Gearheads are still up in arms about crossovers taking over the car market just about everywhere in the world. Here's the thing: crossovers aren't new, and they aren't your enemy. They're taking back what was stolen from us half a century ago.
The villain in this story was named Harley Earl. Here he is behind the wheel of his pride and joy, the Buick Y-Job of 1938, often called the very first concept car ever made.
Earl was a custom car builder in LA's early years of the automobile, up until the mid 1920s. That's when Cadillac commissioned him to design their new small car. He stuck on from there, eventually becoming General Motors' head of design.
It's hard to stress how influential Earl was on the car industry. He muscled his department up the ranks at GM, made design a priority, and helped set GM on the way to the biggest car company in the world, the most profitable company in the world for a time, even. Up until a coup from his staff in 1959, he set the trends at General Motors, and GM set the trends for the rest of the industry.
He was a big, gruff man. The guy stood six foot four in blue suede shoes, completely a man apart in GM's conservative corporate culture. He never really picked up a pen during his tenure at the top, but what he said, what he directed for his designers was law.
Chrome trim. That was Earl. Tailfins. That was Earl. Even the idea of concept cars. That was Earl.
The reason why I bring him up, though, is a particular mantra that guided all of his work: longer, lower, wider.
Take a look at the average automobile when his career was in its infancy and you'll see something tall, both in the body and in its ground clearance. Easy to step into, easy to see out of, easy to sit yourself in high-headroom comfort.
Take a look at the average automobile when Earl left his position and you get the opposite. Cars of the late 1950s sagged down to the ground. You dropped down into them, squinted out of narrow windshields and ate up the road in lane-hogging width.
The car industry held on to this longer, lower, wider edict years after Earl was gone. This wasn't just because Earl's influence was so strong; it's because his formula worked. Cars built close to the road look good. More than that, they're aerodynamic. When style sold in the 1960s and '70s, cars flattened out like pancakes. In the 1980s, when fuel-efficiency was king, they remained broad. When the economy got good again in the '90s, widebody design stayed.
We liked buying long, low, wide cars. But tall, narrow ones are better for us.
Just look at how much space these 1930s people had in their '38 Ford.
Get into a family sedan of the 1930s and you'll find yourself in something not unlike the crossover of today. You sit up high with an excellent view of the road. Your seat is sprung and comfortable. It's not built to look sleek an stylish; it's built to be used by humans. It conforms to our dimensions. It doesn't require us to conform to its.
Look at these rich assholes in a 1940 Imperial. They had room for eight people. That's minivan territory. The dude has headroom for days, and he's wearing a tophat. Pharrell should get himself one of these things.
The last major automaker to hold on to this design style was Chrysler. The company was painfully conservative into the mid 1950s and stuck true to the boxy, classic look.
"The styling won't knock your hat off," Chrysler's president said of his company's designs, "but neither will getting in one of our cars."
I found a '52 Dodge sedan parked on the street a few years back and it was unbelievable how tall and roomy the car was. Just look at how it towers over its modern counterparts.
The Dodge made the Sebring in front of it look puny. The CR-V parked behind this Dodge actually matched it in height. The proportions of today really do ape those of 60, 70, 80 years ago.
I can feel my shoulders relaxing just looking at these photos.
I think a lot of that had to do with driving conditions. Back before the Interstates took over the American landscape, roads were pretty rough. Every car pretty much had to work like a modern SUV, as this period film shows.
It took Americans a while to figure it out, but this style of car is easy to get in and out of (a strong selling point for the aging car buyer) and they work well on bad streets (America's infrastructure is at a low point at the moment) and they're great for sitting high over trafficked cities and highways.
So long before Lexus started the first modern crossover rush in '98 with the RX series, long before AMC preceded the genre with the lifted wagon Eagle or Subaru beat them all with the 4x4 Leone, pretty much all cars were upright and eminently roadable.
We lost our comfy, tall cars thanks to Harley Earl. Now we're just getting them back.
So don't hate crossovers because they're not wagons. Think of them as a return to the great family cars from before we went Earl crazy.
Photo Credits: GM, Raphael Orlove