pleasure. Clearly, automobile design falls into the latter category, which defines popular culture. Cars are designed not as art objects in themselves but for other, external purposes: to accommodate mechanical parts, to reduce wind resistance and save gas, to hold passengers and cargo, to please consumers’ eyes and egos, and, above all, to increase sales and make money. For intellectuals, the focus of auto aesthetics on market sales is particularly damning, for they like to see themselves and their work as above the crass concern for cash. Consequently, they have consciously avoided paying serious attention to this popular art that affects every American’s life.

For years, then, interest in American auto design was confined to the popular press and the special literature for automobile enthusiasts. Most of the books and articles from these sources were focused on and fetishized the end product of design, often elevating particular cars and brands to the level of cult objects, around which quasi-religious devotion developed. Little attention was paid to the actual process of design or designers themselves, for to conceive of these cars as the products of human endeavor threatened to break the aura of the automotive fetish. Likewise, there was little tolerance for any analysis that attempted to place design in a broader historical or social context, seeing it as the product of particular societies and times. Finally, most of this popular literature was wholly uncritical of automobiles and the industry that produced them. Not surprisingly, journalists on the automotive beat were usually enthusiasts themselves, and developed close and amiable ties with the industry about which they wrote. So although there was sometimes mild criticism for the technical and aesthetic failings of particular cars, there was little enthusiasm for a detached, critical perspective on the automobile in general and its industry, or their relation to American society as a whole.

Emergence of A Critical Popular Literature

In the late 1950s, however, there was a change in the tone of the popular literature on auto styling. Critical voices began to appear in this field that had previously been almost uniformly laudatory. The 1950s was, of course, the heyday of American automobile styling. In postwar America there emerged a broadly shared, mass prosperity that brought millions of working-class consumers into the market for new cars. In order to differentiate their cars from the competition and stimulate product turnover in the market, automakers turned to the stylists, who superficially changed the aesthetics of cars every year and consistently made all cars bigger, more powerful, and more glitzy. The heightened competition among stylists for newness and distinction drove auto design to dizzying heights of frivolity and absurdity. Functionless tail fins soared to the heavens, and chrome decoration spread like a cancer. By 1957, however, Americans were beginning to question such automotive extravagance. The first postwar recession in America took the wind out of the sails of consumer exuberance, as did the Soviets beating the U.S. into space with the launch of the Sputnik satellite. These events made Detroit’s chromed-up, befinned dinosaurs look rather wasteful.

Reflecting this critical mood of the public were two best-selling books, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and John Keats’s The Insolent Chariots (1958). Both books condemned auto stylists for appealing to consumers’ deeply buried emotional needs, rather than their rational needs for efficiency and safety. Packard’s book argued that auto design was part of a larger attempt on the part of advertisers and merchandisers to manipulate and control consumers by discovering their repressed needs through psychological testing and then incorporating them into advertising and product design. In his book focused exclusively on autos, Keats agreed, arguing that cars were designed and marketed to appeal to the emotional needs of “daydreaming nitwits.” Both focused on sex as one of the most important “hidden persuaders” designed into autos. Keats claimed that stylists consciously and deliberately designed into cars sexual symbols, like penile hood ornaments, bosom-like bumper bullets, and vaginal grilles.

As the 1950s moved into the 1960s, American consumers became aware of not merely the psychological traps but also the physical dangers of style-driven dream machines, thanks to one of the most scathing criticisms of American automobiles of all times, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). Consumer questions about auto safety were already being raised when Nader published his bombshell of a book while working as an advisor to Senate hearings on the issue. But the book focused and intensified concerns. He devoted an entire chapter to the stylists, whom he charged with catering to the consumer’s emotional wants for status, glamor, and freedom instead of their rational needs for safety and efficiency. Thus, for example, the stylists created the hardtop to capture the convertible’s feel of freedom and sportiness. But the hardtop’s appeal to these emotions required removal of the center door pillar, which allowed the roof to collapse in rollover accidents. The “repetitive, emotional exploitation” of consumers by stylists, Nader argued, ultimately endangered their lives by preventing engineers from designing safe cars.

These critical books certainly seemed to resonate with the mood of American consumers, who were feeling a bit guilty about their frivolous products and feared that somehow they were being manipulated behind their backs. But the factual content of these popular criticisms of auto styling left a lot to be desired. The authors were correct in stating that merchandisers of this era were researching the emotional appeal of automobiles, but wrong in arguing that this research determined auto design. The automobile stylists were very protective of their autonomy, and fought hard and successfully to eliminate the influence of the marketing staff on design. They believed that they knew consumers better than the marketers with all their surveys, and by the 1950s stylists had almost complete control of auto design. This is not to say, however, that the stylists themselves did not appeal to consumer emotions in their designs. They obviously did, for when they spoke of their designs their comments were laced with words like “excitement,” “freedom,” and “fun.” But their emotional appeals were not conscious and calculated, as Packard, Keats, and Nader argued, but intuitive and unstudied. Car designers in these days worked by visual intuition, relying on a general feeling for what looked exciting and fun drawn from the larger culture. They rarely sought to give any verbal rationale for their designs; on the contrary, there was an informal prohibition against such talk in the industry, captured in the common rebuke among stylists, “I can see, but I cannot hear.”

