By on April 10, 2013

You will find distinct improvements in the 1939 cars. The new cars are generally more functionally streamlined than ever before. Many wind-resisting gadgets have either been completely eliminated or made integral parts of the bodies. Headlights, in most models, have been set in the front fenders both to give wider light range and to reduce wind resistance. Trunk bulges have tended to disappear, but without loss of luggage space. Windshields are generally wider and higher, and corner posts are smaller to improve vision. Interiors are wider and seats designed for greater comfort. Upholstery is more luxurious. Door and window handles are improved to avoid catching clothes. Motors are generally more powerful without any sacrifice in economy. Hydraulic brakes have been improved, and frames and bodies strengthened for safety.

- Collier’s Magazine November 19, 1938

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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52 Comments on “Do Today’s Cars All Look Alike?...”


  • avatar
    TEXN3

    I totally agree with this sentiment. We all complain that today’s cars look alike but that is no different than any other decade. Whether it was this 30s look, the 50′s flamboyancy, the 60s moving to an understated and squared look, and the boat to sheer look of the 70s and early 80s. As the 80s went to the 90s, everything was looking similiar with the aero look.

    The only cars we remember as being unique are the ones that started styling trends. Usually that came from a style leader like Cadillac, then later Ford or Audi. Even the western European cars tend to look similiar when viewed as a whole.

    Yes, the details will always be different and they still are today.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      And this is yet another great reason of Fullsize trucks and SUV’s their instantly brand identifiable.

      And as great with cars as I am, I still can’t tell the difference of a 90′s Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda sedan without badging

      • 0 avatar

        Are you saying all Asian’s look the same? That’s racialist!

        I know what you mean, I’m pretty good at telling those era’s of cars apart, but 30′s-90′s American domestic cars, I have no idea about almost any of them.

        Our game is relying on that cars do really look the same. If you remove all the fixtures (lights, grilles, vents, handles etc), and just had a smooth shell with no holes. The look of so many cars is created by those fixtures, body shapes have always been very derivative.

  • avatar
    cargogh

    That’s amazing. Ford and Mercury may look smoothest.
    I might have to skip the trunk storage and go with Packard and its new AC.
    That would be a better argument than today’s, “My plastic is softer to the touch than yours.”

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      I believe that Packard didn’t introduce air conditioning until the 1940 model year.

      Completely agree on the smoother styling of the Ford products. GM supposedly stuck with pod headlights out of concern that damage to a fender would also damage the headlight. Of course, the Ford products had an antiquated suspension system, although Ford did finally switch to hydraulic brakes for 1939.

  • avatar

    Everything looks like the Mercedes CLS, or the BMW 3/ 5.

    Then Audi came along and everyone decided that LED christmas lights were the “symbol of a new car”.

    As we move on into the post A7-generation (copied from the CLS), it’s all about “sportbacks”. The word “hatchback” is toxic in this market.

    Take it to “crossovers” and everything looks like the Lexus RX, BMW X or Mercedes ML.

    I attended the NYAS and at a certain point, all the interiors started to look the same. The main differences were the size of the Nav screen/ moonroof or the color of the seats.

  • avatar

    At this point, we are paying for perceived name equity. My girlfriend was dying to get an Acura TL – which I to this day don’t understand why she holds in high regard. To me it’s just a guzzied up Accord. There are people who’d never want to drive a Chrysler like I do, or a Jaguar XJ-L cause they hate those brand names for whatever reason. I don’t care if KIAputs out a 2000 HP Veyron-killer for $30,000… I wouldn’t buy it.

    The point is bringing those names up to the quality of other names we used to associate with luxury vehicles.

    At this point, the industry is just playing it safe and copying the European cars as inexpensively as they can.

  • avatar
    ijbrekke

    I would like to see “increased visibility” become a selling point again. I rule out most new cars immediately because of terrible sight lines.

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      Buy a Forester. More glass than an aquarium. (That’s a good thing, mind you)

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I believe the way that has to happen is for there to be a simple metric that consumers can understand and have journalists publish it. Then, consumers can add it to the list of features to cross-shop. When manufacturers realize (1) they may lose sales because of it, and (2) it is an opportunity to get a line-item as a class-leader, they will start improving through competition.

  • avatar
    dwford

    I think you could make a case that in the compact crossover and compact hatchback market the vehicles are starting to all look alike, with the upswept window line behind the rear doors. I personally can easily tell the midsize sedans apart. It can be tricky to tell some of the German brands’ models apart from one another since they just seem to make the same design in different lengths.

