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Raymond Loewy on the Future of the Car

“The public may admire a corporation for its impressive size. Who in the United States doesn’t? But when a business, however gigantic, gets smug enough to believe that it is sufficient only to match competition on trivial points instead of leading competition in valid matters, that business is becoming vulnerable to public disfavor.”

That’s from a piece by industrial designer Raymond Loewy (who worked outside the Big Three), published in the April, 1955 issue of The Atlantic.

He makes a number of interesting prophecies about the car in America, most of which have come true (e.g., “Semiautomatic driving will become the rule. Driving will be easier—therefore more relaxing; therefore more dangerous.”)

Interestingly, he was well off on one point: “In fifty years, even if the rate of fatal accidents declines (as it does annually, based on the number of miles traveled), we may expect as many as 120,000 killed annually. Obviously, something will have to be done about this, by driver education—the biggest factor—and by the automotive industry itself.”

He apparently wasn’t listening to Smeed. I suspect the safety gains have more to do with the cars themselves than with driver education.

Piece is after the jump…

In every phase of the automotive industry certain factors have been more important than all others in relation to the way the automobile has looked. Phase One is really the Ford story. Function and production were the most important considerations. The automobile was an invention, and it looked like one.

Phase Two is marked by the introduction of the steel body in mass production, and appearance became a major factor for the first time. Walter Chrysler discovered that robin’s-egg blue helped sales; so all other companies tried to top Chrysler in styling. It was an era of individuality and healthy competition.

By the time of World War II, the industry had reached a point where many factors had leveled out: body types, price differences, market potential, manufacturing methods, advertising, technical developments (at least, those released to the public). Independents believed that styling, with improved function, would not only sell well but create good will for the small company.

The style factors were: good visibility, compactness, lighter weights. Big companies jumped on the “style” bandwagon, but what so-called functional factor did they select? Bulk—a sorry choice! Bulk gets to be habit-forming, and bulk means weight. To this manufacturers added “flash.” So they got into a spiral of increased weight and ornamentation. This led to the horsepower rat-race and the chrome gadget rat-race—a costly combination. As a result, standardization—a byproduct of mass production has established as today’s dreamboat a vehicle that’s too big for most people, too expensive, too costly to maintain, and too gaudy.

Some might say that this apparent wastefulness is indeed a blessing—that it brings about the use of more materials, more employment, prosperity. I believe the theory would be even more valid if the industry’s basic product were a model — cheaper, more economical, and therefore available to more people—within reach of the wide mass market that lies at the bottom layer of the consumers’ pyramid. Instead, what have we got? The total loss of distinction among all automobiles plus the finest state of jitters in the history of the automotive industry.

Designers today are briefed to “give the public what it wants,” and “what the public wants” is being translated into the flashy, the gadgety, the spectacular. I refuse to believe that today’s automobiles represent, stylewise, “what the public wants” any more than they reflect what we in the automotive industry want. But the result of this mistaken opinion is vulgarity and blatancy. Instead of the automobile’s expressing advancement, the story is now one of external bric-a-brac. This reflects a distorted notion of what is competitive.

I think that vulgarity is dangerous for many reasons. The American automobile has changed the habits of every member of modern society. In the past fifty years it has become the symbol, all over the world, of American industrial genius and enterprise. It has become so potent a force that it is very nearly the symbol of American thought and morals to people who don’t know us. It is more than an object to be sold for money. The automobile is an American cultural symbol.

“Some culture,” one might say as one watches the sad parade of the 1955 models. The world will soon forget that under these gaudy shells are concealed masterpieces of inspired technology. What we see today looks more like an orgiastic chrome plated brawl.

There was another great American symbol, probably exported by the GI—the jukebox. Today’s jukebox moves! The automobile. This year’s production includes two-tone and three-tone jukeboxes. We are probably going to have a fluorescing six-passenger jukebox before long. Seriously, aren’t manufacturers doing disservice to this country if they mass-present the automobile in such misleading vulgarity? Aren’t they depressing the level of American taste by saturating the market with bad taste? Is it necessary?

This point has always interested me: Big companies make two conflicting statements –”We give the public what it wants” and, also, “Whatever design we choose becomes the accepted style standard through saturation.” I do not agree with this last statement. But, if it is right, isn’t it the company’s cultural responsibility to choose a high standard instead of a low one? I realize that I am setting myself up as an arbiter of taste, but I have helped develop a profession in this country that sells taste.