What about the charge of explicit sexual symbolism? In the ultra-macho subculture of auto designers, sex was surely an important appeal. But again, it was not expressed as simplistically and directly as the critics charged, that is, through anatomical analogies. Sexiness was appealed to intuitively and indirectly, such as associating cars with leisure and vacation, generally the arena of life to which sexual activity was confined. Probably the biggest problem with these quasi-Freudian psychological analyses of design was that they were unable to account for constant change in auto aesthetics. If cars were designed to appeal to some universal but unconscious desires and drives, why were stylists always changing them? Such desires and needs may exist, but they are always channeled through changing social institutions, which may deny, realize, or sublimate them. For example, to understand why tail fins connoted excitement and freedom to Americans in the 1950s, we have to examine the role that military aviation played in World War II and the immediate postwar period. The simplistic psychological analyses ignored the social context of automotive symbolism.

1950s Scholarship on Design: Snobby Criticism and Populist Praise

The 1950s did bring some scholarly commentary on automobile design, perhaps because it was becoming so central to American culture that it was hard to ignore. But most of this literature was highly critical, even dismissive, of this popular art. The “legitimate” design profession—that is, those practitioners, critics, and scholars who saw design as a high art and were concerned with form in and of itself—considered the aesthetics of mass-produced American automobiles as an abomination. Most of these were advocates of the European modernist or Bauhaus school of design, which believed that the form of an object should follow its function. This was interpreted to mean that the design had to be severe, pristine, and restrained, with an absolute minimum of decoration. As one sociologist has argued, such tastes were surely determined by the class of these people—most were upper-middle-class professionals involved in creating and transmitting culture. Consequently, they looked for the aesthetics of objects to testify to their intelligence and rationality, not their money. Since most did not have enough money to appropriate the expensive, elaborately decorated luxury goods of the really rich, they distinguished themselves by buying goods that were “smart” and “intelligent.”

For these cultural aristocrats, the chrome-laden, tail-finned, mass-produced dream machines of the 1950s revealed the degraded tastes of the masses and the new rich, whose culture had not yet caught up with their cash. In the United States, the organization that pushed this snobby, intellectual criticism of car design was the colonial outpost of European modernist design, the Museum of Modern Art. This New York museum took two swipes at American cars in the early 1950s. The first came in a 1950 symposium on auto design organized by MOMA. There, modern architect Philip Johnson confessed that he owned a 1950 Buick that, from the standpoint of function, was wonderful. But he went on to say that it was also the ugliest object he owned, due mainly to the superfluous chrome decoration, which he had removed at his own expense. He admitted that the car was an aesthetic embarrassment, for most of his friends drove Jeepsters and little imported sports cars like the British MG, which looked good. Another panelist clarified that Buicks and Cadillacs had a “nouveau riche glitter,” while the MG roadster had an “honesty” in design, without the pretentiousness of excess decoration. These cultural prejudices of intellectuals were also reflected a year later, when MOMA mounted the first museum exhibit focused on automobile aesthetics. Entitled "Eight Automobiles," the exhibit ignored American mass-produced automobiles in favor of either expensive luxury cars (Mercedes and Bentley) or small functional cars (MG). Three American cars were included, but two were limited-run luxury cars (Lincoln Continental and Cord) and the other was a military vehicle, the Jeep, which, according to the exhibit catalog, was a “sharply rational vehicle” that “disdained the merely decorative.”

Ironically, however, at the same time that these American intellectuals were bashing American cars using snobby European theory, European intellectuals began to praise American auto design using American populist ideas. This sympathetic intellectual work emerged first in England in the mid-1950s with a group of artists and critics known as the Independent Group, a splinter group of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. These young British intellectuals, who were precursors of the Pop Art Movement, were interested in the effects of technology and mass culture on the arts. Foremost among them was a design critic named Reyner Banham, who was fascinated with American automobile design as an example of a new kind of mass art. Trained in European design theory, Banham defended American cars of the 1950s as a more contemporary expression of the form-follows-function imperative of the pioneering modernists of the 1920s. The pure, rectilinear shapes that the latter advocated froze the technological forms of an early era and ignored the fact that technology changes constantly, requiring ever-changing designs. The curvilinear, streamlined shapes of American mass-produced cars, Banham argued, were better reflections of the current technological imperative to reduce air resistance. Banham even defended the feature of American car design that the European purists considered particularly repugnant, the annual model change or planned obsolescence. Since technology was constantly improving, aesthetics had to change constantly to express it. Thus, he asserted, throwing out perfectly functional cars for newer ones facilitated technological progress for all.

