Are Beautiful Cars Really a Thing of the Past?

12 December 2017 | by Aidan Walsh

Nobody makes beautiful cars anymore! Modern cars are ugly and vulgar! Automotive elegance is a thing of the past!

We’re all no-doubt familiar with this sort of sweeping proclamations regarding vehicle aesthetics. Such opinions appear commonplace amongst not only car enthusiasts, but the motoring press, general public and even designers.

When asked to identify the greatest beauties of the automotive world, many reliably default to classics of the mid-twentieth century – Jaguar E-Type, Lamborghini Miura, AC Cobra and so on – whilst lambasting more recent efforts.

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The Lamborghini Miura tops many a list for the ‘most beautiful cars‘

The list of ‘100 most beautiful cars’ recently compiled by the UK’s Autocar magazine provides a snapshot of such attitudes. Its upper echelons are dominated by 1950s and 1960s cars, with the aforementioned E-Type and Miura somewhat predictably occupying positions one and two.

Although numerous modern cars do appear toward the foot of the list, just three entries from this century (and no current production models) feature in the top twenty-five. What’s more, a glance through the reader comments suggests the inclusion of this modern machinery is generally unpopular and perhaps more of a token gesture than anything else.

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The AC Cobra is so well-loved that they keep bringing it back

But does this really mean that automotive artistry is dead and buried? Are those sixties icons destined to luxuriate upon their pedestals forevermore as hallowed artefacts from the golden age of motoring, or is this deference to the past merely a by-product of unchecked nostalgia?

Before we can answer this question, we must first tackle the thorny issue of what exactly constitutes ‘beauty’ in automotive context.

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1967 Toyota 2000GT (photo by Moto Club4AG Miwa on Flickr)

Although it is often remarked that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, it must be said that the opinions of these ‘beholders’ tend to converge more often than not, suggesting that the permutations for beauty within any given template are not as numerous as that well-known cliché would have us believe.

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Fiat Multipla – quirky, characterful... but hardly beautiful

Few would nominate the Fiat Multipla as a great beauty (charismatic though it may be), for example. Likewise the Toyota Prius or Marcos Mantis. Moreover, how many onlookers would feel nought but disgust and revulsion at the sight of an Aston Martin DB7, sixties Corvette Stingray or Toyota 2000GT? 

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Aston Martin DB7 – not from the '60s, but undeniably pretty

Additionally, a great many ‘good looking’ cars couldn’t be called ‘beautiful’ per se; the Lancia Delta Integrale is perhaps best described as ‘purposeful’, the 1968 Dodge Charger is ‘square-jawed’ and ‘brutal’, while the Volkswagen Up has a slick ‘product-like’ vibe perhaps most akin to an iPhone.

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Early Dodge Chargers were immensely cool, but not strictly beautiful

By contrast, the word ‘beautiful’ implies not only a fine balance of sleek proportions, refined volumes and well-considered detailing, but also a soft, delicate and overtly feminine quality which can be observed in the likes of the Alfa Romeo Spider, Porsche 356 and retro-influenced BMW Z8, but not the Integrale, Charger or Up.

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1969 Alfa Romeo ‘Duetto’ Spider (photo by Mick Lumix on Flickr)

While nostalgia clearly is a force to be reckoned with, the relative scarcity of these beauty markers in modern vehicles does suggest that at least some of those vocal naysayers may indeed have a point...

Obviously, there are beautiful cars nowadays; Porsche’s 918 Spyder (one of several glaring omissions from Autocar’s list), Ferrari’s 458/488 and the Mercedes-AMG GT could all be credibly described as such, so too the Alpine A110 and perhaps even Fiat’s 500 – although the latter pair of retro designs owe much of their shapeliness to twentieth-century ancestors. 

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Yes, this century has produced beauty, like the Porsche 918 Spyder

Nevertheless, it seems that for every truly elegant, aesthetically-balanced car today, there are multiple ugly stablemates and competitors to go with it.

