Motor Cars: Beauty and the Beast

Over sixty years of active motoring, one has observed with interest the changing styles followed by manufacturers in search of popularity and volume sales. From a British perspective it was always Ford of England that initiated a radical departure from the established norm, risking the derision of critics but, more often than not, capturing the imagination of a public always eager to be seen in something radically new. This pattern of progress continued virtually unchanged for five decades until it was overwhelmed by the Asian dominance of the new millennium.

In the 1950s, the new look in motor cars was ushered in by the Ford Prefect and Anglia saloons. The innovation may have had antecedents in the USA, where the evolution of private vehicles had continued while suspended in Britain during World War II, but, if so, it was reproduced without the ostentation and glittering chrome so characteristic of American cars of that era. At any rate, it proved immediately popular in Britain, and other motor manufacturers rushed to follow the new style, hoping at the same time to add some distinctive feature of their own.

The three-box style had a long life. It was amenable to great variation in detail and was readily adapted to two boxes in estate car or station wagon varieties. The influence of wind tunnel testing led to more streamlined shapes reputed to reduce air resistance and improve performance and fuel economy. Streamlines proved to be as aesthetically pleasing on cars as they were on aircraft and Ford continued to lead the way in an evolution that culminated in the universally popular KA model of the 1990s.

From there, there was nowhere to go. As far as is humanly possible, perfection had been achieved. The Ford KA inspired numerous copies from other manufacturers but all, in striving for a unique feature, degraded the beauty of the original. Many people, tired of constant pressure to buy something new, might have liked the KA to become a standard product in perpetuity. But the industry had now passed through Japan to South Korea and China, countries eager to promote worldwide sales of newly manufactured products.

Making something different from perfection means making something less pleasing to the eye and the Asian manufacturers have certainly succeeded in that quest. Yet so dominant is their global stance that the residual industry in the West has felt compelled to copy the Eastern degradation. It is an old English saying that after the Lord Mayor’s coach comes the corporation cart. In motor styling, the Lord Mayor’s coach has passed, and we are still waiting for the corporation cart.