Proving that decades of automotive history and design can be summarized and exemplified in a few small details, we, with the help of our readers, have isolated the ten best car design elements of all time. These are ten aesthetic features that represent eras, movements and philosophies in automotive design. Not only is each element iconic, but each invokes a pleasurable response from the viewer. Hit the jump for the list.
Ornamentation on hoods came about as an artistic way of dealing with a technical problem: many older cars had radiator caps on the edge of the hood, requiring a removable seal. Rather than just placing a round cap on the tip, designers began adding mascots. Whether the classic flying lady from a 1930's Caddy or a leaping Jaguar from the British marque, a hood ornament signifies a period when cars were considered more than just transportation. Despite the inherent beauty of a hood ornament, automakers have been doing away with them, making the hood ornament something Cognitive Friction will have to explain to his kids along with the polar ice caps and typewriters.
Since that first 1960 Corvette rolled off the assembly line nearly 50 years ago, every Corvette has sported two sets of roundish red taillights. There are many iconic headlight designs, but there's something poignant about crafting such memorable taillights. The designers know that, if the engineers do their job right, you'll spend more time looking at the back of the car than the front. Like glowing red afterburners poking out from a jet, the lights signify you and Rock517 were just smoked, whether by a ZR1 or a C4 Vette-amino.
The tailfin is not only a classic design element, it is also indicative of the way car design reflects the aesthetics and aspirations of a moment in time. It is no coincidence the Tailfin Era occurs during a period in history when we, as a people, first looked confidently to the skies as the next realm of conquest. The world's fascination with rockets and rocket design is mimicked in cars, such as the 1960 Cadillac Sixty-Two Coupe pictured above. In fact, the peak of the Tailfin Era, the 1959 Cadillac Series 62, comes a year after America sent its first satellite into space. The fin isn't entirely limited to American cars of the 1950s and early 1960s; our opponents in the space race, the Russians, also had the Moskvitch 408, which sported some fairly nifty fins. Though JB may want the fins to make a comeback, we think it's something best confined to that era.
While the wedge design may not have historically been used on the most reliable cars, it managed to end up on some of the most aerodynamic and sporty-looking vehicles. A wedge-shaped vehicle is essentially one with a front end that is lower than the rear, as on a Lancia Stratos, a Corvette or a Giugiaro-designed Lotus Esprit. It is impossible to see a wedge-shaped car and not intrinsically understand that it represents speed. SundaySunday has owned two and would be pleased to wedge himself into another one. [Photo: SeriousWheels]
Perhaps the most erotic and suggestive design element of all time, the Dagmar bumper refers to a style of ornamentation from the 1950s that appears to be a set of artillery shells poking out from the front of the car. The element appropriately gets its name from a female character from 1950s television endowment with a set of certain impressive physical assets. The design was popular in the post-WWII period, a sign of how the bumper guards reflect the rise of America's military might. Though the style died out in the shift to the rocket age and Tailfin Era, MikeSawyer could tell you it graced such iconic American cars as the 1957 Chevy Bel-Air. [Photo: Flickr]
As with humans, all cars have rears but not all of them have discernible hips (and they're often much better looking when they do). In automotive terms, a hip is created when the rear wheels, and therefore the fenders, extend outside of the line of the greenhouse beyond the car's shoulders. Truly curved hips can be found on coupes and GTs such as the Aston Martin DBS and Ford GT. They indicate a vehicle designed for strength and performance. They're found on the cars that haunt SeanKHotay's dreams.
Before designers began placing a car's various lights into one piece of sealed plastic they were forced to separate them into distinct elements. This led to various designs, the classiest of which is the quad round headlight. What else links the XJ Jaguar to a Lancia Fulvia? Or a 1968 Fairlane 500 to a 1937 Pierce Arrow? PtMeyer wonders why you would have one pair of headlights when you can have two headlights?
The most Gothic of all car design elements, the flying buttress borrows its name from a buttress typically found on religious buildings that carries a design element across towers or other features in need of a support. Similarly, the "flying buttress" on a car is a way of supporting it aerodynamically. A flying buttress is formed when the C-pillars on a car stretch beyond the rear glass, adding stability at high speeds without the need for a large wing or spoiler. Think Jaguar XJS or C3 Corvette. Think Ferrari 308 or the modern and radical 599 GTB Fiorano. We're guessing P161911 would be pleased to put his buttress in any of those fine autos. [Photo: Flickr]
It is nearly impossible to confuse the silhouette of a Porsche 911 with anything else. Unlike the profiles of most cars, which are the sum of multiple elements, the silhouette of a 911 is formed by a single angled line that extends up from the sharply angled A-pillar that bends up from the edge of the greenhouse and then takes a long curve to the taillights to form the signature sloping roofline. The details of the rest of the car vary by model and year, but that one element remains the most familiar and striking. A product of necessity — there are only so many ways to package a rear-engined sports car, AcaciaGebeh knows that necessity is sometimes the MILF of invention.
Though most people will recognize a BMW by its trademark kidney-shaped grille, the true enthusiast will recognize the small wedge at the base of the C-pillar, which highlights the rear wheels of the rear-wheel-driven cars. Though some have argued this element first appeared on the 1960 Dodge Dart, Wilhelm Hoffmeister rightly gets credit for creating such a distinct and memorable element for the Neue Klasse Bimmers of the 1960s and 1970s. This element is present in nearly every BMW you'll ever see, which is why Ash78 and so many others nominated it. It looks great even on a Bangle-ized Bimmer, but we think one of the best examples is the 1965 BMW 2000C/CS coupe. [Photo: ConceptCarz.com]