Banham's defense of the over decorated and symbolic American cars of the 1950s on technological grounds was questionable at best. He failed to note that hundreds of pounds of chrome doodads tacked onto those "streamlined" shapes surely created air drag and ruined fuel economy. And he also ignored the dirty little secret behind the annual model change-while the aesthetic surfaces of cars changed each year, the mechanical technology underneath remained constant for years, sometimes decades, to facilitate the economies of scale required by mass production. So annual models merely gave these cars the appearance of progress that diverted consumers' attention and prevented them from demanding real technological improvements. Perhaps sensing the weakness of his technological arguments, Banham felt compelled to add a social and political justification of American cars that was more persuasive. Those snobby modernists focused on abstract form denied the masses what they really wanted-symbolic content that linked the product to something the public recognized as good, desirable, exciting. American auto stylists, Banham argued, provided a popular service by symbolically linking "dreams that money can buy" to the ultimate dreams of popular culture that money cannot buy. Those modernists who condemned such design would deny the masses their simple pleasures by imposing on them their own narrow conception of good design. They were nothing but "pinkos" and "snobs" who violated the basic principle of democracy. Thus, Banham embraced the American idea of consumer sovereignty, contending that the auto market merely delivered what the majority wanted. Consumer goods like cars were just harmless diversions, reachable satisfactions available to all. His arguments sidestepped, however, a question that later critics of auto design asked: If the masses put all of their time and effort into attaining the things that money can buy, did that not prevent them from cultivating the talents and relations necessary to attain those more intangible things that money cannot buy?

Regardless of the flaws in his arguments, Banham and his British Independent Group were precursors of an artistic trend that would spread to other countries and become a major movement in the 1960s, Pop Art. This movement was led by young American artists who rebelled against the domination of the high arts by the sober, severe modernists, whose revolutionary ideas of the 1920s and 1930s had turned into the establishment art of the 1950s and 1960s, serving corporate and government power. In order to demonstrate their difference and bash the elitist art of their establishment elders, these rebellious youth incorporated into their art elements from popular culture, which during the 1960s experienced an explosion of diversity and vitality. And the automobile industry was at the forefront of this 1960s revitalization of mass culture. By the beginning of this decade automakers were responding to the popular complaints reflected by Packard and Keats, especially those against outrageous decoration and the creeping homogeneity of models. Stylists quickly eliminated the decorative excesses — fins were dropped drastically and then eliminated; chrome appliqué was restrained. Then during this decade automakers also replaced their aesthetically differentiated but mechanically homogeneous models with real engineering variety, introducing entirely new classes of cars, such as compacts, intermediates, sports cars, muscle cars, and personal luxury cars. The result was a proliferation of excitingly different but tastefully designed models that brought the General Motors promise of the 1920s to build a car for every purse, purpose, and personality closer to reality than ever before.

It was just this type of diversity and vitality in America's popular culture of the 1960s that inspired the Pop Artists, who borrowed its elements in their assault on the dull homogeneity of establishment modernism. American artist Andy Warhol, for example, painted commercial subjects like soup cans and movie stars, and used the visual techniques of commercial culture to do so. Architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown incorporated into their work forms from the commercial environment, like Las Vegas casinos and main street advertisements. And sculptor Claes Oldenburg produced replicas of cars and car parts in soft, collapsing fabric. But while these Pop Artists borrowed from popular culture, they treated its elements by the rules of the high-art world—that is, they used them as pure forms, stripped of the content or meaning they had for the masses. This hybrid art found a wide and enthusiastic audience in this period, for many of the masses who grew up in the 1950s with popular culture received in the 1960s a college education that exposed them to the high arts. So many of this generation took their newly acquired knowledge of “legitimate” culture and applied it to the popular culture with which they grew up, looking at familiar artifacts in a different, more formal way.

The Postmodern Validation of Auto Design as Art

Although automobile design attracted some serious attention and validation by the art world in the 1960s, it would not really get its due in American society until the 1980s. This is probably because many of the youthful rebels of the 1960s saw the car as a cause of social problems, not as a solution. The growing environmental consciousness targeted the car as particularly destructive and wasteful of the earth’s resources. And in the 1970s the energy crisis combined with economic stagnation to deal auto design a devastating blow that lasted a decade. America’s large and powerful cars became seen by many as socially irresponsible. Automakers were forced by both consumer demand and government regulation to focus on efficiency over aesthetics, and consequently auto engineers began to wield more control over design than stylists.

