I don’t have anything against news explainer Vox, and this video called How Cars Went From Boxy To Curvy looks good and seems well-made. But it’s not. Factually, it’s a complete mess, and it’s worth taking the time to point out why.
I should mention that I started this yesterday, then got sidetracked with another project, and when I got back I saw that my basic points had been made wonderfully on this Oppo post from N2Skylark. It’s great, and covers pretty much everything I was going to, so you should absolutely go read it.
I’m going to go ahead and write this up anyway, since I feel like the bland assurance shown in the Vox video needs as many voices to refute it as possible. But, please, check out N2Skylark’s post as well.
Since I’m a nice guy, go ahead and watch the video now and give the nice folks at Vox some clicks. They love clicks. We all do; they’re like cocaine-soaked meatballs to us internet-toilers.
Things are pretty problematic here right from the start, where they compare how much boxier cars were in the 1970s than the 1990s. While it’s certainly true that by the 1990s more advanced aerodynamics were being used in auto design, the idea that somehow 1970s cars were rectilinear and then magically everyone wised up in the 1990s and started making more curvilinear cars is absolutely wrong.
For one thing, the statement “the ones from the ‘70s are boxy” isn’t even close to being accurate. If anything, the ‘70s were full of curves and swoops and all sorts of flowing lines. Look:
These are not fiercely rectilinear cars. Sure, there were plenty that were, but this video is ignoring one huge thing that happened between the 1970s and the 1990s: the 1980s.
The video’s suggestion that there was some kind of progress from a mythical squarical 1970s to a smooth, aerodynamic 1990s is ridiculous when you note that the 1970s were not that boxy and that the 1980s were far boxier, generally, in auto design. Remember, the ‘80s were the decade that gave us this:
There hasn’t been a clear progression from square to curvy, like the video suggests. That’s not what’s going on here at all. In fact, the Vox video manages to destroy its own fundamental conceit with one of the images it chooses to use, this clip from an early ‘90s Subaru ad:
So, look at the image on that old-school Trinitron, and then read the closed-caption. They’re saying that since the ‘70s, cars have been becoming more curvy, but right on that screen is a 1971 Karmann Ghia next to an early ‘90s Subaru Legacy Wagon. And I think it’s easy to tell which car is curvier, by a substantial margin.
A Karmann Ghia has no corners on it whatsoever. You couldn’t get cut on one even if you gave it a shiv. The Subaru, on the other hand, is full of crisp edges. Why did they pick this clip?
The biggest issue with this whole video is that its conflating automobile styling with automobile aerodynamics. One’s an art, and one’s a science. They do mention that yes, there were some very curvy cars in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but they go on to suggest that ‘streamliners’ were then ‘outsold by bigger, boxier cars’ in the 1950s and 1960s.
None of this is how any of that actually worked. At all.
Sure, the Chrysler Airflow in the 1930s was based on some early aerodynamic science, but overall the look of streamlining in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and on into the 1950s for cars was about style, not fuel efficiency or ideal airflow. Remember this was an era when there were streamliner pencil sharpeners.
There was plenty of actual aerodynamic research happening on both sides of the ocean, but the results of these studies tended to be applied to low-volume semi-experimental cars like the Rumpler Tropfen-Auto or the Tatra T77.
What really dictated how cars sold was style, and automotive fashion, like any fashion, needs to change to survive. So, the Deco-inspired streamline forms of the 1930s (and the ‘40s that weren’t just wartime production) evolved into the bulbous 1950s jet-age inspired designs, especially in America, though similar influences were seen in Europe as well.
1950s cars were not boxy by any stretch of the imagination, and while auto design did become much more crisp and boxy by the 1960s, it had nothing to do with any idea that “streamliners stopped selling well.” The only reason “streamliners” stopped selling well was because nobody was building cars that looked like 1930s cars in the 1960s.
Car design changes, and the restrained, boxier look of the 1960s was more of a response to the bulbous, overchromed 1950s cars than anything else. “Streamliner” sales had absolutely nothing to do with any of this.
Man, every sentence in this thing just adds to the pain; this is hard to write because it demands an almost sentence-by-sentence breakdown. Like here, where they say that cars in the 1970s were designed as three boxes
... and then they say that this worked well in the US, but not in Europe.
Which makes me think that maybe someone should show whoever made this video these successful European cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s:
Those look like three boxes to me.
The video then goes on to say that
“So European designers started experimenting with more aerodynamic designs to help cars move more easily so they’d waste less gas. Automakers like Porsche, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz – they all started rolling out car models that had curved exteriors.”
What the fuck? No, man, no. First of all, none of those automakers listed there were making cars “curvy” to save gas. They show a Porsche 911 and a BMW 507 in the video while this is being said—those were not economy cars. Nobody, including noted BMW 507 owner Elvis, was buying a BMW 507 to save some money at the pump.
And, even more importantly, most of these companies were not even building curvy cars! That BMW 507 is from the ‘50s. BMW was building the very boxy Neue Class of cars at this time, and, hell, look at this Audi:
Oh, wait, I’m sorry, did I just put up a picture of a beach ball? I can’t tell, you see, because that Audi is so fucking curvy! What are those people leaning on, some sort of vinyl-topped tomato? I can’t tell!
In case anyone from Vox is watching, I may be being sarcastic, because Audi did not fucking build curvy cars.
The video, possibly just to fuck with me at this point, then goes on to say
“Eventually American automakers started to copy the European aerodynamic look to try to attract upscale customers.”
This too, is horseshit, and I suspect even the Vox people knew it because the only videos they could find to go with this text are these pictures of ‘50s American concept cars:
God, we’re only halfway through.
From here, the video goes on to suggest that Uwe Bahnsen’s Ford Sierra (we had them here, in 2-door form, as the Merkur XR4ti) was this revolutionary wonder that came out of nowhere and changed everything. And don’t get me wrong—it’s a milestone of a design, and very important —but there was lots of aerodynamic research that led up to the car, and the Sierra was by no means the only one.
The NSU Ro80 in the 1960s was absolutely a pioneer here, and Audi took that design lineage and pushed it further with their very aerodynamic third generation Audi 100 in 1982. The video then goes on to talk about the Ford Taurus, which was an aerodynamic pioneer in America, absolutely.
But the video keeps confusing “curvy” for “aerodynamic.” they’re not the same thing. They talk about how the development of computer-aided design systems in the 1980s made it easier to design and manufacture curved lines—that’s not what was happening.
Again, remember, the 1980s was not a time of curvy cars, but that does not mean it wasn’t a time of a lot of aerodynamic research. It’s not like manufacturers weren’t paying any attention to aerodynamics for their cars. Look at this image (courtesy of the amazing Allpar) of one of history’s boxiest cars ever, showing that there was, in fact, thought being given to aero even for this shitbox:
So, curvy does not inherently mean aerodynamic, and boxy does not inherently mean that everyone is ignoring the wind.
Yes, modern aerodynamic automotive design has arrived at shapes that tend to be more flowing and curvilinear, and in the sense that the whole point of this video is “Why do cars not look like boxes, and more like suppositories? Because aerodynamics” then in that context, yes, that’s generally true.
But in pretty much every other context and detail, this Vox video sucks deeply and lavishly.