This situation in the automobile industry is the more tragic because it is so unnecessary. Without doubt there are sufficient design taste and talent in the United States to correct the situation. But someone must demand better taste and not just better sales.

I am told that cab drivers have the highest rate of duodenal ulcers. I’ll bet a chrome-plated carrot that automotive stylists have them beat. Every really creative and imaginative stylist and many engineers I know seem to be frustrated in their work today. The near-shattering pressure of their repressions is relieved in constant doodling — blue-sky dreaming. They rush home and make scale models in the attic. Or they long for the weekend to go road-racing in the old red Isotta-Fraschini or the souped-up pre-war Ford.

We know that the men at the top of the industry are well aware of their economic responsibilities, of their vital roles in the nation’s economy. What about their cultural responsibilities? Is it responsible to camouflage one of America’s most remarkable machines as a piece of gaudy merchandise? Is it possible that they don’t know the merchandise is gaudy?

I don’t think the automotive industry in general is showing faith in good taste today. With rare exceptions, it cannot be accused of backing design sophistication. One shocking condition is the servile copying of one company’s product by the others. It seems that giants in industry are taking refuge in sameness. This is just the time when they ought to be pioneering while they have the money, the momentum, and the market. This “management by escapism” is usually a manifestation of a fearful and insecure society. Perhaps we should ask the teenagers—the consumers of tomorrow. They love automobiles—especially ones that look like automobiles. Today these kids rib what used to be the family’s proudest possession. Pop buys a chrome-plated “barge” just like the one he traded in. It’s a wise kid who knows his own barge.

Fixing responsibility for the present state of design and styling this year is a tricky business. It probably starts with someone’s deciding that the American public really likes vulgarity. However, numbers of men in a company do decide to give the public what it is supposed to want, in spite of their own consciences in the matter. Hesitation and doubt then creep into the whole design-engineering-sales team. The result is just what you’d expect—safe, imitative, over-decorated chariots, with something for everyone laid over a basic formula design that is a copy of someone else’s formula design. Form, which should be a clean-cut expression of mechanical excellence, has become sensuous and organic.

Progressive management may realize that it is losing contact with a segment of consumers and that, however spectacular the sales, the company is losing popularity. This unpopularity has not yet reduced sales. But I think resentment is growing. And resentment is never an asset.

The public may admire a corporation for its impressive size. Who in the United States doesn’t? But when a business, however gigantic, gets smug enough to believe that it is sufficient only to match competition on trivial points instead of leading competition in valid matters, that business is becoming vulnerable to public disfavor.

If there should be any such thing as a cloud in the blue sky of bigness for bigness’ sake, I believe it will be the loss of people’s trust and not governmental interference or control.

I hear conversations like these: “Remove the chrome schmaltz and the name plates and you can’t tell one from another.” Or, “Leave a Ford and a Chevvy in the same garage overnight and nine months later you get a Plymouth!” Or vice versa! These aren’t funny and loving remarks: they’re cynical. Compare them with the old Ford jokes that invariably oozed love and respect for a great man and a practical car.

Isn’t it a bit complacent on the part of management to feel that the public is satisfied with this situation? There will be loud shouts: Who’s complacent? Don’t we all have new bodies this year? If the present “all-new” bodies are all that can be eked out in a year like this one, then I think wrong decisions have been made in a lot of places.

Experts estimate that fifty years from now there will be 120 million automobiles on the roads for approximately 98 million Americans. What company will be on top then? Would anyone care to guess? You can be reasonably sure that surprises are ahead. We’ve had enough in the past five years to count on it. And whoever wins will win by more than the length of a chrome-plated Dagmar.

2

Now, what are cars in the year 2005 going to look like? I’ll use the same techniques we used to predict an automobile design for Time magazine in 1942. A few days ago we looked at the design again and were surprised to see how many developments we had guessed correctly, including wraparound windshields, clear plastic tops, and twenty-nine other features that have since appeared in production cars.

I class the factors affecting styling as variables and constants. Among the variables are: the future state of the nation’s economy; the nature and cost of the available fuel; the rate and radius of decentralization of population; the development of new metals, synthetic materials, and new techniques; the development of more compact power plants; the possibility of highway systems with resilient surfaces or some other quality of surface. The big variable, of course, is atomic conflict.