By the mid-1980s, however, several factors converged to generate a renewal of interest in auto design among both the general public and the high-art world. After a painful period of economic restructuring, prosperity began to return, creating a newly enriched class of young urban professionals, or yuppies, who were anxious to display their wealth and good taste in automotive sculpture. Further, the erosion of the barrier between high and popular culture begun by Pop Art in the 1960s turned into a landslide in the mid-1980s, and was renamed postmodernism. This cultural movement included not only a validation of popular culture and design as serious art, but also a nostalgic propensity to reappropriate the reassuring forms of the past and use them to give meaning to an uncertain present. No form of popular art could better serve this emerging postmodern culture than auto design, which had often functioned as a fetish for recapturing a generation’s lost youth. What was new to the auto fetishism of this period, however, was its focus on the design of these cult objects as art.

The mid-1980s brought a spate of books by serious scholars and critics treating automobiles as aesthetic objects worthy of detailed historical and formal analysis. One key feature shared by all of this literature was the attempt to turn auto design, which had been up to this point an anonymous, collective activity performed in large corporations, into a act of individual creation by named artistic geniuses. Just as the postmodern appropriation of popular film refocused attention away from the popular stars and toward the creative director, the movement’s discovery of automobile design focused on the individual creators of particular models. This was the intent of the first publication in this new literature, Stephen Bayley’s 1983 book, Harley Earl and the Dream Machine. A British university lecturer in fine art and the director of design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Bayley was the first scholar since his countryman Reyner Banham to take a high-art approach to car design. And he started with what was obviously the most important individual in the field, Harley Earl, the first man to head an automotive design department and the originator of the process of automobile design that came to be emulated throughout the industry. Bayley’s book, which was lavishly illustrated with not only photographs but also original artwork by an airbrush artist, sanctified the man who pioneered auto design at General Motors and was responsible for the look of millions of cars over his thirty-two year career. Although obviously knowledgeable about European design theory, Bayley, like Banham, was at pains to defend American auto design against European critics. The social and moral principles of the latter, he argued, failed to take into account the needs of the masses for meaning and metaphor. Earl’s art gave people what they wanted, and in the process provided the fuel for a booming economy of mass production. Agreeing with the popular critics of the 1950s, Bayley argued that what people wanted in car design was sex. Avoiding a careful analysis of automotive form, the author resorted to a simplistic Freudianism, stating that Earl’s designs unconsciously appealed to consumers’ libidinal desires.

This theme was even more prominent in Bayley’s 1986 follow-up book on cars, Sex, Drink and Fast Cars. While in the Earl book Bayley seemed almost afraid to display his erudition, perhaps out of fear of being mistaken as one of those European design snobs, here he illuminated the meanings of automobiles and their design by drawing on a wide range of high artists and intellectuals, including Karl Marx, Le Corbusier, Aldous Huxley, Francis Picabia, e e cummings, Arthur Miller, Fritz Lang, Sinclair Lewis and Fernand Leger. But the point of these erudite references was to show that even in high culture cars symbolize erotic desire, not just in their design but in their mechanical power as well. But in his attempt to equate high-art and popular meanings of car designs, Bayley missed a crucial difference between the two realms of culture. In high culture the car usually functions as an aesthetic form, whose meaning is derived from its relation to other forms in the artistic field. In popular culture, by contrast, the car is used as a direct, unmediated symbol of gratification and pleasure. Thus, for example, Picabia titled his sober, blue-print-like drawing of a spark plug Portrait of A Young American Woman in a State of Nudity not to make a simplistic sexual analogy between the fire-generating car part and a “hot” woman, but to draw a contrast between the objective forms of his machine art and the sentimental prettiness of romanticism. Bayley obviously sided with the priorities and values of popular culture, not merely in the content but also the form of his books. Avoiding the appearance of serious scholarship, he wrote in the breezy, entertaining style of popular journalism. In sum then, this first attempt to analyze auto design as a legitimate art made too many concessions to the imperatives of popular culture to be a true hybrid.

