Car design today: Is baroque back?

Hey, yo, slam your eyeballs against this. Few cars are as iconic as the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, especially in its convertible Biarritz form. There can be few people of any age who aren’t aware of its form, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. As a non-American, my curiosity was piqued by seeing it in animated form as the transport of choice for Rude Dog and the Dweebs in 1989, but its outlandish befinned silhouette had plagued my subconscious since I was far younger.
Today, the ’59 is celebrated for almost ironic reasons. It’s more of a symbol of the age than it is an object of design triumph. There are many stories of its rapid plunge from high fashion to loathed throwback, with folk sawing the fins from their Eldorados in an effort to distance themselves from a particularly faddish fad. Indeed, the fact that restoration candidates invariably end up pink is a strong hint that we’re looking at what has become a novelty item.
Thing is, though generally accepted as being among the most overwrought designs ever to be signed off, the ’59 achieved immortality through being fiercely individual. Visually, it represented the very most of everything, with more stuff for the eyes to process than virtually anything else on the road. And today, well, blow me down if we haven’t come full circle. And yet, will any of today’s wildest designs be celebrated at all 59 years from now?

The Eldorado Seville and Biarritz were the very embodiment of what Detroit was best at during the era, namely; marketing. We may moan and mutter about built-in obsolescence with every waking moment today, but the fast moving world of late ’50s car design was all about making people want something new today. From ’56 to ’60, the Eldorado, along with many of its contemporaries, was barely changed under the surface. The garnish, though, up to and including the body panels, were changed annually to ensure that the hungry, car-mad buying public had ample reason to upgrade.
And none of this garnish was cohesive. It was just stuff. Wanton detailing. Wildly excessive makeup, trowelled on top of a physical form that was imposing rather than beguiling. No brand in the late 1950s achieved much in terms of determining the direction of automotive design – they just took whatever stodgy recipes had been cooked up so far and made them tastier. And, with every subdivision of the American big three playing the same game, competition was helpfully fierce.

And in the great economic scheme of things, this kind of cosmetic fiddling was pretty affordable. If nothing mechanical needed to change, a ‘new model year’ automobile could be created on a relatively tight development budget. This was fantastic news for the the automakers, who could release something ‘new and exciting’ every year, and warmly welcomed by consumers who loved to be seen driving the freshest shape on the road. Everyone’s a winner.
With the ’59, though, GM jumped the shark. Where can you go after two-foot fins and afterburner tail-lights? It didn’t take long for the Eldorado to look a bit silly, and the ’60 toned the fins down dramatically, sacrificing the rocket-flame rear lights. But, hey, the turbofan era was drawing close anyway…
Almost 60 years later, it strikes me that it’s 1959 all over again. Today’s car designers have an easier job than ever before. Many physical obstacles that thwarted creative design have been long overcome, and today’s clever manufacturing techniques make almost anything possible. Any plastic bumper can be formed, any metal body panel can be pressed, and headlamps can be made to any shape you can imagine. It’s literally a design free-for-all — the only hurdle remaining is the will of the accountants, who are directly responsible for imposing a limit on what gets the green light for production.
And where is all this creative flexibility getting us? Frankly, not very far. Those brands whose corporate identity is especially precious appear to be deliberately stifling their creativity – it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to visualise exactly what the next generation of cars from Audi or Mercedes will look like, for example.

At the opposite end of the spectrum comes those brands with nothing to lose. All they want to do is create a hit product, and this bring us cars like the Toyota C-HR. A fine car, but one with so much conflicting surface detail as to border on visual white noise. Yes, there’s a load of design going on here, but it doesn’t look particularly considered, nor like it’s trying to achieve a particular objective other than to be different. Its like much of the heavily marketed dirge that fills the music charts today. If it’s got a killer hook and the right attitude, it’ll get a bunch of sales. And when the kids get bored, there’ll be a new one next week. The Toyota C-HR is just the most recent hit single to come from Toyota’s Marshmello-style production line.
And then we have Lexus, who appear to be playing a very strong game where it comes to quick ‘n dirty styling trickeryd. Their core product is litte more visually sophisticated or refined than the Toyota, but the sheer audacity of that ‘Spindle’ grille sends an incredibly confident message. The brand’s designers might not be creating the classics of the future, but they’re certainly among the front runners where it comes to capturing the public’s imagination. If they could only persuade people to buy their cars, rather than saying ‘that looks neat‘ and then signing up on a BMW.
Basically, there’s a whole load of styling going on, but it’s hard to see if any progress is being made. Equally, though, it’s hard to imagine where the next step into the design unknown might take us. With any luck, it’ll spell the end of grasping at straws for immediate gratification, and the rebirth of intelligent design.
And what better day than Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 80th birthday to discuss just exactly where the world is at in car design today?
(Eldorado images Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018.)

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22 responses to “Car design today: Is baroque back?”

  1. 0A5599 Avatar

    Today’s cars are mostly variations on a wind-tunnel-tested bar of soap turned into a sedan. Otherwise, it’s a pickup or SUV, which tend to all look alike other than size.
    Rude Dog wasn’t all that original in respecting the 59 Caddy as retro-cool transportation.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      All this time I thought gabbagabbahey was just the activation code for cheats in Descent.

