By on July 27, 2015

nissan gtr lm

When was the last time you saw a pretty race car? Maybe I’m turning into Walt Kowalski, but it seems to me that the racing machines of my youth looked nicer. Is there a purer shape than Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning Lotus 38? Is not the Lola T70 sensuous? Some of Jim Hall’s Chaparrals, like the 2H “vacuum” car and the 2J streamliner with its center mounted high wing look a little odd, but even the 2J has an aesthetically pleasing shape, something you can’t say about a modern Formula One racer, with it’s dizzying array of airfoils, winglets and canards.

red bull f1

I suppose we can blame those aerodynamic aids. You could say that those F1 cars are flying on the ground, balancing between increased downforce for cornering and decreased drag for straight line speed. Ironically, though, the machines that popularized the management of aerodynamics and downforce were actually attractive. Jim Hall and Colin Chapman were aero innovators, but their cars still looked good. Most of the Chaparrals looked great, and I don’t think anyone ever said that a Lotus 72 or Lotus 78 was anything other than beautiful. One reason why the Porsche 917 has become such an iconic race car is that it looks good in addition to being brutally fast.

ferrari f1

“Form follows function” often does result in nice styling and design. Modern race cars, however, might be too functional to be concerned with aesthetics.

Can you name a modern race car that looks good? Alternatively, what do you think is the best looking racing car of all time?

Photos by the author.

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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61 Comments on “QOTD: Why Are Today’s Race Cars So Ugly?...”


  • avatar
    FormerFF

    It’s all the aero gingerbread that makes current race cars less than attractive, all the extraneous pieces make them look sort of like a person who has multiple large piercings.

    I think the best looking race cars were the sports racing cars of the 50’s and 60’s. Out of that group I like the Porsche 904 and especially the Jaguar D Type. The Porsche 917 in the short tail K bodywork is another nice one, while the same car carrying LH bodywork is downright sinister looking.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    You have to look at GT1 or GT3 race cars for good looks, IMO. The Mercedes SLS GT3 is a really nice looking race cars. Racing Astons are nice too, as are any modern 911 race cars. It’s the LeMans and prototype stuff that gets real ugly.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s funny that you mention LeMans cars. The idea for this post was germinated when I saw a Porsche 919 at the New York Auto Show. I’ve seen the Toyota LeMans car up close too. Neither are attractive.

      Unfortunately, I made the mistake yesterday of covering the Concours of America on a hot, sunny day without any fuel in my own tank and ended up dehydrated and hypoglycemic. Almost went to the ER for some IV fluids and sugar. I wasn’t at my best when I put this post together and completely forgot about the Porsche and Toyota when selecting photos.

      • 0 avatar
        tjh8402

        @Ronnie and Cactuar – I think the last truly beautiful looking LMP1 was the Peugeot 908. The V12 HDI FAP models were the best looking, although the ill-fated 2011 V8 model was still attractive. The Audi R18 is quite dramatic looking, but not quite attractive. The Aston Martin-Lola DBR1-2 which also last competed in 2011 was also quite beautiful. I think the Ligier JS P2 is probably the best looking current generation prototype, altough livery matters (Michael Shank’s is beatiful, Tracy Krohn’s not so much). Onroak’s previous LMP2 entry, the Morgan, wasn’t too bad either. I also was a fan of Rebellion’s Lotus branded LMP1. The R-One, though, seems like a step in the wrong direction.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    It’s all the fault of “computational fluid dynamics”.
    Aero flapperdoodles make for fast but ugly cars without a doubt.

    The latest version of the Indy Lights spec chassis is quite attractive, but that series has as much public visibility as my grandson’s soccer team.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      This. When design methods, material technology, and manufacturing were less sophisticated, racing cars had simpler shapes amenable to the human mind’s perception of logical, or functional beauty. Contrast with modern design (including CFD), materials, and manufacturing where the pace set by computers has outrun our biological aesthetics, and you find people who claim the cars are “ugly”.

      The race car is not a design exercise, nor is it artwork. It is simply a tool for the race car driver. Your value judgments reflect yourselves rather than any objective quality of the machine, something worth thinking about.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        “Your value judgments reflect yourselves..”

        Yah! Monkey like sexy roundy!

        Not no spacejunk sh1t!