More successful in this task of postmodern hybridization were two books published in the mid-1980s in conjunction with museum exhibits on American automobile design. Unlike the 1951 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, the 1984 Automobile and Culture exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the 1985 Automobile and Culture–Detroit Style exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts included a full range of custom and mass-produced automobiles, as well as auto-related works in high-art media. The exhibit catalog of the former, issued by the venerable art publisher Harry Abrams, claimed to be “the first major book to consider the automobile as a work of art,” and set its goal as investigating the aesthetic, design, and social issues in the cultural history of the car. The aesthetic ambitions of the volume were immediately clear from the photographs on the cover, endpapers, and front matter of the volume. Distinguishing themselves from the usual fan-magazine photos of cars, which focused on the visual delight of the sensual whole, these high-art photos were fragmented close-ups of isolated parts of cars–hubcap, taillight, window crank, fender–that emphasized their abstract forms. Many were reminiscent of high-art photographer Alfred Stieglitz's images of car parts from the 1920s and 1930s. The main critical essay of the catalog, by professor of art history Gerald Silk, dealt not with auto design as art but the image of the automobile in the arts. But two other essays attempted to validate car design as a high art, complete with individual geniuses and heroes. Strother MacMinn, a design educator and a former auto designer, resurrected from the anonymous history of auto design the names of individual designers and their creations. He put an inordinate emphasis on the early custom coachbuilders, perhaps because their designs were more influenced by autonomous artistic traditions than those of the mass-production stylists, who were constrained by economic concerns like production costs and market sales. But he argued that designers of mass-produced cars were artists too, who often had to heroically defend their aesthetic vision against the pressures of cost-cutting engineers and accountants. Tito Anselmi, the author of a critical essay on European auto design, also defended the artistic credentials of the profession. He, like Banham and Bayley, dismissed the criticism of auto design by European modernists, arguing that their machine aesthetic revealed an ignorance of actual production technology. Anselmi argued that European auto designers, at least in the early period, were heavily influenced by high-art movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, because they had to accommodate the tastes of the high-class buyers who dominated the European market.

These attempts to see automobile design as an autonomous art, just like the high arts, continued in the catalog for the Detroit exhibit, entitled Detroit Style. In this regard, the most interesting pieces written for this volume were by Davira Taragin, curator of twentieth-century decorative arts and design at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In her introduction to the catalog, Taragin argued for the legitimacy of cars as works of art, and called for “scholarship [that] stressed the purely aesthetic aspects of automotive design as sculpture.” She further asserted that during the period covered by the exhibit, 1925 to 1950, auto design was part of the larger modernist art movement, and adhered to its imperatives that form follow function and that applied decoration be eliminated. Taragin’s critical essay, entitled “Style-Up,” tried to substantiate these points, citing car designs that seemed influenced by Art Deco and modernist functionalism. But her arguments seemed strained, and she offered little real evidence for the influence of high-art trends on auto design. Her assertion that American cars adhered to the moral injunction against decoration seemed particularly incredible when confronted with the facts of the 1950s, when uselessly decorative tail fins, bullet bumpers, and chrome doodads spread like wildfire, and modernist designers denounced these cars as criminal.