Porsche’s ungainly Cayenne overshadows the lovely 918, while the 458 and 488 are but islands in the sea of aggression that is Ferrari’s recent output, and the AMG GT is arguably one of only a few truly attractive shapes in Mercedes’ vast range at present. Bleak statements which would have been difficult to make in times gone by.

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Well what do you know, a pretty new car for 2018 (Alpine A110)

This dearth of beauty is commonly blamed on ‘regulations’, such as those concerning pedestrian safety. However, given that the above examples appear to have slipped through this net, might there actually be more to it? 

It could be said that the increasing aggressiveness of our cars is reflective of the ever-more cut-throat nature of society itself. Furthermore, the rise of the bulky SUV template (has there ever been a beautiful SUV?) and concurrent decline of the sports car in the middle and lower sectors of the market are also contributing factors.

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Aggression and SUVs are barriers to beauty, exhibit A

Then throw in the desire to manage airflow and create downforce in high-end supercars (once a hotbed of elegance), resulting in the jarring visuals of LaFerrari and the Lamborghini Veneno – not to mention the, erm, ‘divisive’ new McLaren Senna announced over the weekend.

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Lamborghini Veneno – part lizard, part LMP1, 100% aggression

Another issue is that the quest for absolute beauty doesn’t always sit comfortably with commercial concerns. With model lifespans forever decreasing and the public’s insatiable appetite for ‘newness’, creating products which are ‘too perfect’ might actually be a long-term headache, since it leaves very little room for improvement next time around.

The E-Type provides a lesson from the past. Although rapturously received upon launch in 1961, its shadow loomed all too large over not only its successor, the XJS, but Jaguar itself for many years. After all, how on earth do you ‘top’ such a car?

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Jaguar was almost a victim of its own success, until it shed its nostalgia

Certainly, Jaguar’s subsequent refusal and/or inability to move on from its greatest hit could eventually have sunk it were it not for the efforts of Ian Callum and his team in recent years.

Beauty, as stated, is a delicate balancing act. Difficult to achieve, but largely timeless thereafter, its pursuit within any given set of parameters ultimately has to be a finite one.

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The BMW X7 iPerformance concept and its swollen kidneys

By contrast, ugliness, arising as it does from imbalance, is a bottomless pit. It’s laughably easy to keep making something uglier, gaudier or more aggressive, simply add more and bigger everything. More creases and scoops (Honda Civic), comically large radiator grilles (BMW X7) and ‘bling’ by the bucketload (Mercedes-Benz range).

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Can't reinvent a design? Just keep giving it more of everything

It could thus be argued that the drought of beauty in today’s cars is largely a symptom of actual, tangible technological advances failing to keep pace with rampant consumerism. After all, the essential format of ‘the car’ has changed remarkably little over the past century, despite the fortunes of manufacturers (and the economy at large) depending on selling us exciting new models every few years.

This means designers must create endless variations upon very similar themes, often resorting to ugliness and shock tactics to create differentiation in much the same way that Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst might do in the art world.

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Pure EVs could allow designers to move on from the likes of this...

Consequently, it is perhaps fortunate that the car industry now appears on the verge of a paradigm shift. The rise of the EV might just create a seismic jolt large enough to propel car design out of its current malaise.

Electric drive alone could provide enough of a short-term novelty factor to negate the need for gaudy overblown visuals (the clean minimalism of Tesla is suggestive of this, as is Honda’s Urban EV), while the packaging potential of EV drivetrains could open up a whole new world of visual possibilities over the long term, just as the advent of the ‘horseless carriage’ once did, thereby allowing the pursuit of beauty to start afresh.

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Honda‘s much-loved Urban EV concept – clean surfaces, friendly face

Just maybe then, we need not fear, for as much as beauty and elegance can seem to be things of the past, they could well be things of the future, too. Here’s hoping...