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[Automotive Exterior Design] Why The Relatively Sudden Change From Ornate In The Early 1960s?


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Any thoughts on why the relatively quick change happened in automotive exterior design from the ornate late fifties cars to the far more spare early and mid sixties cars?

 

I find a lot of coverage of what happened and not a lot of why. I have some thoughts, but I'm interested in what you folks think.

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I think people just got less flashy. Small economy cars like Falcons, Ramblers, etc. were getting really popular in the early 60s and people may have just wanted to cut down on the excess a bit. That spilled over into full size cars too. Then as the decade wore on and things like JFK's assassination and Vietnam happened the more positive, flashy attitudes of the 50s gave way to a more serious and uncertain nation. This same change can be seen if you follow the musical trends from the late 50s to mid 60s as well. That's my theory, anyway.

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At least at Pontiac a lot had to do with Bunkie Knudsen arriving a Pontiac in the late '50s and "getting rid of the suspenders". '63 Grand Prix was first of the "reduced chrome" production cars but a lot was the transition from WWII fighters to modern jets. "Dechroming" had its start in the custom cars of the '50s and just moved to production. Was also cheaper.

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EPA and OSHA were established about 1970-71, leading to many regulations that affected chrome plating processes and drove the prices up.  The Vietnam war also drove up prices on chrome, nickel, cobalt and other materials.  If changes in design thinking hadn't been enough to remove chrome-plated trim, economics completed the transition.  So, now we have jelly bean-shaped cars that all look alike with molded rubberlike bumpers.  Ah, take me back to 1958...

 

179404864_1958buick.thumb.png.e7aba0f19187324fc4501603b365bcde.png    

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Perhaps it had a little more to do with the buyer market being targeted by the early 60's.

In the 50's and earlier, cars seem to have been marketed more to the family head and vehicle prestige was leading the way. 

By the early 60's a younger market had a new buying power and were more interested in the performance and personalized styling of their cars, rather than the (by then) garish and gigantic cars marketed to their fathers.  The mid-sized cars with their unibody construction were an expanding market with endless possibilities and much cheaper to build. Car design that looked fast standing still and heavy chrome bumpers and grills just didn't give that message.  In fact many bumpers were reduced to "car jewelry" status rather than actual functionality. Working women also became a more pronounced buying group, targeted by the manufacturers so (at the risk of sounding sexist) maybe a mid-sized car was more appealing to them as well compared to a 22 foot long barge.  Sexy, young, sporty, T shirts and mini skirts were fast becoming the mass buyers rather than the Brooks Brothers crowd.

Early Mustangs outsold mid 60's Cadillacs at a tremendous rate. But by this era the Cadillac was more streamlined as well. I believe some of their best designs appeared in this time period. Mustangs were a tremendous marketing ploy.   A stipped down mid size, repanelled Falcon with very little bolt-on bling but great body design with a peppy V-8.  Ford read the future, understood it and got the jump on everybody with that one. Of course this is only my opinion and it could be complete nonsense.

Edited by GregLaR (see edit history)
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2 hours ago, J3Studio said:

I find a lot of coverage of what happened and not a lot of why.

 

I love reading accounts written by people who were

actually there.  You'll find a lot of insight in the

October 1958 issue of Motor Trend, in an article

(a survey) titled, "Why I Didn't Buy a '58 Detroit Car."

Readers wrote essays and gave their reasons.

 

In the 1950's, highways were getting bigger, wider,

and faster.  So were the cars.  People who wanted

modest size and economy found that cars didn't even

fit in the smaller garages!  GM's 1958 styling was bulky,

and even the side panels were adorned with decoration.

Ford Motors' 1958 styling was busy and a bit odd.

A lot of promised new features never materialized.

The respondents in the article clamored for clean

designs, moderate size, and lack of the "planned

obsolescence" of yearly style changes.

 

My favorite comment:  "Why should a car look like a

plane any more than a submarine or a steam locomotive?"

 

It took the design process a few years before people's

wishes took form and were available in the 1961 showrooms.