      • 0 avatar
        tubbess

        I would say to those who feel aesthetics are irrelevant to racing (that “the car is just a tool for the driver), that racing is a spectator sport. It may be pleasing to technocrats to have the machines be designed solely by other machines in the quest for greater speed, but human beings aren’t machines. The race cars of yesteryear (yeah, I’m an old guy) were as exciting to look at as they were to race. If races exist only for the drivers and the engineers then they will be the only ones at those races. Technology without soul is meaningless.

  • avatar
    Signal11

    I’m 37. I think modern racing cars look different, but are in no way, shape or form less cool looking or less attractive than the classics of yesteryear.

    • 0 avatar
      ellomdian

      And there’s the crux of the ‘debate’: People tend to think that Classic racers are good looking because they see them through the glasses of 30 years of nostalgia. Back in ‘the day’ people thought that the 917 looked like a pig, so much so that it was a nickname for the car. I promise you that there were complaints about the boxy Chaparrals. People thought the boxy-looking 80’s touring cars didn’t look good until very recently. The early 90’s Jellybean styling is just starting to be appreciated now, and ask a Formula fan if their opinion of the early 00’s cars has changed in the last 2-3 seasons of Nose-gate.

      In 20 years, people will look back fondly at the be-winged spectacle of a ’15 F1 car and comment that it didn’t have the huge, bulky magneto-repulsive bumpers or the new composite safety-egg surrounding the driver. “Remember when it was legal to have the driver exposed?”

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        So you’re saying 20 years from now, people will look back fondly on the GLA? The Lexus NX and IS?

        Not sooo sure. 2015 LaCrosse – no, 1995 Roadmaster – yes, 1975 Ninety-Eight – yes, 1955 Ninety-Eight – yes.

        That LaCrosse is still gonna look like a bloated bath tub 20 years from now.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          @CoreyDL, re: LaCrosse: I was sitting in a drive through a few mornings ago and I noticed a 2005-2009 “bug eye” Lacrosse. Someone had put a chrome swan hood ornament and red, white, and blue Buick Badges on the C-pillars.

          I guess someone loves theirs, and certainly less attractive than the 2015.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          There wont be many, if any, of those little junky Benzes left in twenty years. How many 1995 Mercedes do you see today? I don’t see many and those were built in the period before the Chrysler buyout and the quality took a nosedive.

  • avatar
    michal1980

    I’m with Singal11.

    I’m not big on the history of f1, but from the cars you listed as ‘beautiful’.

    I’d say the look kind of dull, and old school. The lotus’s, Oh look a cheese wedge with wheels.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I like the OLD race cars. Like from the mid 1930’s. Always found those elegant.

      http://www.sportscardigest.com/wp-content/uploads/HI140002_medium.jpg

      I also collect those old Art Deco Monaco promotional posters, and have some framed in my living room.

      http://thumbs2.picclick.com/d/l400/pict/390367466185_/AV21-Vintage-1933-Monaco-Grand-Prix-Motor-Racing.jpg

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Speaking of Deco, look at the cockpit on the Nismo… it’s got some serious Deco Menace going on with the blunted brutality and verticality of ’30s aircraft cockpit design.

        I get Gotham/Fritz Lang vibes off that.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          I get a bit of an old nautical feel from it.

          http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/catalog/1(28).jpg

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            Gottdamm that’s cool!

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I love old boats. There’s something about those classic lines done in wood. Clink clink and putter sputter. I’m at the helm – grab me a glass of bourbon, Mitsy.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            Oh, God… early ’40s Chris Craft! Woodwork worthy of imperial England and once you hear one you understand where “motorboating” came from.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            A company in Holland, MI does 1930s Chris Craft reproductions. All the mahogany goodness with updated internals. I’ve been to the factory, and it is cool.

            http://www.grandcraft.com/GrandCraftModels.html

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Nothing quite says “moneyed WASP” like a big wood luxury boat.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            A 40 foot mahogany boat is at least a good looking statement of wealth.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Mine will say “The Corinthian” on the back, in gold script. Remember that for 40 years from now.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            *gasp*

            Life is still good for some Americans. I adore the Commuter model.

            Can’t you just see photogs of the era trying to get an angle that hid FDR’s wheelchair as he patricianed up in a boat like that?

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            I can see that boat on the Hudson with FDR in it. Everything about that model is glorious.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            Aieeee! So much woodness!

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            http://www.usspotomac.org/images/photos/historic/hist_fdr_fantail_2.jpg

            Yep.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            That old man had some pipes!

            Wheelchair arms.