The publication that was the culmination of this attempt to sell auto design as high art was Edson Armi’s 1988 book, The Art of American Car Design. The most carefully researched and scholarly work on automobile design to this date, Armi’s book, published by a university press, pushed the autos-as-art argument to new heights, and in the process exposed its inherent weaknesses. An art history professor at a major state university, he clearly declared his purpose in the opening pages: “to begin to view American car design as an art, with its own history and heroes, culture and lore.” Based on archival research and interviews with designers, extensive excerpts from which were included, the book concentrated on the “system of creation” in auto design, including its history and organization in the major American automobile corporations. Armi also traced the results of this system in a chapter that examined the forms of American cars produced between 1930 and 1950, which was accompanied by extensive illustration by archival photographs. All of this material was unified by an underlying story line of tragedy and betrayal. Armi wrote of the construction of the system of automobile design in the 1930s, largely by Harley Earl, as a heroic struggle for artistic freedom and autonomy against the opposition of engineers, accountants, managers, and merchandisers. When the battle was finally won in the late 1930s, a process was institutionalized that, although collective, depended on the artistic vision of one strong, individual genius at the top, such as Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, or Bob Gregorie. This system culminated in what Armi judged to be the most aesthetically creative and individual cars of the industry’s history, those of the 1950s and 1960s. But then the tragic decline of artistic autonomy began in the 1970s, when a lamentable social and environmental consciousness and new governmental regulations gave the practical engineers and marketing experts more power to shape design. But auto designers only had themselves to blame, Armi argued spitefully, for some turncoat design executives, whom he reproached by name, gave up the fight for artistic autonomy and surrendered to these invaders. The result was a horde of serviceable and efficient, but bland and uncreative, cars in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of Armi’s vitriol against some auto designers, as well as his lavish praise for others, seemed somehow out of place and proportion, however. Armi’s excesses were caused not merely by his personal bias but also by the automobile-as-art perspective as such, which he shared with other scholarly works mentioned above. What the purveyors of this perspective failed to understand is that automobile design is part of the separate realm of popular art and thus cannot be understood by nor held to the standards of high art. High culture is produced for a small, restricted market of educated, upper-class people, whose removal from the demands of making a living predisposes them to value the forms of things over their functions. Armi and others taking the high-art approach tended to privilege the early coachbuilding days because during this period only the wealthy owned cars, and coachbuilders tailored them for the aesthetic tastes of this small market. But the rise of mass production meant that cars became part of a mass market, geared to the needs and tastes of more common folk, who tend to privilege function over form. Of course, eventually a demand for “style” also arose in this mass market, once the mechanicals of cars achieved a uniformly high standard. But the style added to mass-produced cars by the likes of Harley Earl was different from the high-class, art-for-art’s-sake market. The goal of mass-produced style was not, as in the latter, the cultural “profit” of status that came from showing a knowledge of high-art form, but the economic profit that came from maximizing sales. And to accomplish this, stylists had to cater to the common folks’ demand for immediate, sensuous gratification and pleasure, which compensated them for work lives that were often lacking these traits. So contrary to Armi, MacMinn, and others, the conflict within auto companies during the rise of auto styling was not between art and the market, between those who valued artistic vision and aesthetics and those who valued economic efficiency and profits. The conflict was over alternative visions of the market–one focused on economic utility and efficiency (the engineers) and one focused on consumer desire and fantasy (the stylists). Both groups were equally driven by economic profits, but differed on which qualities maximized sales–price and utility, or symbolic connotations and appeals to consumer desires. The eventual victory of stylists was not a victory for art over the market, but for their vision of the marketplace. For this reason, it is a mistake to understand auto design with reference to forms of high art. Design must be understood by the popular desires expressed in the mass market. But these desires cannot be simply reduced to the psychology of individual consumers, as Bayley, Packard, and others do. Constant libidinal desires cannot account for the ever-changing designs of cars. Individual desires must be placed in the context of a changing society, which molds, channels, and represses these desires. Unfortunately, the vast majority of both scholarly and popular literature treats auto design as a practice operating in a social and historical void.

The auto-as-art perspective ignores the social nature of not only consumer demand but also the process of design creation itself. The high-art approach focuses on the individual artist as creator, an isolated loner struggling against the world to realize an aesthetic vision. For some time now sociologists and historians have been refuting this myth about artists. Creation generally comes from individuals strategically placed in important social networks and taking advantage of opportunities offered by particular historical periods. If the individualistic focus is questionable even in the high arts, it is particularly problematic in the popular art of automobile design. Unlike painting and sculpture, for example, car design is a collective art, requiring the cooperation of a vast organization of occupations, including draftsmen, modelers, building tradesmen, illustrators, engineers and others. Even among the “designers,” whose drawings initiate and shape the look of the car, there is a division of labor–one sketching grilles and front ends, another sketching taillights and bumpers–such that no one individual is solely responsible for any design. Some like Armi argue that the “creator” is ultimately the person at the top of the design department, who coordinates and combines the work of others. But this confuses creativity with power and organizational position. The creator in auto design is always the group.

During the 1990s, many of the popular works on automobile design reproduced this individualistic emphasis present in scholarly works. Although they lacked the latter’s focus on aesthetic form in itself, accounts of design aimed at a popular audience did adopt their focus on individual designers and sought to personalize their creations. This emphasis was part of a new popular awareness of aesthetics and design during this period. As upscale consumption boomed among the burgeoning yuppies, the general populace became more aware of the prestige associated with designer labels and brands. The designers of clothes, buildings, furniture, and other artifacts suddenly became household names, even among those who could not afford their products. This emphasis on name designers spilled over to the popular culture of automobile design. Suddenly, popular books appeared that focused not only on mythical automotive artifacts but on their designers as well. The best of these popular works was surely Michael Lamm and David Holls’s A Century of Automotive Style (1996). Written by an automotive journalist and a former General Motors designer, the self-published book remains perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed account of the history of American automobile design. It was based on extensive insiders’ knowledge and accounts, but lacked the form and style of scholarship. Lamm and Holls offered the most detailed account yet of the organization and process of design creation. Yet their focus was clearly on the lives and personalities of the individual designers themselves, whose faults and foibles, as well as their greatness and triumphs, were exposed in sometimes brutal frankness. As a consequence of the focus on individual designers, who were grouped by corporation, their account lacked any chronological sense. It was almost as if these people and their actions stood outside of time. Major social changes affecting the industry, such as the energy crisis of the early 1970s, were reduced to a mere mention. Similar in this ahistorical, individualistic emphasis, although more professional in writing and graphic style, was Nick Georgano’s Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (1995). Although the author recognized, unlike Armi and others, that auto design is an amalgam of form and function and appeals to a wider market than high art, his book was organized in chapters on individual designers and ignored the changes in the broad population that constituted their market. At bit better in this regard was the recently published book by British design professor Penny Sparke, entitled A Century of Car Design (2002), which covered American and European design. The author organized the account chronologically and was sensitive to the social changes that affected the automotive market. But within broad periods, her emphasis was again on named designers, with separate chapters devoted to their work.