 

Edited by John_S_in_Penna (see edit history)
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In 1958, Rambler, with its smaller cars, was the

only American manufacturer whose sales actually

improved in that year's recession.  Their catalogues

and ads pointed out other cars' excesses in a

humorous and pointed way:

 

 

1958 Rambler catalog comic.jpg

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By pure saturation, GM lead and dominated industry styling through the 1930's to the 1970's, notwithstanding occasional interlopers such as Virgil Exner's 1957 Forward Look.  GM Styling was the powerhouse and mother-church of the business, training legions of designers that spread throughout to other carmakers.   More than anyone else, the man who dictated taste was Harley Earl (Misterl) but he was also grooming Bill Mitchell to succeed him when Earl retired in December 1958.   Misterl had an uncanny feel for what the American public would accept which included a recognition that the highly-decorated was equated and embraced by a large percentage of the public as an indication of luxury or a degree of pretense thereof.   One of his mantras was the trip around a car should be a delight and entertainment to the viewer.   Study a 1941 Cadillac in detail sometime, you'll see what he was trying to achieve.

 

Bill Mitchell had a different outlook and ethic, one that depended on and emphasized proportions and sculptural forms rather than applied ornamentation.  His very first production car, the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special demonstrates well how he would direct the GM styling ethic twenty years hence.   He, as well as all other stylists, were influenced by major styling achievements such as the Cord 810/812 and 1953 Studebaker 'Loewy' (Bob Bourke) coupes to apply a cleaner, more sculptural theme to production cars.   He also knew that the public had to be weaned off the highly-decorated ethic to appreciate the outlook he embraced.  Once the lead was his, one sees the transition from the 1958 Earl Era into the initial harbingers of his ethic: the 1963 Corvette and Buick Riviera.   Mitchell truly hit strike with the full 1965 GM line and continued for the most part through the end of the decade.   While he didn't always meet the challenges of the 1970's all that well, he was still in charge of the initial down-sizing of the full-sized 1977 GM cars.

 

One issue that had to be overcome in public attitude toward cleaner, less-decorated styling was the ideal that such was an indicator of cheap, frugal and unstylish.  The stripped, plain appearance of base model cars reinforced that outlook.   It took time for the idea that a car need not be plastered with chrome to be perceived as upscale and luxurious.   The history of American automotive styling is a broad and fascinating one, gives up a real window into the attitudes and outlooks of the times in which they existed.

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Yep, I believe Rambler took the #7 spot for sales numbers in 1958 (with a car that was just a reheated Nash), up from #12 in 1957, which made the big three get their butts in gear and start making smaller cars people wanted to buy. And that was a sign of things to come - by 1961 Rambler took the #3 spot, only behind Ford and Chevy. Proof that people were tired of the 'barges' and wanted something smaller and more economical going into the new decade.

Edited by AL1630 (see edit history)
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56 minutes ago, John_S_in_Penna said:

I love reading accounts written by people who were

actually there.  You'll find a lot of insight in the

October 1958 issue of Motor Trend, in an article

(a survey) titled, "Why I Didn't Buy a '58 Detroit Car."

Readers wrote essays and gave their reasons.

 

Subtitle:


For Detroit—here are the reasons for the sales slump

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Ergonomics also played a big part.  Gone by 1961 for the most part were wrap-around windshields, and bright chrome on the hood that produced glare while driving into the sunlight.  

 

Craig

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This is a question that requires looking at the big picture of the time, WWII was over, a new boom was shaping up in the American economy, and in America in particular, an era of affluence relative to the rest of the world was emerging. Other countries like Europe and Japan were struggling to recover after tremendous  damage to their cities and infrastructure. So while the Germans (Mercedes, Porsche, VW), British (Jaguar, Triumph, MG, Austin) and Italians (Ferrari, Alfa, Fiat) were producing clean lined, technically efficient and aesthetically purposeful modest sized cars, the American Big 3 (or 4 or 5), decided that "excess and flamboyance" would sell. Exner, Earl, and others set the industry ablaze with their excesses, chrome, fins, length, weight, bells and whistles of all sorts, aimed at the affluent pre-boomer market, who thirsted for something more grand than the neighbour, the guy lower down the ladder, or for just bragging rights. Skilled marketing by the industry ignored all the downsides and focused largely on splash, pizazz, and "mine is bigger than yours". Predictably, the bubble would eventually burst as the next generation of buyers, the baby boomers born after 1945, became a more discerning and informed buyer. The so called "Chrome and Fin" era lasted about 10-15 years depending on how you pick a start/end date, and by then, car style/design began to be dramatically influenced by what Europe and Japan were offering, smaller bodies, less flash, less weight, more focus on efficiency and quality (although quality was an elusive goal for many more years), and more development focus on technical/engineering than on cosmetics. The mid-sixties influence of the Mustang, and eventually the whole era of Muscle Cars, meant little room for cosmetic excess thank goodness. The 1950's excess was a 10 year marketing circus, everyone bought a ticket, but eventually they recognized it was an unsustainable ride.  

