Why do we find some cars uglier — or at least weirder-looking — than others? This is a question that has driven people mad, but as humans we can’t help but explore it. Recently, a friend of mine in the Automotive Wondering world has developed a theory that may explain, at least in part, why some cars look, well, just wrong. I call it the Indicator Brow Paradox, and I’d like to know what you think about it.
The researcher is named Hans Bishop, and he approached me with his theory and demonstrated it with an excellent example. Here’s how he describes the concept:
‘Ugly’ with cars tends to boil down to proportion and detailing, and I have found certain anomalies in the turn signal /front light relationship that seem to be ingrained in people’s minds (mine included) to be ‘wrong’, or ‘ugly’.
What I am referring to is turn indicators mounted above the headlights. In current, modern clusters (where it is sort of ambiguous as to what light does what when they are off) it is less of an issue, but in older cars where it is more obvious it certainly stands out. And with a few exceptions (old Beetles, Mercedes G wagons), it always appears ‘wrong’.
Okay, so the thesis is indicators placed above headlamps look more wrong than indicators placed below. An interesting concept. To demonstrate, Hans suggested an excellent set of examples: the late ‘70s Mopar twins of the Dodge Diplomat and the Chrysler LeBaron.
These were badge-engineered versions of essentially the same car, and as such only differed in some trim details which include, crucially, one having indicators above the quad rectangular sealed-beam headlights, and one having them below.
The proportions of everything else about the car are the same — same basic body panels and all that. There are just changes to trim. Here, let’s compare, side-by-side:
Holy shit. I think Hans is on to something here. Let’s try another experiment—this time, let’s take the LeBaron, and flip the lights upside down and see how different it feels. But first, here’s the normal LeBaron, in coupé form, with a Real Man standing behind it:
Okay. Note that this one has clear indicator lenses, by the way. Now, let’s flip those lights:
Well, damn, look at that. The one I modified somehow looks more “normal” than the one that Chrysler actually built! Now the real one looks actively weird to me!
Let’s look at some other examples of the brow-located indicator cars:
Wow, I think our Hans may have discovered A Rule here. Now, I’m not convinced it’s universal; I think in cases where the indicator is very separate from the bodywork of the car, like it’s an added-on unit like what you see on Beetles or Borgward Isabellas or Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens or old Toyota pickups, or similar ones like that, you get kind of a pass. Same goes for very stylized integrations into the bodywork that is on the plane of the hood rather than on the car’s face, like in that B&W pic of the Audi F102 here. See for yourself:
For whatever reason, this sort of above-the-light indicator placement doesn’t feel as weird. You know, I may have to put the Juke into this category, too? Though it definitely looks weird. Hm. I’m not sure.
Also puzzling is the Lada Niva situation. I’ve talked about the indicator-to-headlight relationship of the Niva before, but in the context of how much the car looks like Groucho Marx as a result.
In the case of the Niva, I actually think I like the indicators-above-the-lights arrangement better, but I can’t argue with the fact that the reversed setup looks more normal. In fact, Hans did a Photoshop test of this and conducted an informal poll, and found that everyone felt the not-real Lada Niva looked more “normal” than the real one!
I mean, look at that! The reversed-lights Niva absolutely looks more “normal” somehow, but I do think some charm is lost. I’m not exactly sure why the Niva gets a pass here, though I think there’s a more American example of the same thing, in the 1972 and 1973 Ford F-Series trucks.
Here’s a ‘72, with indicators below, along with a ‘73, when they flipped the indicators to be above the lights:
I don’t think the Ford with the eyebrow indicators looks so bad? And, when Hans did a test flip on the ‘73 and got this:
...it looks fine, but I’m not sure if it looks better.
Maybe there’s an exception to be made for old-school round sealed-beam lights? Is that what’s happening here?
Something is going on here, something important. There’s no question in my mind that in most cases, we perceive indicator-above-headlight cars as looking stranger than indicator-below or indicator-to-the-side headlight cars.
I suspect it has something to do with our hardwired tendency to anthropomorphize car fronts into faces. Maybe the heavier “brow” of the above-indicator-placement designs triggers some deep-seated Neanderthal prejudices, or maybe it has to do with theories that over time humans have selectively bred for smaller brows because of how much expressiveness we convey via our eyebrows, as this paper suggests?
At this moment, I think this is still something of a mystery, but I am a believer in the Indicator Brow Paradox.