    My favorite are the people who look at the exact same car in different colors and declare that one is bigger than the other.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    66% of the brands in that picture are gone.

    Cars have always looked the same. One just has to look at the 1966 Fairlane and 1966 GTO for more proof. Design has always tended to follow success. That’s why everything now has the same basic shape as a Camry or CR-V. Taking chances with design doesn’t sell/costs too much. Remember how amazing the FR-S concept looked? I like how the production version looks, but it doesn’t bring out the same emotions as the concept.

    And every generation has said, and will continue to say, cars back in the day were distinct looking. The past is always remembered rosier than it actually was.

    • 0 avatar
      flameded

      “… The past is always remembered rosier than it actually was.”

      While this is true, You still see cars from the past- even today, so technicallly,your looking at a design from the past..in the present.

      Point being, the designs of the past were MUCH better( mostly). Probably because they didnt have all the safety standard of today and all.

      I DO believe somebody can make a car thats economical/safe AND looks good.
      I think the main problem is consumers dont seem to care about car design like they did in the “good ole days”.

      So, yes, cars today look very similar.
      Cars of yesteryear also looked similar to one another.. but, at least it was similar AND better looking.

      JMO?

      • 0 avatar
        car_guy2010

        I don’t know about cars from the past.

        I can’t stand tailfins and that’s why I don’t care for many of the cars from 1950s-early 1960s. It’s the mid-60s and up cars that are far more interesting to me.

        Keep in mind, I’m 31 and don’t have the nostalgia that others have for cars from the 1950s. Not a bad thing.

        As for safety? If more people drove as intended, there wouldn’t be such a need for “idiot devices”. I’ll take a car with seatbelts and 2 airbags. Good enough. I don’t want or need traction control, 50 airbags or any of the other systems intended to allow people to multi-task behind the wheel.

        • 0 avatar
          Land Ark

          I’ll never complain about too many airbags. They are what protects me from all the people driving between text messages who blow red lights and t-bone me. Maybe car makers should disable airbags when it senses a driver texting. It’ll either deter them or cull the heard.

        • 0 avatar
          stottpie

          traction control has saved millions of lives. get over it.

        • 0 avatar
          nrd515

          I remember a lot of cars from the past, and never liked the late 50′s stuff that was around when I was a little kid compared to the early 60′s to later 70′s stuff that to me looked great then and still does. Anyone who denies that cars look alike more now than ever is either blind or lying. Sure, there was always copying styles, but they did have a lot better base shape to start with, instead of the squished egg with a gaping mouth that’s the basis of so many cars today. I personally have no problems with traction and stability control. I’ve made some mistakes while driving in the past and it’s pure luck I didn’t total a couple of cars over the 40 years I’ve been driving.

  • avatar
    geeber

    As others have noted, cars have always clustered around a set of styling “themes.” A manufacturer takes a chance, and introduces a design or feature that strikes the public’s fancy, and other manufacturers rush to bring out their version.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    As a kid growing up in the 70′s and 80′s I could easily tell you the make, model and year of most any American car from the 60′s to 80′s in the dark siting in the back seat of my Dads Malibu as we drove to different places. Today that is literally impossible unless it’s the distinctive LED taillight setup that a current Charger has or a Mustang or Camaro/Vette. Nissan’s Cube is easy to spot along with the xBox Scion because they are paralyzingly different and ugly. But driving by the cookie cutter modern day Lexus’s, Infinities, Lincoln’s, Audi’s and Acuras and trying to tell them apart, especially from the side view is very difficult. The SUV’s and CUV’s even more so. It’s like they all hired the same set of exterior designers and affixed there own grilles and badges on the same basic shapes.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Cars are going to look similar, because certain parameters are fixed, like the size of the human body, the number of humans the car is supposed to carry, the requirement that there be 4 wheels more or less at the corners and –now– the fact that the front of the car serves as a sort of battering ram to protect the passengers in a collision, thus precluding putting the engine under the car (see Toyota Previa, VW Microbus). The interesting thing about the cars from the 30s, right up through the 1950s was the relatively chair-like seating position of the drivers and passenger, which most people find more comfortable than low to the floor with their knees in the air, or their legs stretched out in front of them. Both of the latter postures put more weight and pressure on the butt, which creates discomfort on long drives. This increases the frontal area of the vehicle, causing more air drag, which is one reason why lower cars became more fashionable. In my opinion, one of the big factors in the “SUV craze” was that people liked the higher, more upright driving position that they offer.

