Many of us who spend the majority of our non-eating, non-masturbating hours thinking about cars often lament how much alike so many modern cars look. We decry how homogenous the carscape has become, and wish for a return to a mythical past. Sure, lots of cars do look alike now, but the truth is, it’s always been like that.
In fact, it was once even worse, with dozens of cars sharing one basic face.
If you look at cars from around the early 1980s to the early ‘90s, you may notice one pervasively common theme throughout that decade: a front end design incorporating a very clean and logical arrangement of elements. A front end incorporating wraparound indicators at the corners, a pair of rectangular headlamps, and a simple, usually black, mostly flat grille between them.
I call it the Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face, and it was everywhere.
Elements of the Default Car Face show up first in the ‘60s: the Renault 10 seems to have been one of the first with the wraparound corner indicator lights, and ‘60s-era Fords pioneered the simple, flat, full-width grille. Rectangular headlights came to Europe in 1961, first appearing on the Citroën Ami 6 and the German Ford Taunus.
The U.S.’s more restrictive headlight standards allowed them (in one basic format) by 1975.
From what I can tell, the earliest car to set the Default Car Face template in a fully-realized way was on Volkswagen’s 1969 front-engine prototype, EA 276. All the elements were there: amber wraparound corner indicators, rectangular headlamps, a full-width flat black grille.
While the EA 276 prototype never made it into production (though the Brazilian VW Gol was based on it), in 1974 VW introduced the Giugaro-designed Scirocco, and the base model European version was very close to the Default Face, except that the indicators flanking the rectangular headlights didn’t wrap around the corner. The U.S. version used quad round lamps, so it didn’t quite fit. But it was close, and the Face was being born.
The German Ford Taunus kept developing front ends that were getting closer and closer to the Default Face with many key elements in place by 1968, but these early arrangements were still part of a previous generation of auto design, with an entirely different aesthetic. Still, it helped plant some seeds.
The Taunus was almost there, but I think it wasn’t until 1975 that we see what might be the first mass-market car to have the Face, the Simca 1307/Alpine.
Simca was Chrysler’s European arm, and the U.S. got a version of the car’s little brother in 1978, known as the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. The Default Car Face was definitely set by this time.
In 1982, Volkswagen adapted their U.S.-market Rabbits to have a near-ideal version of the Default Face, ushering in the Golden Age of the Default Car Face. This era Rabbit and the Omni were the first cars I really identified the Face with, and when I saw cars as diverse as the Brazilian-market Chevy Comodoro or the Argentinian Ford Falcon or ‘80s era rear-engine Skodas or Ford Escorts, it really became clear.
Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face was truly a global phenomenon. Cars from the Americas, Asia, Europe, from behind the Iron Curtain, Australia, everywhere. If we built cars under the sea or on the lunar surface I’m pretty sure they’d have had this face, too.
I made this chart of some examples of this, but I realized as I was making it there’s no way I can be complete here; there are just too many examples. It shows up on trucks and vans and passenger cars of all kinds; I’m not sure there’s ever been as common a design motif before, and I’m not sure there will be again.
There’s a good bit of variation in there, of course. Some have grilles with a slight V-shape, some grilles and headlights are raked back slightly, U.S.-market cars often have the standard rectangular sealed-beam headlight, while European and Japanese cars had a little bit more freedom in their headlight design (even though they usually stayed pretty rectangular), and of course badge placement varies a lot. But, overall, all of these are clearly variations on the same basic theme.
There are some notable absences here, the biggest of which I think is Honda. Honda came close a few times, but never really seemed to produce a car that fit the Default Face criteria exactly, even with the variances I’m allowing regarding things like headlight size ratio and grille rake angle.
So, here’s a partial chart for your use; feel free to add to it as you see fit.
The Late Cold War-Era Default Car Face is almost never acknowledged as a car design trend, at least as far as I can tell. I think that’s because it was so ubiquitous we just stopped seeing it as a design at all, like how fish tend not to see water, or, at least, they don’t write much about it on their fish car blogs.
So, sure, lots of cars today have a similar look, as packaging and aerodynamics and safety regulations constrain them, but at least most modern cars manage to mix things up more in the face than what we used to see back in the heyday of cocaine and Family Ties.