How many times have I heard or read the claim that cars now all look the same every year? The inference being they were more individualistic, quite different in the past, given the same model year. But if you place cars from any single year side by side, with a few exceptions, they generally look the same. Of course it would be as unfair a comparison to compare the same year Pinto to some luxury model.
Compare cars in the same class, like SUVs, sedans, coupes, and they do have a lot of similarities.
The one exception may be the 50’s with those sometimes neat looking fins that were really quite useless. OK, some weren’t that neat. Mid to late 50’s it seemed mostly only the Studebaker crew of incredible designers were more unique in their designs. And look what that did to them, among so many other things.
This isn’t limited to cars. Try to buy unique eyeglasses at one of those commercial outlets and you’ll be driven off to websites like eyeglasses.com to find what you want. And that won’t be that easy. I have had a style I have loved since I was a teen and when I reorder I have to search the site for them. Even eyeglasses.com keeps hiding them. I assume they will drop them eventually.
This trendiness, I’m sure, is driven by the assumption the public wants the same things, as if we’re all sheep. Are they right? I have mixed feelings. And also the cost, the risk, of redesigning then marketing a lot of different items I’m sure is prohibitive. (Glasses? Maybe not so much. Yet I wonder why even have hundreds of glass frames almost exactly alike.) But when it comes to complex items like cars and all they must do: safety crash test them, track testing, wind resistance testing, design/redesigned/re-redesigned via rooms filled with designers working for a head designer… and let’s not forget complying with whatever new regulations there are.
Think that’s horrible? Sometimes. But generally we have better, safer cars because of regulations: crumple zones have certainly saved many lives. Ever been in a crash in a 50’s car vs. a modern car? You take the punishment, not the car. Been there. Hated to do that. Plus cars last longer: more miles, thanks to computers. Used to be 100,000 miles meant you had one hell of a car. Now 200,000 even 300,000 is not abnormal. Still great, but nowhere near as abnormal.
Point being all that costs money and saving money on not having new, exotic designs makes less sense than it used to. But even years ago each year’s models looked a lot alike. And companies get punished for different whether it be automobiles or other transportation. We have a Honda Big Ruckus: a fine scooter, but two years with poor sales and Honda bailed. Punished BECAUSE it was different. The Aztec and the Edsel suffered from being “different.”
History is littered with poorly designed, exotic, weird designs for the year that were costly. When the Pinto and the Vega were introduced they were somewhat unique compared to other cars that year. Look what happened to them. Midlevel management can’t seem to help screwing it up to save money on other things, like safety testing for rear on collisions or aluminum block motors that melt not in your hand but in the engine compartment. Unique designs like the weird nosed Edsel or the kicked in the butt Aztec get punished.
But sometimes car companies can’t help but clone the same car with different names and slight differences. They contribute to this “sin” of same-ism. GM had so many brands that basically offered the same car with slight alterations. Sooner or later they had to dump them so Pontiac, Saturn and Oldsmobile went bye bye. I argue with some of their choices, but otherwise a wise move.
But when it comes to different I can’t blame car companies too much. Like kids in school who are perceived as too different, companies have learned to march in line.
Sure you have success stories like the Beetle. And what did GM get for trying to follow that lead with the unique Corvair? Oops.
The safest path is to use a platform you already have and build a somewhat different model off that. Sometimes the difference being really not much of a difference at all.
Even seemingly perfect makers suffer from such mistakes, and not just in automobile world. Luckily Honda bailed before they produced their snowmobile. Having been the proud owner of 3 Honda Elements over time we know Honda makes reliable and can actually make weird, with sometimes good, yet mixed results. The Element set a trend followed by cars like the Nissan Cube, Toyota’s Scion. But remember the Honda Big Ruckus. We have one and it’s great, but sales were poor: just too weird.
But back to the snowmobile example: they aren’t immune from, “Oh, dear GOD don’t do that!” The Honda snowmobile was a ruddy close call they thankfully backed off from. Or as I call it, “A people catapult.”
Being a company focused on safety this model quietly died. If it had actually been marketed extensively all I can think of is a rephrase of an old Monty Python quote…
”They’re throwing people at us!
So, yes, cars from the same year, and many other products, DO look the same, but there are reasons. Some good, some not so good to bad. And sometimes companies avoid different for very, very, VERY good reasons.
The Automobile Critic is a column by Ken Carman, who has been writing a weekly column since 1972 called Inspection, and as a beer judge several beer judging and beer industry-based columns. Ken is also the author of Autocide: which he started researching over 20 years ago. Autocide is alternative automobile history filled with funs, odd twists and quirky characters. He has been into cars, working with cars as part of his job, since he bought his first car: a 61 Lark, at 14. Mr. Carman lives in Eagle Bay and Beaver River, NY with his wife, Millie, their 6th collie Payson and Harvey Robin Churchill their 63 Studebaker Champ truck.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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