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7 hours ago, 58L-Y8 said:

Bill Mitchell had a different outlook and ethic, one that depended on and emphasized proportions and sculptural forms rather than applied ornamentation.  His very first production car, the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special demonstrates well how he would direct the GM styling ethic twenty years hence.   He, as well as all other stylists, were influenced by major styling achievements such as the Cord 810/812 and 1953 Studebaker 'Loewy' (Bob Bourke) coupes to apply a cleaner, more sculptural theme to production cars.   He also knew that the public had to be weaned off the highly-decorated ethic to appreciate the outlook he embraced.  Once the lead was his, one sees the transition from the 1958 Earl Era into the initial harbingers of his ethic: the 1963 Corvette and Buick Riviera.   Mitchell truly hit strike with the full 1965 GM line and continued for the most part through the end of the decade.   While he didn't always meet the challenges of the 1970's all that well, he was still in charge of the initial down-sizing of the full-sized 1977 GM cars.

 

It's interesting, because GM's refrigerators of the day (Frigidaire) were ahead of their cars in styling trends. For 1957, Frigidaire moved to the "Sheer Look," with "sleek, trim, elegant" styling. About twenty years later, Cadillac's Seville would inaugurate GM's automotive Sheer Look—with the same name.

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"bumpers were reduced to "car jewelry" status" GM parts books of the day referred to them as "chromed styling panels".

Personally always liked the Chrysler "letter cars" of the era.

420px-61_Chrysler_300_G_(7324697482).jpg

 

 

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35 minutes ago, padgett said:

Personally always liked the Chrysler "letter cars" of the era.

 

420px-61_Chrysler_300_G_(7324697482).jpg

 

That's a 1961, I believe—the final year for fins on the 300. I see the "letter cars" as comparatively restrained in 1955 and 1956, and than fairly ornate for the rest of that decade.

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The chrome and tailfins school of design ran its course, the stylists went looking for something new. In the late fifties there was a recession, car sales fell off especially the costly medium priced cars like Buick, Mercury and Chrysler. Some went out of business completely like Hudson, Nash, DeSoto and Packard. Small imports sold like hotcakes, so did the Lark and Rambler, as Detroit responded with the compact Valiant, Corvair, and Falcon which proved to be best sellers.

In the early sixties many full sized cars downsized and became simpler and less gaudy.

Was it a change in public taste, or was taste dictated by styling? A little of both probably. Chrysler corporation was the last to abandon the gaudy tailfin look, and sales suffered accordingly in the early sixties. When they adopted the conservative Brooks Brothers look in the mid sixties their sales bounced back.

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1 hour ago, Steve_Mack_CT said:

Elwood Engel's slab side Lincoln made tailfins and excessive chrome obsolete overnight.

 

But, even that is a question of timing—the equally restrained and gorgeous 1956-1957 Continental Mark iI seems to have had little influence on any other designs. Certainly the simplicity of design and the somewhat smaller size of the 1961 Lincoln Continental compared to previous Lincolns was a harbinger of the future.

It's funny about tailfins—even Mercedes-Benz had them.

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J3, I think the Continental was a great 50s design, but bad timing as detroit was moving into the glitz more and more by then.  Also, it was a few rungs up the ladder than the Lincoln line.  I think a few designs, Engel's Lincoln, and the Riviera as well, really set the tone.

 

Yes, tough breaks for MB and Sunbeam to go with fins as the fad was dying away.

 

While I am not a fin guy in general, I do like the way Cadillac evolved through decades afterwards.  Heck the vertical tail lights on my daily driver seem to have that fin dna...