    • 0 avatar
      car_guy2010

      I miss the low seating position of the cars that I drove. It’s nice that I can see over the road in my truck but I will always be more of a car guy. The next vehicle I buy will be a car unless there’s a really fuel-efficient small truck out there (I doubt there is).

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        Even cars have all started to raise the seats, because they make women feel more “in command” (I suppose,) and boomers’ knees are starting to give out. The pre-06 Civic had low seating with lots of leg stretching room; the seat can’t be lowered as much now. Ditto for the Mazda3 – I had one for a month as a rental, and the seat couldn’t go quite low enough for me, and felt even higher than it was because of the massive expanse of glass.

        I want to sit extremely low to the floor, so that my legs are stretched in front of me, with no more glass than is necessary (less glass = less summer heat in South Texas), dark tint, and two doors (no pillar next to my head – I’m tall and hate having the pillar block my side view, or have the seatbelt hover over my collarbone). Your basic old-school Camaro position. Finding that with a functional back seat is tricky!

  • avatar
    Sutures

    Is there a high-res version of that picture?

    • 0 avatar

      I couldn’t find a larger version of that image. I took a photo of the same magazine graphic at the Gilmore Museum but the colors were more vivid and the image was square, not skewed in the one I found online. You can see my higher res image here:

      carsindepth.com/images/1939cars.jpg

      If you can make out the artist’s last name, let me know. It says “Drawings by George…”

      • 0 avatar
        bythegram

        Found a larger one for you.
        http://photos.aaca.org/files/4/3/7/9/9/1939_on_wheels1x_original.jpg

        “Drawings by George Shepherd”

      • 0 avatar
        ringomon

        Ronnie- I found a larger image in this forum:
        http://www.jalopyjournal.com/forum/showthread.php?p=8271045

        (thank you google reverse image search!)

        Looks like the illutrator’s name is George Shepherd.
        It seems like it’s a little hard to find mch other work by him online- outside of some seaplane paintings.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    With todays vastly improved styling tools you would think that we would have more variety in our cars without looking too crazy (Nissan Juke, new Cherokees), instead everyones trying keep a “design language” that makes their SUVs look like cars and their cars look like SUVs.

    If anything we’re in an era like the late 50′s when everything was over styled, “low wide and sleek”, but looked the same.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    I’ve been crazy about cars since I knew what cars were, and now, in adulthood, I am blessed/cursed with the ability to instantly identify anything on the road, a skill that few people need or care about. As such, I can say with confidence that todays cars do NOT look alike. Setting aside the fact more than half of them are not cars but trucks, utilities, vans, and crossovers, there’s still a great deal of variation in forms.

    • 0 avatar
      corntrollio

      Yes, exactly, I have this same skill. Every once in a while, something completely new throws me because I’ve never seen it, but I generally don’t have trouble telling things apart.

      I will say that BMW and Audi have been harder lately. From certain angles, 3/5/7 is harder than it used to be and so is A4/A6/A8 on occasion.

    • 0 avatar
      James2

      I used to be able to tell between model years of the same car (iow, the difference between a ’75 and a ’76 Pinto), but now…

  • avatar
    azmtbkr81

    Cars today look less similar now than at any point in the past. Vehicles of every size and shape are widely available to fit individual tastes. It wouldn’t be unusual today to see a large pickup, sleek hybrid, retro muscle car, luxury CUV, staid mid-size car, and a tiny subcompact all waiting for the same light to turn green during a morning commute. It seems that 50 or even 20 years ago most buyers defaulted to a few standard segments and models unless they truly had a specialized need. I’m always surprised at how incredibly uniform the vehicles seem to be in old photographs and movies as compared to today.

  • avatar
    corntrollio

    There’s a little bit of “get off my lawn” in the comments that all cars look the same now.

    Ronnie’s post is a great example of this happening in the US, but it happens everywhere. Look at previous generations of Japanese cars, and you’ll see that Honda, Toyota, and Datsun/Nissan often followed each other with styling cues. You can see it as you move through the generations — they all copied each other a bit. If one went more boxy or less boxy, the others quickly followed.

    Same deal with many European cars. Look at old Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis. You can see some common design language through the older decades.

    You’ll often see this with entry into new model types. It’s no coincidence that the Mercedes GL and the Audi Q7 came out in the same year, and it’s no coincidence that you’re seeing more X4/X6-type vehicles or more “4-door coupes”.

