If Truth is Beauty...then why are the cars at auto shows so ugly?While walking through the aisles of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit's Cobo Center, I ran into a friend of mine. She lives in northern New Jersey, is in her mid 30s, is stylish and hip and works in the advertising end of the auto industry for a well-known agency. Although not a car person, she knows enough about the industry she works in to understand what is hot and what is not. She looked perplexed, and I asked her what was wrong.
"I don't want to ask a stupid question," she began, "but would it cost a lot more money to make show cars that are pretty instead of making them so ugly?"
We were standing together at the premiere auto show in North America, surrounded by hundreds of millions of dollars of new production models, concept cars and future designs, along with several thousand hot-shot automotive journalists and at least as many of the industry's top executives, yet she was the only one bold enough to ask such a simple and insightful question.
I tried to think of a way to answer her and explained that the needs for aerodynamic efficiency and optimum space utilization had inexorably moved engineers and designers to the same basic shapes and profiles for automobiles. It could be reasonably argued that the last truly innovative shape in the auto industry in the past 25 years was the Chrysler Minivan from 1984, although one could further argue that this was derived from the VW Microbus of yore. So cars, sport utility vehicles and light trucks from one manufacturer all began to look like those from every other manufacturer.
I told her that I could remember trying in vain a couple of years ago to find a Nissan Altima parked in a dimly lit parking garage amid a range of Toyota, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi look-alikes. We all complained so much about how all the cars looked alike, so designers began trying to find ways to change that.
One way that worked at first was to move customers into mighty and rugged sport utility vehicles. This was fine until every company had a sport utility and customers began objecting to the harsh ride and truck-like nature of their sport utes. The answer was to make them more like cars and more like each other, and soon it became difficult to tell one sport utility from another, placing everyone back at square one.
The auto industry's answer was predictable. They turned to advertising to try and convince the public that their offerings were more sporty or more luxurious or more youthful than those of their closest competitors. The cars themselves might not be very different, but the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on image advertising could convince a buyer that they made a superior choice.
Which is where the whole auto show concept car comes in. Concept cars are a way of advertising how young, hip, exciting and innovative your car company and its management is. If prospective customers, who are used to seeing relatively conservative designs from your company, are suddenly faced with the avant garde, the theory is that they will now associate your company with forward-thinking and clever design. This can backfire, of course, as it is all too easy to alienate the group of loyal customers who have been buying your products for decades (lately, though, this doesn't seem to be a consideration in the design studios of major car companies).
Concept cars themselves are fairly harmless. They should be flights of fancy and can be used to test the public's reaction to new ideas or concepts. The danger comes when company executives misread the public interest in a wacky design as customer interest in purchasing a car based upon that same design. Crowds cluster around the offbeat in much the same way they would gawk at a train wreck. Car companies have become so preoccupied with trying to be different and break free of their traditional style that they misinterpret the public's interest in the bizarre and have started producing some frighteningly ugly automobiles. They are confusing fashion with style, and this can be an expensive blunder.
Then it hit me: It actually costs more to make cars that are so ugly! First you have to have a room full of young oh-so-hip, highly paid designers who can create ugly designs. Then you have to create ugly show cars and hype them to a skeptical public. You have to count on your ugly car alienating traditional buyers and longtime fans of your brand. Then you have to build and actually sell those ugly cars through hard-nosed dealers who have to keep the eyesores on their lots. When it's all said and done, you would think that building ugly cars has got to cost more.
All of this presupposes that ugly cars won't sell as well as ones that are beautiful. While beauty is truly something for each beholder to decide, most car enthusiasts will agree that some cars are just plain ugly. And yet these cars still sell well because of their price or their features or the utility that they provide, or even because of the image that the company's advertising creates around them. The question as to whether they would sell better if they weren't so ugly is never brought up, at least in polite conversation.
After trying to explain all of this to my friend at the auto show, we went to look at some of the cars at the show that weren't ugly. There weren't that many, but I think most car enthusiasts would agree that the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, the Aston Martin DB9 and the Maserati Quattroporte are truly beautiful. The new Ford Mustang is surprisingly clean and attractive. On the other end of the price scale, the new Volvo S40 Sedan and V50 Wagon are very nice and quite a departure from the boxy cars that company used to build. The Ford Bronco concept vehicle was big and chunky, but that works fine for a rough-and-tumble vehicle.
What all of these cars have in common are smooth shapes devoid of awkward angles and lines and that eschew spoilers, wings and needless scoops and openings. Unfortunately, cars like these are increasingly a minority. It is this purity of line that so many car designers today work so hard to avoid in an effort to create a design that looks bold and individual but that unfortunately ends up looking like a knockoff of everyone else's bold and individual designs. The hard truth is that many of these creations are just plain ugly. Maybe, if we could get more of them to recognize this truth, the result would be more beauty.