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3 minutes ago, J3Studio said:

RE: 1961 Lincoln Continental:

"But, even that is a question of timing—the equally restrained and gorgeous 1956-1957 Continental Mark iI seems to have had little influence on any other designs. Certainly the simplicity of design and the somewhat smaller size of the 1961 Lincoln Continental compared to previous Lincolns was a harbinger of the future."

The affect of the 1956-'57 Continental Mark II was not seen instantly but rather an influence on future design direction.  Its demise came at the beginning of the 1961 Lincoln design process, even influenced the 1958-'60 Continental Marks presenting a more restrained use of chrome, though that might be a bit difficult to see.   The first car that really shows the clean Continental Mark II influence is, oddly enough, a Cadillac, specifically the 1959-'60 Eldorado Broughams, bodied by Pininfarina.   Those second generation Eldorado Broughams were the first glimmers of the overall design ethic of Bill Mitchell.

 

The other influence of the Continental Mark II was proportional emphasis.  Harley Earl began in 1950 promoting a long deck/short hood proportions with his extended deck Cadillac 60 Specials and Coupe de Villes.  He followed up those Oldsmobile 98, Pontiac Star Chiefs and Buick Roadmaster/Limited and Electra 225 throughout the decade.  Ford designers took the Continental Mark II long hood/short deck proportions and applied them immediately to the four passenger 1958-'60 Ford Thunderbird, a natural given its intimate personal luxury packaging.  In another of odd turns the industry presents, the next application of long hood/short deck proportions arrives in the 1960 Valiant sedans!  Exner was exploring his next design direction beyond Forward Look, the long hood/short had been a feature of the majority of 1950's Mopar show cars.  Looking beyond the somewhat bizarre styling details of his early 1960's efforts, the emergence of the Exner's long hood/short deck ethic begins to appear.  It was cut short by his dismissal, replacement by Elwood Engel. 

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There's always push back on designs that aren't boring. We should really be thankful the 50s styling survived as long as it did. 

 

I'll use a very modern example from a field outside of automobiles to prove it: the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team. They introduced a gold chrome plated helmet this year. It's never been done in the sport before, and it's awesome. Yet there has been nothing but whining about it. Much of it for the simple fact that it's new and different. 

 

The same is true for cars. They had the most unique and flamboyant designs during the 50s, so they got rid of it and made them all look mostly alike. 

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Liked the MKII and even the MkIII but not common cars. Today, fins live on in vertical taillights. Meanwhile the 61 Cadillac had fins everywhere.

 

0f1999eb94efa6f3cf017b920a8cf4f8.jpg

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33 minutes ago, padgett said:

Liked the MKII and even the MkIII but not common cars. Today, fins live on in vertical taillights. Meanwhile the 61 Cadillac had fins everywhere.

 

0f1999eb94efa6f3cf017b920a8cf4f8.jpg

Cadillac was always going to be an evolutionary styling approach, rarely with a complete break with prior models.  To see the 1961-'62 styling theme source, study the 1960 Eldorado Brougham.  What you will see is all the design elements are present in it, but were presented in an exaggerated form on the production cars.  The surface developments are same particularly on the sides and rear.  The front moves to the airfoil hood plane layered on the horizontal grille/headlights plane. 

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I always thought it was the economics of the "new" two car family in the early 1960's?  Now your family needs to have two cars, less money to spend on a second car... enter cheap, reliable, transportation. 

 

Interestingly (2021), we are now talking about only needing one (driver) car, my wife is working from home, haven't driven her car in over a month.

 

 

The Two Ford Family 1960 Falcon (1960 commercial)

https://youtu.be/eEPb_x6uNoM

 

Edited by Graham Man (see edit history)
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3 hours ago, 58L-Y8 said:

Cadillac was always going to be an evolutionary styling approach, rarely with a complete break with prior models.

 

I've seen many versions of this chart over the years.

 

RiseAndFallOfTheTailFin.jpg

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4 hours ago, Billy Kingsley said:

The same is true for cars. They had the most unique and flamboyant designs during the 50s, so they got rid of it and made them all look mostly alike. 

I think it was the tyranny of the wind tunnel, trying to one-up each other with the lowest drag co-efficient at the sacrifice of artistic style.