Auto Design as Mass Culture, Influenced by Societal Change

There were, however, several scholarly works that conceived of auto design not as high art but as part of a mass culture that changed and evolved with the social conflicts and contradictions of America. The first such analysis to appear was a rather modest, unassuming work issued by an automotive publisher, Paul Wilson’s Chrome Dreams: Auto Styling Since 1893 (1979). Unlike most works on auto design, which are lavishly illustrated, coffee-table books, Wilson’s contribution was focused on historical narrative, and included only unspectacular line drawings of cars. But what it lacked in flashiness, it made up for with a well-researched, chronological account of American auto styling from the beginning to about 1970. From the outset, Wilson recognized that auto design is a popular art, which expresses the public taste and culture of the period that produces it. So he ignored individuals stylists and concentrated on the changing public as the real creator of the look of cars in an era. He placed early auto design in the context of the rising aspirations of middle- and working-class Americans for symbols of success. And the streamlined cars of the Depression were said to reflect the need of the masses for signs of progress in this dismal decade. But Wilson tended to fall into simple psychologism in his explanation of the cars of the fifties as reflective of the “subconscious emotions” of aggression and sexuality. Nonetheless, his more social approach was a refreshing departure from the usual emphasis on heroic designers.

Published in the same year as Wilson’s book was a more sophisticated scholarly analysis that also conceived of design as part of an evolving culture of mass consumption in American society. Jeffrey Meikle’s Twentieth Century Limited (1979) did not focus exclusively on autos but traced the rise of the entire profession of industrial design in the United States in the crucial years between 1925 and 1939. But his holistic approach yielded more insights on autos than most books dealing exclusively with them. Meikle placed the emergence of aesthetically designed industrial products, including cars, in the social context of an America struggling to come to grips with the disturbing consequences of the new technology of mass production. During the Great Depression, for example, he argued that the streamlined look of cars and other consumer goods resulted from a complex combination of the corporate need to stimulate demand with the consumer desire for technological progress that was orderly and harmonious. Thus, Meikle showed that social, economic, and psychological factors converged to produce the aesthetics of products. There was no room in his complex cultural analysis for either one-sided corporate manipulation of consumers or simplistic psychologism that attributes design to hidden desires like sex and power.

Carrying Meikle’s type of sophisticated social analysis into the all-important postwar period was a delightful but learned book by design journalist Thomas Hine entitled Populuxe (1986). The author coined the title’s term to describe the style of popular luxury that dominated not merely automobiles but also other mass-produced goods like appliances, housewares, and architecture in America between 1954 and 1964. In an analysis that would be envied of any sociologist, Hine argued that the exuberant and often futuristic style that reigned in this period was produced not by individual needs but by a social mood that gripped the country. And he carefully tied this mood to social trends like equalization of income, suburbanization of the working class, the decline of extended families, and the insecurities of the Cold War. His chapter on automobile design in particular bristles with insights on the connections of tail fins and toothy, bomb-laden grilles to wartime aviation, space flight, McCarthyism, and social mobility. Hine carries all this off with a serious and critical attitude that avoids both the heroic worship of Armi and the condescending cuteness of Bayley. These works by Meikle and Hine are models of how to do serious scholarship that gives popular design its due and does not seek to force it into the inappropriate framework of the high arts.

This is the model that I tried to follow in my own book on American automobile design, Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design (1994). Unlike either Meikle or Hine, however, my analysis focused on the social conflicts and struggles that shaped auto design throughout its history. I argued that the design of cars was an unconscious attempt to solve in the realm of culture the conflicts and contradictions created by the rise of the system of mass production, for which the auto industry was also largely responsible. The analysis showed that the look of cars was indeed shaped by the needs and desires of consumers, but that these were themselves of the social products an unequal and debilitating production system. Unable to realize their needs for individuality, sociality, and autonomy in the realm of work, many working Americans turned to the realm of consumption for compensation. These rechanneled desires inevitably shaped the work of car designers, who were forced by marketplace competition to give consumers the compensation they demanded.

My book was not, of course, the last word on auto design. There are still many unexplored problems and questions that demand the attention of serious scholars. Contrary to the predictions of some scholars that computers and other microelectronic devices would become the new focus of consumer culture, the automobile has continued to be the prime mover of the economy and to occupy a privileged place in the psyche of consumers. Consequently, the design of these mobile extensions of ourselves will occupy scholars for decades to come.

