The same receptors in your brain that recognize human faces recognize faces in cars. Still, it's not just headlights that make a car stand out. According to Jalopnik readers, these are the ten most iconic design features in the automotive world.
Welcome back to Answers of the Day — our daily Jalopnik feature where we take the best ten responses from the previous day's Question of the Day and shine it up to show off. It's by you and for you, the Jalopnik readers. Enjoy!
Photo Credit: Adam Minter
10.) 1959 Cadillac fins
Suggested By: Autojunkie
Why it's iconic: If there was ever a symbol for Americana, it's the tail fin of a 1959 Cadillac. The whole rear end of one of these behemoths is just such a mash-up of chrome and glitzy old futuristic details, but it's the razor-sharp fins that are the real icons.
Look at this American family vacationing in France 1961. Can't you see the pride they have in their winged Cadillac?
The fins were born out of a bit of a rivalry. Ever since 1948, Cadillac had been making their stubby little military-plane-inspired fins just a little bigger every year. It was very incremental so that new cars never looked too different from the old models and resale values stayed high.
Then in 1957, Chrysler just blew Cadillac's whole plan out of the water by introducing sky-high fins on even the cheapest cars they made. Cadillacs were looking tame and the whole excitement of getting a progressively more futuristic Caddy was shattered.
So the Cadillac design team (and every other stylist at General Motors) went haywire, drawing as crazy as they could. No idea was too bold. When the reigning boss man, Harley Earl, returned from a vacation and saw that his stylist had practically rebelled from his progressive plans, even he recognized the need to outdo Chrysler, and so he approved these never-to-be-seen-again fins.
They are of epic proportions. See them in person and marvel.
Photo Credit: Herb Gouldon
9.) Sliding doors
Suggested By: 87CE 95PV Type Я says Merry Christmas
Why it's iconic: Sliding doors are so utterly identifiable with soccer moms, suburbia, and minivans that every memory of afterschool drives just flood back if you even think about the "shhhhh—chunk!" noise they make when you slam them shut.
Photo Credit: harry_nl
8.) Double round taillights
Suggested By: Xander Crews, Proud of BOXER
Why it's iconic: Every carmaker seems to think that they branded the four round taillights design for themselves. Ferrari has them, Corvette has them, Skylines have them. Everyone has them.
What this means is that when you see four glowing red lights in front of you in a nighttime L.A. traffic jam, you know that there's something fast and expensive up ahead. They are a general, retro, sporty desing element, a classic that can't get pinned down to any one brand.
Photo Credit: Attila Malarik
7.) The Hoffmeister Kink
Why it's iconic: A pedant will gleefully inform you that the first car to bear this sharply curved rear window treatment was the 1951 Kaiser, or the 1962 Dodge Dart. These are useless pieces of trivia, so ignore that person.
What is important is that BMW has been grafting this little notch in the C-pillar since 1961, ever since BMW figured out its modern design language with the famed "Neue Klasse" (New Class) cars. Small sporty, rear-wheel-drive, they were, and remain, the cookie mold for a BMW.
Part of that cookie mold includes the Hoffmeister kink, something that gets copied and reused in nearly every sporty design you can imagine, from 1980s Celicas to Saabs and their "hockey stick" curves.
Photo Credit: freeskier
6.) Rolls-Royce grill and hood ornament
Suggested By: rawtoast
Why it's iconic: Back in the 1970s, Detroit realized they could make their big, bloated land barges look instantly more refined and classic; all they had to do was stick a big, shiny, upright grill on the front and call it a day. Rolls-Royce had been doing that for years, and unlike Detroit, still does it now.
That grill traces its way back to the beginnings of Rolls-Royce, and it wasn't particularly special when it was new. Every car had a cathedral-like prow on the front, only Rolls-Royce never got around to making their cars more aerodynamic, or modern at all.
So the grill stuck, as did the fairly gaudy naked lady stuck at the top, now idolized as a symbol of taste and remembered as "the Spirit of Ecstasy". You see this grill, you know exactly what you're looking at. Just don't look too long, because that plutocrat in the Rolls won't think twice about having his chauffeur run you over.
Photo Credit: Chard Horwedel
5.) Gullwing doors
Suggested By: thickpete
Why it's iconic: Ever since the Mercedes 300SL hit luxury showrooms in 1954, doors that open up have been a go-to design element for any carmaker wanting to add some exotic charm to a car. DeLorean famously stuck them on his DMC-12, but he wasn't the only one.
They've been showing up at car shows on pie-in-the-sky concept cars for decades now, immediately adding al kinds of flair and exoticism to whatever car they grace.
Photo Credit: Otis Blank
4.) Porsche's silhouette
Suggested By: Gamecat235
Why it's iconic: Car enthusiast or no, almost anyone can see a 911 drive by, be it a car from the ‘60s, the ‘80s, or fresh out of the showroom, and their brain will recognize "That's a Porsche."
The 911 was never the only car to have a single, graceful arch from the top of the windscreen back to the tail of the car (the contemporary Glas 1700 GT comes to mind), but in fine German tradition, Porsche has stayed bitterly conservative over the years, ingraining their look into the sports car brain receptors of the public.
Photo Credit: Porsche
3.) BMW's double kidneys
Suggested By: Goggles_Pisano
Why it's iconic: Through sheer conservatism and lack of willpower, BMWs have hardly changed their look at all since the company entered its modern era in the 1960s. Nobody wanted to mess with success and nobody wanted to frighten off potential customers, so the look of BMW never changed, a look that acutely involves the double kidney grill.
The kidney grill goes back to the 1933 BMW 303 and has been with the company ever since. It's in their DNA now, and every time you see that double grill you know exactly what you're looking at.
Photo Credit: FurLined
2.) The open-gated shifter
Suggested By: wwu240z was the old me
Why it's iconic: Every time you step into a car and there's a gleaming, machined, open-gated shifter you just know that soon you will be driving hard, going snik-snak through the gears. Nothing transmits sportiness like an open-gated shifter. You associate them with classic Ferraris and Lamborghinis and the new Audi R8.
The pattern of the shifts, this H-box pattern drawn out on that cue ball end is just one more unbelievably classic symbol of driving tied in with the classic open-gated shifter.
Photo Credit: Calvin Kim
1.) Mercedes' three-pointed star
Suggested By: SennaMP4
Why it's iconic: Nothing says wealth and power so clearly as the Mercedes logo, proudly displayed at the prow of every great Benz. The hood ornaments look like gunsights aimed at poor pedestrians. Every time you walk by one, a part of you wants to just snap off that bastard star.
There is no symbol in the world of cars as strong as the three-pointed star.
Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove