Visit any auto show, and you'll see plenty of concept cars. Most will leave you feeling "meh". Like, "These designers had the time and the money to dream big, big, big, and that's what they came up with? I weep for the future. Hey, does anyone want Jamba Juice?"
Then there are the select few: some awesome, some awful. The line between the two can be very, very thin. In fact, terrific cars can share loads of design elements with terrible ones.
All car designers know that there are a handful of "can't miss" styling cues -- things found on many outstanding rides. The trick is to use those cues effectively. Get a proportion wrong or screw up an angle, and you'll go from a Ferrari to forgettable in zero seconds flat.
What are these timeless styling cues, these elements that designers love to flaunt? We took an unofficial poll of the TCC staff to come up with our own 15 faves:
1. ChromeThe idea of using chrome-plated metal to spruce up an automobile is almost as old as the automobile itself. As with many bright and sparkly things, however, a little chrome goes a long way. More than one poor, defenseless car has been driven from "posh" to "prostitute" by eager human magpies. (Ed. note: Please insert Posh Spice joke here.)
Nothing says "elegance" like a fat, pristine, whitewall tire. Though we usually think of whitewalls as an add-on, once upon a time, all car tires were white, because white is the color of rubber. As tires improved over time, white rubber was overlaid with various black materials, allowing designers to use the white underneath as an accent. It's true that whitewalls make Type-A personalities spend inordinate amounts of time cleaning their tires, but hey, beauty doesn't come cheap.
Fins reached the height of their popularity in the 1950s -- and for good reason. Echoing the aerodynamic look of jet airplanes and rockets, tailfins shouted to the world, "I'm living in the Space Age! In 20 years, this car will be able to fly!" Of course, 20 years later we had the Ford Pinto and macrame, but by that time, motorists were clogging discos, buried to their necks in foothills of cocaine, so no one really noticed.
4. Whale tail
Unless you're competing on the Formula One circuit, you probably don't need a spoiler on your car. In fact, nothing says, "I am compensating for something" faster than a bright red Toyota sedan with a spoiler bolted to the trunk. The whale tail, however, is a different matter: it debuted on the Porsche 911 Turbo, a car that actually needs some help gripping the road now and then. Since then, "whale tail" has become a catch-all term for a particular type of spoiler, usually one that's outrageously large and flares out a bit. Unlike their dinky, aftermarket cousins, whale tails know that it's better to go big than go back to the garage.
Sideblades are a relatively new phenomenon, and no car does them better than the Audi R8. What's awesome about sideblades is that they aren't just slick, interesting design elements slapped onto the sides of a vehicle, they're functional, too, funneling air toward the engine. Attractive and practical? How German.
Let us please have a moment of silence for the poor, ridiculed VentiPort. VentiPorts appeared in the 1940s and 1950s on the sides of Buicks -- in theory, as a way to draw air from the grill, over the engine, and out of the engine compartment. Before long, engineers realized that the ports weren't very effective at accomplishing that task and plugged the holes, but the VentiPort elements remained. Though they've since been discontinued, every two-dollar tuner from here to Timbuktu loves the VentiPort, as proven by the vast number of stick-on versions found at auto supply stores and on the sides of family vans.
7. Window-mounted evaporative A/C
Before the auto industry figured out how to take Freon and convert it into bone-chilling A/C, there was the car cooler, also known as the window-mounted evaporative air-conditioner. Using a few laws of thermodynamics, it evaporated water inside a window-mounted tank, then sucked air through that tank to generate cool air for passengers. And as you can see from the pic above, car coolers looked spectacular, like the unholy spawn of a missile-launcher and a vacuum cleaner. Our dreams foretell of someone bringing these things back one day, but our dreams also said that the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet would never see the light of day, so we're not making any bets.
8. Double-bubble roof
To be honest, we're not all in agreement on this one. Done properly, a double-bubble roof is a thing of beauty, giving a car a subtly rounded silhouette that screams "retro" and "futuristic" in one voluptuous breath. Done improperly, it looks like the most bootylicious of plumbers has gotten stuck doing a handstand on your floorboard.
9. Split rear window
There are two schools of thought when it comes to split rear windows. School A deplores them because they're completely impractical; not only do they block vision, but have you have tried to get one replaced? School B adores them because, well, just look at them. (Added bonus: Split rear windows go great with a double-bubble roof.)
10. Hofmeister kink
Richard Wagner, Mad King Ludwig, Nina Hagen: Germans have a flair for flamboyance. And that's what makes the Hofmeister Kink so remarkable, because it's not flamboyant at all. It's the automotive equivalent of Guy Fieri's ubiquitous visor: everything else may be outlandish, but without that one subtle detail, it's just another car/celebrity chef screaming "Look at me!"
11. Suicide doors
Many features found on concept cars never make it to production, and suicide doors are a prime example. True, they look convenient, and on rides like the long lost Honda Element, they came in handy for professional schleppers. Unfortunately, they're difficult to engineer, and they present some serious safety concerns -- for example, they make B-pillars almost impossible, and if they're opened in traffic, they can slam shut on the person exiting the vehicle. Ouch. But despite all that, nothing looks cooler, with the possible exception of...
12. Gullwing doors
Like suicide doors, gullwings often show up on concept vehicles, then magically transform into conventional doors once lawyers and accountants start attending design meetings. That's too bad, because few things are as impressive as opening a gullwing door, except opening both at the same time.
13. Sliding doors
Sliding doors have taken a bad rap because they're a standard feature on dull-as-dishwater minivans. But not all sliding doors on automobiles are made to facilitate getting rugrats to school. In fact, quite a few 20th century models used sliding doors like the pocket doors found in houses, with doors that slid into the front or rear fenders. Production problems and safety concerns nixed most of those cars, but one day, someone's going to figure out how to do sliding doors right, and we plan to be there for the celebration.
14. Cab-forward compartments
Cab-forward designs are common on vans and commercial vehicles, with passengers sitting directly above or just behind the front axle. But the cab-forward design is found in cars, too. American Motors is often given credit for introducing cab-forward cars by pushing axles away from the center of the vehicle, allowing for greater interior space. Unfortunately, the vehicle that best demonstrates this trend is the Pacer, which is what sent many motorists into the loving embrace of the cab-forward's antithesis, the shooting brake.
15. Rumble seats
Let's face it: rumble seats were a terrible idea. The thinking was, like, "Hey, what if we put a pop-up seat on the back of the car? It won't be as sturdy or as safe as an interior seat, and anyone who rides back there is liable to get soaked or sunburned, depending on the weather, and of course, it'll eat up all the trunk space, but man, won't it look cool?" We don't know who said that, but they were damn right.
(c) 2013, High Gear Media.