Let’s now isolate the factors that are near-certitudes, and predict their probable effects:

1. Highways will be able to carry more traffic at greater average speeds. (We shall need better streamlining, smooth undercarriage, higher speeds, better deceleration.)

2. There will be more automobiles everywhere. (Automobiles must be made easier to maneuver in all directions.)

3. Automobiles will increase productivity in all industries. There will be more leisure, more family travel for longer distances. (Increased luggage space is indicated for the family car.)

4. Semiautomatic driving will become the rule. Driving will be easier—therefore more relaxing; therefore more dangerous. (Interior design must take into account that the occupants must be protected more carefully if the driver lapses in attention and dozes. Devices may become standard equipment to prevent this from happening.)

5. The standard of living will be more uniform. More people will be able to consider the possibility of owning two or more cars. (There will be a wider variety of body types made available at the low-cost level—possibly a utility car, of which no example exists, now; or a vacation car, combining advantages of the present station wagon with some of the more important facilities found in trailers: refrigerated compartments, cooking units, folding awning tents, and so forth.)

6. Finally—and by far the most effective factor—there must be greater emphasis laid on the safety factor in car design. At present, one out of every ten hospital beds is occupied by the victim of an automobile accident. In 1954, 36,000 or more people were killed. In fifty years, even if the rate of fatal accidents declines (as it does annually, based on the number of miles traveled), we may expect as many as 120,000 killed annually. Obviously, something will have to be done about this, by driver education—the biggest factor—and by the automotive industry itself. (This fact will affect appearance, because structural revisions may shift glazed areas, simplify instrument panels. Automobiles, like planes today, will need to be studied as human engineering problems. Style will follow function.)

Now let’s see if we can visualize an ensemble. Our 2005 model has a compact engine that does not require a high hood. This engine can be placed anywhere, and the cooling intake, if any, will be small. The body encloses large luggage spaces. The car is correctly streamlined; the undercarriage is smooth. The body is built strongly to be safe in case of collision. Therefore, window arrangement will be changed, by the new type of structure. I believe the goldfish-bowl or greenhouse superstructure is on its way out, especially in the rear of the vehicle.

The doors—or rather the accessibility panels will be power-operated and will open so that one can get in and out without crouching. The car can move laterally for close parking.

Inside, the automobile will be quite changed. With emphasis on de-lethalization, air conditioning, and partial convertibility, all-new interiors are inevitable. Seats will probably incorporate a pneumatic network to control resiliency.

Various devices will have made driving a semiautomatic process. It is known that metabolic and neuro-electrical variations take place in the human body when one relaxes and goes to sleep. It is conceivable that in the next fifty years means will be found to detect these fluctuations in body condition so as to stop the car automatically whenever the danger point approaches. Perhaps the driver will wear wrist electrodes. Or the steering wheel may transmit the body impulses. That steering wheel must, by all means, be mounted on a telescoping column.

Visibility in a 360-degree-arc is assured. Inside, windows closed, the car is quiet. The roof is a light-reflecting surface that will keep the car from getting too hot inside in the sun.

The electronics industry will probably have developed a low-priced radar unit for driving in the fog. Also, I see a possibility of a return to the flat windshield, which eliminates misleading light reflections at night. The tire started tubeless, and we are now back to the tubeless tire. As to the rear window, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the type that can be opened.

But now we come back to 1955 and our automotive jukeboxes. Are we proud of them? What do you think? Nothing about the appearance of the 1955 automobiles offsets the impression that Americans must be wasteful, swaggering, insensitive people. Automotive borax offers gratuitous evidence to people everywhere that much of what they suspect about us may be true. Our values are off beat, our ostentation acute, if the 1955 automobile is any reflection of ourselves and our taste.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 24th, 2008 at 4:15 pm and is filed under Cars, Etc., Traffic History, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Raymond Loewy on the Future of the Car”

  1. jack Says:

    Quite accurate and it’s clear that safety concerns for car occupants won. Horsepower has once again become the preferred “vulgarity”. How did you find this?

  2. D42 Says:

    Thanks again, Tom! I have been arguing with my father for the past TWO WEEKS about this one.
    You are -awesome-.

Leave a Reply

Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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