Automotive Design: Dress Well, Design Well

We’ve come a long way in the United States with automotive design. In 1903 Henry Ford started the automotive revolution in North America, founding the Ford Motor Company. As a populace, Americans marched along with his vision, manufacturing and buying some of the most remarkable steel creations of their time.

American cars became increasingly attractive each decade they were driven off the assembly line, peaking in the 1960s with supermodel status. But once the 1980s came, something changed. Something drastic. I can’t put my finger on why, but it seems the American car lost its fashion sense. It got comfortable and stopped caring. Much like a middle-aged cubicle worker with no career aspirations, it was willing to do just the minimum to get dressed in “work-appropriate” attire every morning — scuffed brown shoes and all.

1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible
The effortless, well-heeled lines of the 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible commanded the catwalk at automotive shows around the world.

As automotive design entered the 1980s,  the Japanese began pumping out more fuel-efficient and visually appealing cars. BMW had wild success with the 3-Series on American shores. Japanese reliability and German engineering became characteristics to look for when car shopping. Detroit couldn’t deliver the same feature set, and soon the competition collectively began kicking America’s automotive ass.

BMW 3-Series E30
The BMW 3-Series saw great success during the 1980s in the United States.

The 1990s were no better. Sure, Asian manufacturers couldn’t make a heavy-duty truck like Detroit could, but almost everything else about their sedans and hatchbacks was better, especially their looks. Visual appeal in automotive design is a huge factor at the beginning part of the consumer buying process, and like a Fashion Buying Director at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, visual appeal always drives the purchasing decision of that executive.

Cars have their own fashion shows each year with every international auto show, but commanding the catwalk for the last two decades has been the Germans, with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi leading the way. The Japanese took note in the late 1980s, launching premium brands Acura, Lexus and Infiniti where bespoke tailoring for almost off-the-rack prices could be had. The closets of the Japanese and German manufacturers were full of fresh, trendsetting designs.

Mercedes-Benz Roadster Family
It seems that some German automotive designers have been dressing well and designing well for decades.

And the Americans? What new, fashionably innovative, automotive sartorial had we donned after driving the automotive industry in design innovation for numerous decades of our own? Unfortunately — somewhere along the way — American automotive designers stopped caring about what clothing was in their closet.

What a man wears has everything to say about him. Everything.

“Fashion is the armor with which to survive the reality of everyday life. Doing away with it would be like doing away with civilization, ” says New York Times fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham couldn’t be more spot-on in my opinion.

Our clothing is our armor, in a post-medieval age. It helps you become more confident. It projects your emotion, your social standing. It communicates who you are, and where you aim to be. I’ve never understood people who say they don’t care about what they wear. Fashion is the first thing you communicate to all others when entering a room, before you even open your mouth.

Cars are that way, too.

They communicate how much you appreciate nice things, rough things, and heavy things. If you’re dramatic or even-keeled. If you are a boring person. If you wish you weren’t a boring person. Cars are the armor you protect your family in. Much like clothing fashion, they are an indicator that we’re civilized.

As we cruise through the second decade of the current millennium, American automotive design is showing signs of a fashion comeback. Ralph Gilles, head of design at Chrysler Group, is at the tip of the needle on that comeback. From the silky smooth curves of the new SRT Viper, to the boardroom billionaire looks of the Chrysler 300, the American-Canadian designer’s sartorial sense is reflected in his work. I don’t have a crystal ball, but if what Mr. Gilles fills his walk-in closet with indicates the future of American automotive identity, I’d say we’re headed back to catwalk domination.

Here’s to dressing well.

Ralph Gilles and the 2013 SRT Viper GTS
SRT Brand and Motorsports President and CEO Ralph Gilles kisses his pride and joy, the 2013 SRT Viper GTS, at the New York International Auto Show reveal, April 4, 2012. Well-dressed, well-designed.

Ryan’s passion for automobiles began at age eight when his father brought home the quintessential sports car: A Guards Red, 1974 Porsche 911 Targa. Ever since, his free time has been consumed with following the latest developments of the automotive industry.