I was in the market for a car, which represents the only time in my life when I don’t have to be pissed off at other cars on the road to notice them. I use every stoplight as a chance to scout out new car prospects. I saw one SUV I thought was attractive, but I couldn’t tell which make it was from behind. Another car was rudely blocking its logo.
“Maybe it’s a Bimmer,” I said to the dog. “It kinda looks like one.”
It wasn’t. It was a Hyundai Santa Fe, which kinda resembles the Acura RDX, which kinda resembles the Volvo XC60, which kinda resembles the BMW X3. You might call that a generous leap from one car to the next, but these four models are all 75 inches wide, 66 inches high (save for the Volvo, which is 65), and they only differ in length by a maximum of three inches. They all have rear quarter windows smaller than a porthole on a submarine. They all have chrome accents to increase the glam factor by, like, five percent. And they all abhor right angles, with the Santa Fe being the only one of the bunch daring to box up its trunk and liftgate to accommodate more shit for Johnny’s first trip to college. They’re spiritual clones, and they’re not exceptions in being so.
And while imitation has always been the sincerest form of flattery in every creative art and every business—not to mention the quickest way to a profit—there are some very real, basically intractable reasons why every car now looks like every other car. I spoke with the experts to get to the bottom of this, and it all boils down to five items.
First, I spoke with legendary automotive designer Ian Callum, who’s most famous for his 20-year tenure as head of design at Jaguar-Land Rover. “There was a time when you could identify the country the car came from,” Callum said. But today, basically every company makes cars for basically every country, and they’re not gonna add bitchin’ tail fins to one model just to sell it exclusively in Dubuque, Iowa. Cars are now designed for the broadest possible audience, across the broadest number of countries, to be manufactured in the most efficient possible way. In that way, cars are just like any other mass market product now: phones, movies, rhinoplasty, and such and such.
There are also, as you are likely aware, instances of two automakers actively working together to develop two versions of the same basic car, the Mazda Miata and Fiat 124 being a prime example. But direct collaborations like that are hardly necessary to encourage copycat models. Because…
I like sleek cars, because they makes me feel like I’m in Blade Runner when I drive them. In a stroke of luck for automakers, those fresh-from-the-auto-show exteriors also act to minimize drag. As Ralph Gilles, head of design at Stellantis, told me, even the tiniest aerodynamic tweaks can have a huge impact. “A few counts of aerodynamic drag can equal 10 miles of range,” he said. Given that drivers absolutely lose their shit any time gas prices dare to go up half a cent, you can see why automakers decided that blunt lines are the work of Satan. Callum told me I could go to any parking lot and measure the trunk lids of all the cars. “You’ll find them within about an inch of each other. And that’s because they’re all designed in wind tunnels, and they don’t vary,” he said.
But that’s not the only hard set of parameters given to designers.
Before the typical car designer can even begin sketching out a model, they’re given specs from the packaging department that are more exacting than the fucking lenses on the Hubble Telescope. The measurements “might vary within millimeters,” Callum said. These strict dimensions are agonizingly chosen to please the needs of the wind tunnel, to adhere to government safety regulations, to properly accommodate the average American family’s collective weight of 78,000 lbs., and to allow for enough cargo space for all their crap.
For the latter, that means being able to accommodate the dreaded Consumer Reports box, which needs to fit inside the trunk of a car, otherwise that car will get dinged in the magazine’s ratings. And don’t think that I myself didn’t account for cargo space when I went shopping around for my own new car. If a car can’t fit my family plus a live orca, I cross it off the list straightaway.
And if you think the nascent electric car revolution is gonna wildly affect the edicts of packaging, Ian Callum already knows it’s not happening.
“I see other electric cars coming out here that look fairly conventional to me. I wonder why, when they could look different if they really wanted to,” he said.
People’s thirst for giant, stupid grilles.
Left with barely any room for creativity, designers often have to conceive, and then fight for, slight accents on the exterior: a touch of chrome here, a contrast color there. About the only place they can go wild is up front with the design of the grille. If you’re BMW or Jeep, you already have an iconic grille to help distinguish your product on the road. But everyone else is engaged in a dipshit arms race to make the loudest, dumbest grille possible. For Gilles, designing a grille means that “you get a bit of a face” on the car. For Callum, the rash of macho-man grilles across all models suggests to him that, after designers have been constricted in so many other ways, “the only thing left is looking for attention.”
Which brings us to our primary culprit.
This is all your goddamn fault. YOU wanted to save two bucks at the pump. YOU wanted enough room in the back for spare cadavers. YOU wanted a grille so intimidating that little old ladies pull over to get out of your way when they see you coming on strong in the rear-view. YOU wanted a 78-star safety rating so your dick won’t get mangled by the steering column on impact. YOU ditched form the second function strolled up to the bar. YOU laughed the Chevy SSR off the road. YOU won’t stop buying utility vehicles. And YOU don’t want to pay a cent over $30,000 for any of them. That’s all on you. You needy, basic slobs. You disgust me.
That’s why I bought a minivan. My new Honda Odyssey has a funky window line that I just KNOW will turn some heads. Real hot shit.
Top image created by Adrian Hanft for this Medium post about generic car design, and used with permission.
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