      1. 0A5599 Avatar

        Well, the Ramones made it relevant, but the chant was based on a 30’s movie, Freaks.

      2. 0A5599 Avatar

        For completeness:

      3. crank_case Avatar

        Props for the obscure 90s PC gaming reference, take your upvote.

  2. Zentropy Avatar

    Very interesting subject, and one that really makes me consider my own (perhaps myopic) perspective on car design today. I’m particularly critical of Toyota, Lexus, Nissan, and others for designing what I think are garish and, frankly, $#!++y looking cars. I wonder if my dad thought the same of the ’59 Eldo, back in the day (I’ll ask him). Interestingly, I still think the ’59 Cadillac– along with most every other U.S. domestic in ’59– is ugly. The ’59 Rambler American, which was basically a holdover Nash from the early 50s, was an exception. I happen to own a Super Wagon version, so I’m partial to them.
    Truth is, only time will tell how designs will be perceived in the future. But if the C-HR is a classic in 30 years, I’ll still be walking past them without a glance at the car shows.

  3. onrails Avatar

    Good baroque is still good baroque, even with a modern interpretation.

    1.  Avatar
  4. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    It’s not being done well. I just saw a Hyundai Kona and it appears to be a generic crossover with lots of black plastic bits stuck on.

    1. Tiberiuswise Avatar

      And no black plastic where it would do the most good. Fender flares are nice when you’re off roading, rub a tree and want a cheap fix. That Kona will never touch a tree. The high crease lines will be touched by many a car door at Stop & Shop. Do the lower cladding pieces even stick out farther than the lower crease? Not if the good folks at Dentwizard have anything to say about it.

    2. Zentropy Avatar

      The biggest problem with these cars IMO is outward visibility. I like cars with generous greenhouses, but these baby utes provide little glass and then compromise it with huge C pillars. They feel like miniature caves.
      I realize crash standards are partly to blame, but its refreshing to get into something like a BMW 2002– an admittedly tiny car– and it feel more open than modern minivans.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      I agree that the Valiant (that generation, at least) was a complete mess. But oddly, I think the ’63 Dodge Polara– which shares some oddball styling cues that makes the Valiant a train wreck– is cool looking. It’s not pretty, but somehow the Polara comes together looking badassed in a Frankenstein sort of way.
      By 1964, the Valiant fortunately evolved into something much more palatable.
      ’63 Polara:
      ’64 Valiant:

      1. tonyola Avatar

        That Polara is actually a ’62. Here’s a ’63. Rather more conservative.

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Ooh, good catch, thank you. I mistyped. The rear and sides of the ’63 definitely started getting the more conservative mid-60s American look.

      2. Satan McVillain Avatar
        Satan McVillain

        The 62 Polara came out how it did due to some faulty Intel that gm was downsizing their full size models. Chrysler downsized theirs, then gm didn’t.

    2. Satan McVillain Avatar
      Satan McVillain

      Im biased, but I think the 62 lancer gt pulls off the look a lot better than the valiant.

  5. crank_case Avatar

    Designers have it easier in one way – more advanced production/materials/manufacturing which makes it easier to make all sorts of crazy shapes, and that’s probably why we’ve seen so much fussy designs in recent times. They were doing it because they can, if anything, I reckon now the novelty is over, we’re moving away from baroque/ott designs to simpler, cleaner shapes. (Look at Hondas EV concept for example, even production models seem to be starting to dispense with fussiness)
    On the other, designers have it more difficult due to various safety standards, you can’t get away with 50s style ornamentation or even 80s style pop up lights. I think this affects things more than even aero, because it creates challenges in terms of hood heights, front curvature, no pointy bits, etc.
    What the article perhaps misses about 50s US cars is the cultural aspect, they are reflective of a very confident, wealthy and optimistic country and influenced by the coming of the jet and space age. Look at the side profile of that caddy, it’s a fighter jet outline – bubble cannopy, tail fin is a “rudder” the rear are jet outlets. There is not the same pushing of transport boundaries to call on now, so many of the current cars lack any convincing drama as theres no real coherent influence on their shape, they are just adding visual noise to make up for a lack of any real direction.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Yeah, you’re absolutely right about the Jet Age styling, I should have mentioned that, but I was well inside the boundaries of ‘waffling’ already.

  6. Sjalabais Avatar

    ….it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to visualise exactly
    what the next generation of cars from Audi or Mercedes will look like

    You’re absolutely right, but Mercedes has, at least, been trying a few different directions. Losing out to the BMW tentacles reaching every existing and non-existing nook of the car marked, they try to follow up. Then there are abominations like this one:

    View post on

    I guess this is some sort of MB with a G in its name. It looks like a Ssangyong on a good day. Odd proportions, overbite, obese looks, design lines going everywhere and nowhere…to my mind, this is truly ugly, and none of the usually conservative, predictable Mercedes fare. This vehicle is also a silent argument in favour of giant wheels, unfortunately.

  7. Nicolas Bernard Avatar
    Nicolas Bernard

    Toyota C-HR : the only car in which I felt slightly claustrophobic sitting in the back.