 

Craig

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Posted (edited)
3 hours ago, 8E45E said:

I think it was the tyranny of the wind tunnel, trying to one-up each other with the lowest drag co-efficient at the sacrifice of artistic style.

 

I can think of little serious wind tunnel work designed to lower the cd (besides Citroen and NSU) for production cars between the 1950s and the late 1970s, but maybe I've missed some. Some examples that come easily to mind: the Mercedes-Benz W126 debuted in the 1979 model year, the Corvette's first serious usage was for 1980, the Audi 5000 and the Camaro/Firebird twins were 1982. After that, the deluge …

 

Edited by J3Studio
Clarifying time window and wind tunnel goals (see edit history)
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Since everything old is new again, I'm now wondering if Chrysler or others did actual wind tunnel work with the Airflow, et. al. I am stunningly non-expert with things pre-war automotive.

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My personal thoughts are I agree with the wind tunnel crowd. Every little doo-dad added that didn't affect functionality, added drag, expense to manufacture, or expense to replace (think insurance companies and accidents) were considered unnecessary. While I can't dismiss those on the EPA regs or customer-demand side, I don't think people consciously decided not to buy a car because it did/did not have chrome/fins/whatever. I mean do people decide not to buy a car because it does/doesn't have 8 zillion cup holders?

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15 minutes ago, J3Studio said:

Since everything old is new again, I'm now wondering if Chrysler or others did actual wind tunnel work with the Airflow...

 

Yes, the Airflows were intentionally designed 

to be aerodynamic.  And a little afterward, all sorts

of "teardrop" styling was being thought of as the

next trend in design.

 

I believe the 1949-51 "bathtub" Nashes were designed

in a wind tunnel also.

 

However, this is not why cars became smaller and

less adorned at the beginning of the 1960's.

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Just now, John_S_in_Penna said:

However, this is not why cars became smaller and less adorned at the beginning of the 1960's.

 

Agreed. I'm just proving that even the thread originator can take it off track … :)

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While I love the Mark ll, it's long hood short deck was not revolutionary. The same design proportions were used in the original Continental, but even going back into the 30's, it was part of the styling that was necessitated by the long straight eight engines, and later the V16. Was it function over form, I really don't know, but the design world and the public really took to the close coupled look. It's a design that even functionality and the shorter WB cars using the inline 6 and the V8 couldn't keep on the shelf forever. As an aside I always loved the production 1956 Lincoln, and while I now have made peace with the choice, I was always sorry that Ford chose to put fins on the 1957 Lincoln.

 

As far as sacrificing style for aerodynamics, it need not always the case. Pardon my personal association, as car pictured is the same model as my first car. They are still popular choices at Bonneville, sixty eight years after the first one was built!

Studebaker Commander photo

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56 minutes ago, J3Studio said:

Since everything old is new again, I'm now wondering if Chrysler or others did actual wind tunnel work with the Airflow, et. al. I am stunningly non-expert with things pre-war automotive.

The Airflow design definitely came from the wind tunnel, probably the first American car to do so. Chrysler engineers tested many wooden models in a wind tunnel and found among other things, that contemporary cars had less air drag going backward! To dramatize this they made a DeSoto sedan that went backwards and drove it from coast to coast.

They also did some wind tunnel testing in the tailfin era and confirmed that tailfins stabilized the car at speed, something that was becoming more important as the interstate hiway system encouraged cruising at 70MPH for hours at a time.

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Station wagons are also great since low nose/wagon body acts as a weather vane.

Have always kinda sorta wanted a Studillac.

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3 hours ago, Rusty_OToole said:

Chrysler wind tunnel testing in 1930

 

Pin by philip read on Cars: Chrysler Airflow | Chrysler airflow, Airflow,  Chrysler

There should exist a photo of Walter P. driving a 1930 sedan backwards, proving his point about how un-aerodynamic new cars were at the time.  It was then he started working on the Airflow.

 

Craig

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59 minutes ago, 8E45E said:

There should exist a photo of Walter P. driving a 1930 sedan backwards, proving his point about how un-aerodynamic new cars were at the time.  It was then he started working on the Airflow.

 

Craig

Here you go. Racing driver Harry Hartz in the backwards 1932 DeSoto

 

AQ1930s_AI_f_Img_1440.jpg?resize=350%2C2

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