Piston Slap: Venom for the Plastic Triangle?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
piston slap venom for the plastic triangle

Chris writes:


Since you have a background in automotive design, I would be interested in your opinion on this matter…there has been one styling quirk that has always peeved me: the plastic filler panel where something else should have been.

The most (in)famous example is the plastic triangle on the C-pillar of the Dodge Sebring. I first started noticing this about 15 years ago on my brother’s Ford Contour: the rear door had a huge plastic filler panel behind the rear window where every other car made until then had a small fixed piece of glass. And I thought to myself: couldn’t they have come up with something better than a piece of plastic that’s already fading to chalky gray?

What it tells me is that the designer hasn’t done his homework. He took something he sketched during high-school study hall and ran with it, not realizing the complications of how to render it into metal in 10000+ unit volumes. Sure the elegant arc of the Sebring greenhouse looks nice on paper, but when the arc ends up above the rear wheel, it’s really hard to shape the door so that the arc is all glass. So instead of reworking the design to fix it, they put in a dark colored plastic triangle: It’s an afterthought. Heck, I’d even be OK with a tiny triangle of black tempered glass set into that nook, but plastic? They are either cheap, lazy, cynical or uncaring about their work to even consider a plastic plug.

To me it’s the ultimate turn off: I immediately dismiss any car that resorts to such styling parlour tricks. This also includes the black stripe below the windows on the Chevy Volt: it’s like the fat chick who wears black because it’s “slimming.” We all know what the deal is, and by trying to hide it, you make it more obvious.

Am I being unfair? Are there legitimate reasons for the plastic triangle? Would Chris Bangle, Bruno Sacco, or Pininfarina consider this acceptable practice?

Sajeev answers:

Well said. You have every reason to hate this design “feature.” The ones (a la Contour) used instead of fixed vent windows are okay, they serve a need: to keep the window size small enough so it can roll completely into the door, but cost less than fixed glass. Fine, except for the awful implementation of the 2008 Dodge Avenger. A total re-think of the C-pillar was necessary there.

But the ones that lie outside the rear door glass (a la Chrysler 200) is a far more offensive problem. I personally wish these cop outs would disappear, and roof lines will either be honestly sleeker or we just deal with less sleek-looking pillars. Eventually design studios that put their names on such ridiculous trim additions need to be shamed into changing their evil ways. And with that shame, maybe they can bully the other parts of the organization that may demand the plastic triangle…and force it upon them.

And that’s the real point. Most cars are designed by committee. Engineers of various departments, designers, marketing departments, etc can all (possibly) have an impact on the final product. It isn’t necessarily a designer’s fault that a black triangle showed up on their design.

Sometimes you have to eat a shit sandwich if you want to keep your job.

Your manager may make it for you, or someone far above their heads gives everyone said sandwich. If more people made a big deal about the quality of art in our automobiles, we’d be far, far better off. And there’d be less of these sandwiches made!

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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2 of 28 comments
  • 300zx_guy 300zx_guy on Apr 24, 2012

    I'm a few weeks late seeing this thread, but have to leave my 2c, as this is a huge pet peeve for me... If they are going to cheat (I have seen it called a "cheater panel," which seems a good term as any) to alter the perceived shape of the DLO (Day Light Opening, in case you are unfamiliar with that car design term), why don't they use black glass or high gloss black plastic, can it really cost that much more per car? Isn't is possible that a better execution would sell a few more cars to offset that extra cost per car? I really wouldn't mind the cheating, per se, if it were executed well. The Cruze looks great from a distance, or in low light where I can't see the cheap-looking matte plastic, but when I can see it, it's all I can see (like a pretty girl with a huge pimple, your eye goes right to the pimple no matter how hard you try not to). I really like the Cruze otherwise, but that one design element looks so bad to me it would stop me from considering buying one (I'd absolutely consider the wagon if they sold it here). The Sebring's cheater panel is so bad that on the makeover for the 200 they paste a chrome "200" logo on the triangle, as if they've given up on even pretending it is a window. And then there are some cheater panels that are altogether unnecessary, the DLO would look just fine without it. Examples are the '98-04 Lexus GS300 (the first car that sensitized me to this bad design trend), the current Elantra, Lincoln MKZ, Acura TL, and even the Juke. And a special dishonorable mention goes to the new Jaguar XJ, the world's worst attempt at trying to fool the eye into seeing a blacked out panel as an extension of an adjacent window, all the more egregious because even it were executed at great expense as one larger piece of glass it still wouldn't make any sense in the design. I would LOVE to know the story behind how that design element made it to production. (BTW, I think the blacked out panel works conceptually on the XJ shooting brake design, but still looks better painted in body color.)

  • Chicagoland Chicagoland on May 07, 2012

    Speaking of the Ford Contours sail panels, a common 'mod' on SVT Contours was to switch to all black from 95-97 for the glossy 98-2K with 'Contour' in them. I swapped my '97 black ones with an SVT owner and also sold older sail panels from bone yards back in early 2000's. Used to be in Contour.org

  • ToolGuy Something like this.
  • ToolGuy Here's the part I'm struggling with: Who knowingly runs a vehicle until the brakes are metal to metal? (It's in the listing.) Did we ignore the wear indicators squealing all this time? (Internet says this vehicle has them.)I did that once with my first car, and I still feel bad about it.
  • TDIGuy I'm boring, but VW Passat Estate, Diesel with manual transmission.
  • John On my 6th Saab now....always looking for another
  • 3SpeedAutomatic Thunderbird Production Numbers:1971 - 36,0551972 - 57,8141973 - 87,2691974 - 58,4431975 - 42,6851976 - 52,9351977 - 318,1401978 - 352,7511979 - 284,141 1980 - 156,803 1981 - 86,693 1982 - 45,142 1983 - 121,999 1984 - 170,533 1985 - 151,852 1986 - 163,965 Looks like the T'Birds on the Torino frame sold like gang busters ('77 thru '79).