Automobiles styled for cartoons

Sept. 15, 2005
Remember back in high school, how kids who were car nuts would sit in study hall and sketch their versions of dream cars?
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Of course, being the product of teenage aesthetic taste, the cars always looked goofy and seemed to belong in cartoons instead of dealer showrooms.

Well guess what. The kids who drew the goofy-looking cars are now working in the styling studios of automobile companies, and those cartoon cars they drew are now being put into production as real vehicles that people are expected to buy.

Japanese cars in particular have had a cartoon look for several years. But a cartoon appearance for cars has now spread across the entire automotive spectrum even encompassing some Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler models. The Chrysler 300, for example, is not the worst of what has come out of the automobile industry lately, but it is a high-profile example of a car that looks like it came out of the Disney studios, especially when viewed from the side or rear. Whoever styled it may have spent too much time in a California shop that chops and channels old Fords. For another example of what the kids from study hall are now doing, take a look at the Toyota Avalon.

As with the Chrysler 300, the Avalon roof has sunk too close to the belt line. Narrow windows looked good on Mercurys and Hudsons of the early 1950s, but as rendered by stylists today, they have the ugliness typical of the monstrosities that roll out of California customizing shops.

The best word I can think of to describe many of the new cars is "bizarre." The fellow who styled the Avalon, now 30 years old and well beyond his high-school sketches, said he started out with the words "American beauty" in his mind. When he developed the styling, he was working at Toyota's California studio, which was competing within Toyota with its Japanese studio. According to a newspaper report, he said, "We wanted to make an unabashedly American car, and we weren't afraid to say that." If you think comic books are a quintessential American institution, then the new Avalon, indeed, does look American. But in the same sense that Spiderman looks American.

Speaking of cartoons, the original BMW Z3 looked like the car that Donald Duck drives. Its styling has been refined slightly, but it still looks as though it belongs in Donald's garage.

The interiors of cars, especially the instrument panels, are also getting increasingly bizarre. Recently there was a glowing newspaper article about the woman who designed the interiors of the Saturn Sky and the Pontiac Solstice. She explains that the Solstice has classic feminine shapes, while the Sky is more masculine. Well, masculine or feminine, they both look like cartoons. Any time the dashboard of a car looks like it was inspired by the rocket ships in a low-budget science-fiction movie, you know the stylist got it wrong.

Automotive dashboards should have round dials with straightforward numbers and lettering, much like engineers would design. Aircraft instrument panels are a perfect example of function combined with pleasing aesthetics. As soon as stylists get involved, they mess it up. Also, gages in cars should have actual numbers giving true readings of the variable being monitored instead of meaningless "high" and "low" indications. Gages calibrated in that fashion don't tell you any more than idiot lights do.

Also, stylists should forget instrument-panel icons and use labels in the English language. I would like to see the words temperature, oil pressure, voltage, and fuel spelled out. Likewise for the controls, with headlights, heat, and air conditioning labeled in English. We don't need symbols that make the instrument labels look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Someday we may wonder what to do if we get an L reading on the pharaoh and an H on the sphinx. Does that mean we should shut off the engine?

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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