Annotated Bibliography

Armi, Edson. The Art of American Automobile Design. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1988. A detailed and thorough analysis of the development of the profession of automobile design, its organization and practices, that treats design as a high art. The extensive excerpts from the author’s interviews with designers are a fascinating window on the profession and its personalities.

Automobile and Culture. New York: Harry Abrams, 1984. A beautiful, lavishly illustrated and well-produced volume accompanying the exhibit by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Most of the volume is taken up with an essay on the image of the automobile in high art, but there are also good essays on hot rods, American design, and European design.

Reyner Banham. Design By Choice. New York: Rizzoli, 1981. A good collection of this British design critic’s most important essays, including those defending and praising American automobile design. Banham’s arguments are not always convincing, but they are always entertaining. His dedication to a democratic and popular culture is refreshing.

Stephen Bayley. Harley Earl and the Dream Machine. New York: Knopf, 1983. An interesting and light introduction to the career and cars of the most influential auto designer of all times. The book is flawed, however, by a psychological-reductionist interpretation of design.

Stephen Bayley. Sex, Drink and Fast Cars. New York: Pantheon, 1986. More ride-ranging than Bayley’s Harley Earl, covering the meanings of cars in high and low culture. The psychologism is a bit more complex here, but narrow nonetheless.

“ The Body Beautiful.” Industrial Design, June, 1950, pp. 112-19. An account of the symposium on automobile design held at the Museum of Modern Art in April, 1950, which formed the basis of the museum’s “Eight Automobiles” exhibit. This a wonderful example of the snobby criticism of automobiles by those infected with European theory.

Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. The collected essays by this French sociologist provide the conceptual basis for my sociological insights on the cultural tastes of classes and the differences between high art and popular culture.

Detroit Style: Automotive Form, 1925-1950. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1985. A well-illustrated catalog accompanying the exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Taragin’s essay tries to force auto design into the high-art perspective. But the essay by Strother MacMinn and Michael Lamm is more informative and down-to-earth.

Eight Automobiles. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951. The first attempt to treat autos as an art form. The selections and analysis in this thin catalog are rather elitist, but interesting nonetheless.

David Gartman. Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design. London: Routledge. A sociologically oriented history of auto design that adopts a critical perspective on the industry. The historical narrative shows design influenced by the business, professional, and social struggles of American society.

Nick Georgano. Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work. New York: Smithmark, 1995. A popular account focused on individual designers and their cars. This focus leads to a confusing organization and a lack of chronological sense. Leans heavily on secondary sources.

Thomas Hine. Populuxe. New York: Knopf, 1996. A highly enjoyable but sophisticated social analysis of the design of mass-produced consumer goods in America between 1954 and 1964. Well-illustrated and a fun read. The chapter on auto design is a gem.

John Keats. The Insolent Chariots. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1958. A lively, popular bashing of the American cars of the 1950s. It is simplistic, but still of value, if only as a reflection of the consumer psyche of the period.

Michael Lamm and David Holls. A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design. Stockton, CA.: Lamm-Morada Publishing, 1996. The most thorough and detailed account of American auto design available, by two industry insiders. Almost encyclopedic in scope, the book contains numerous sidebars explaining each step of the design process. But the details get in the way of the big picture, and the account is totally devoid of a critical perspective.

Jeffrey Meikle. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. A sophisticated social analysis of the rise of the profession and practice of industrial design in this period. The book places the aesthetics of consumer goods in the context of the tumultuous social changes undergone by America during this crucial period. Meikle’s analysis of the streamlined cars of the 1930s is unmatched.

Ralph Nader. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, updated edition. New York: Grossman, 1972. This classic of muckraking automotive journalism is still a shocking and relevant book. The chapter on the stylists is delightfully merciless.

Vance Packard. The Hidden Persuaders, revised edition. New York: Pocket Books, 1980. An updated version of the 1957 classic work on consumer manipulation, including a new introduction and epilogue. Packard’s arguments now seem simplistic and paranoid, but it is a good reflection of the consumer fears of the period.

Penny Sparke. A Century of Car Design. Hauppage, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 2002. A popularly oriented but well-informed and -researched history of both American and European auto design. The book gives an enlightening account of the recent trend toward “lifestyle cars” and the “branding” of autos.

Paul C. Wilson. Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893. Radnor, PA: Chilton Books, 1976. A useful, measured analysis of automobile design that treats it as a popular art tied to the changing aspirations and needs of the American public. The book focuses on the cars themselves, rather than the profession and personalities of design.