    TEXN3 makes a good point on remembering the leaders of the styling trends — people think of the Ford Taurus and the Audi 100 as iconic for aero styling (although the Ford Tempo gets ignored for some reason). I wondered if we’d see more Audi A5-type designs in the future, and we may already have started seeing some.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    Despite all the complaints about automobile styling, there has always been considerable similarity in their appearance; what is successful tends to be imitated. Many years ago a co-worker had an old collection of Life magazines at his work area from 1939 and 1940. One issue featured an article on the styling of the 1940 automobiles and had photos of the front end of all the new cars and the similarity between them was remarkable. The more things change the more they stay the same.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      Niky: Excellent observation. It’s been shown that people growing up hearing one language (or a regional variation of a language) actually lack the ability to hear the differences in sounds/pronunciations that are not present in their language/accent. Apparently it also applies to sight–one study I saw showed that people who learn fewer color names cannot see/differentiate as many colors, e.g., all reds genuinely look the same to them.

      Not knowing what to look for, I can’t tell the difference between cars from my parents’ generation, but they can nail the make/model/year/trim down with just a glance, and I can’t say that I’ve had any problem identifying today’s cars.

  • avatar
    niky

    If you can’t tell cars apart nowadays, that’s because the language is simply unfamiliar.

    We understand what we grew up with. The details and fine points of cars past are familiar, they’re things we understand.

    New cars may all look alike to some of us, but to those of us who work in the industry, not really. And to those who are just growing up now, not really, either.

  • avatar

    Absolutely. You can’t name the players without a program.

  • avatar
    Stumpaster

    You will find questionable improvements in the 2015 cars. The new cars are generally more visually wretched but functionally streamlined than ever before. Many wind resistance-reducing gadgets have been incorporated as add-on parts for the bodies. Headlights, in most models, have been set to protrude from the front fenders both to give wider light range and to reduce wind resistance around the side mirrors. Trunk bulges have appeared, but at loss of luggage space. Windshields are generally narrower and heavily raked, and corner posts are thicker to improve safety at cost of visibility. Interiors are wider at the hip but narrower at shoulder level and seats designed for greater cost savings. Upholstery provides more cost savings. Door and window handles are changed to confuse passengers in emergency situations and to prevent your grandma from walking out of the car in an opportune moment. Motors are generally less powerful as a sacrifice to economy. Hydraulic brakes have been improved abandoned and replaced with electrically assisted ones, and frames and bodies strengthened for safety while sacrificing longevity.

  • avatar
    Morea

    I wouldn’t say all of today’s cars look the same; however, I would say that each is uniquely ugly.

    With a few exceptions (some current Aston Martins or Jaguars, the Alfa 8C) there are no current cars worth gazing at for the pure aesthetic pleasure of it.

    Most cars are mis-proportioned from the get go and use visual tricks to hide their defects.

    Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so YMMV.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Car design will follow fashion and trends, so all new cars will always look the same. From a distance many american cars from , say, 1958 will look very similar, depending on trim level, even if they really stick out in todays traffic. Making a ‘different’ looking car is a huge risk, and can make or break a manufacturer.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I think that there are some very repeated automotive-design elements…like the “Hoffmeister Kink” or Y-shaped wheel-spokes, but that’s no different than cars from any other decade…

  • avatar
    car_guy2010

    I saw a Kia Rio and Subaru Impreza next to each other and I had to do a double take. The headlights are too similar.

    I notice that a lot of today’s cars are too similar to each other. What gives? Is it to maximize volume and profit? Or are consumers really that bland?

  • avatar
    Syke

    Especially amazing once you look against 3-4 years earlier. The twenties styled car essentially died with the 1933 model year, the 1934′s were the beginning of streamlining. By 1937, an innate conservatism had started to take over (the Ford line was radically different, except for the senior Lincoln, from everybody else), and by 1939 someone who wasn’t a car junkie couldn’t tell the difference between one make or another.

    Just like today.

    1939, with the introduction of sealed beam headlights, the ’3-on-the-tree’ taking over from the floor shift, and a general standardization of the four door sedan body style heralded the oncoming homogenization of the automobile, which would last until about the mid-50′s.

    It also wasn’t helped by the last of the ‘classic’ independents (Auburn, Cord) were dead by 1938, and the most radical design of the time remaining was the 1938 ‘Sharknose’ Graham. Which was just an overdone normal car of the day.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    I think it’s generational. My dad graduated HS is 1951, and he knew 1940s to 50′s cars. But to him, the 60′s cars were all ‘chromed boxes’, while I can ID 1955 to 1980 [mostly GM] cars.

    To me, new Korean cars look like imitations of Hondas,

  • avatar
    ranwhenparked

    Man, those Spirit of Motion Grahams were gorgeous.


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