      • 0 avatar
        Signal11

        I was thinking about making this comparison so I’m glad your brought up Art Deco. Strong, bold lines, relatively simple, solid shapes and a great style of art and architecture.

        Me, I have an equal appreciation of the organic, elegant and flowing lines of the major art and architectural style immediately preceding Deco, Art Nouveau.

        A 2011 F1 car looks like it was grown versus a late 80s or an early 90s era F1 car, that looks more like it was carved. I think there’s just as much character, if not more in those lines.

        But then again, fluid dynamics/mechanics a big part of grad school for me.

      • 0 avatar
        ClutchCarGo

        And I think that this is what makes the original post here a serious case of “Get off of my lawn!”. F1 race cars looked more like road cars back before the science of aerodynamics was very developed. As a result, the new knowledge is applied and race cars evolve beyond what would ever be useful on a road car. Get over it, old man. The point of racing is to go as fast as possible. If you want beautiful styling, go to Pebble Beach or Amelia Island.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Looking pretty while failing is Alfa-Romeo talk.

  • avatar
    Highway27

    I like some old racecars, but find new ones to be attractive as well, including prototypes. But then, I always like prototypes, from the Group 44 Jaguars to the Electramotive Nissan GTP-ZX (with all its holes and angles and wedges) to even that Nissan GTR-LM at the top of the article. There have been some F1 cars I find more attractive, like Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari F310 with the drop nose.

    I think it’s a little bit unfair to hold up the step-nose F1 cars as proof that new cars are ugly, since they were a phased regulation change that was corrected the following year.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Race cars are like The Picture of Dorian Gray. Racing doesn’t die, its image just gets uglier.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Modern race cars are products of the ever-expanding rulebook.

    Their twisted, distorted shapes are designed to perform a sort of legalistic, Matrix-sci-fu-like dance around the various Thou Shalt Nots imposed in the name of Safety and Competition.

    A race car unhindered by design rules would actually look pretty clean and simple – at least on the surface – compared to a modern F1 vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Here’s the concept for the fastest race car ever conceived:

      http://orig08.deviantart.net/30a4/f/2014/233/a/5/gran_turismo_red_bull_x2014_standard___f02_by_m2m_design-d7qw9wx.jpg

      A bit cleaner.

      I think modern F1 and LMP1 cars are beautiful pieces of engineering. The RWD ones anyway. That Nissan one will grow on me if they can impress me by making some serious progress with it and exposing loopholes in the rules. Then I won’t be able to see it as anything but brilliant. As it is, it’s ugly simply because it’s fundamentally illogical.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Agreed. They are ugly because the overall design is nothing but a result of fluid models working with a set of defined rules. They are not designed to look fast, they are designed to go fast. The early cars everyone points to as being “sexy” where pure designs, aero wasn’t fully understood so they just made everything visual as flowing as possible. Construction methods prevented sharp edges and overly complex shapes. However air flow is a bit more complicated then those early engineers understood, so it turns you can’t design everything to look like a tadpole or a tuna fish. I personally find the F1 cars of the mid 90s the best as they had sharp, edgy wings, but the body was smooth flowing which wrapped around the engine and driver.

      Today’s F1 cars are over the top in terms winglets, flaps, duct work and various other air steering devices. The result is something that is very insect like. This makes sense when you consider insects must be very efficient, with low weight and a body which itself is the crash structure.

      • 0 avatar
        Highway27

        They’ve cut back recently, but a decade ago, DTM cars were absolutely the king of sticking aero pieces all over a vehicle. A stack of fins 8 deep on each side on the rear, a similar stack on the front fenders, and an amazing mess left on the road whenever one car hit another one.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Yea too many aero devices, rules sometime force odd looking designs (F1 noses) and safety influence design. Still there was some less than pleasant looking race cars in the past. Ferrari Testrosas with their pontoon fenders, Chapparel 2J all straight lines to name a couple.

  • avatar
    DIYer

    1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 R Stromlinie.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    The Porsche 962 comes to mind.

    Most of the late 80s IMSA cars I like.

  • avatar
    Fred

    For my favorite I’m going back to the Maserati 250 Grand Prix car.

  • avatar
    MRx19

    I think subliminally the decline in spectator interest, in motorsport, can be somewhat attributed to the appearance of the cars. Locally, (Road America) the historic events draw significantly more interest than the current race series. While the current LMP cars are technically stunning they elicit no emotional response like a Bentley Speed 8 or a Porsche 917 did.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    “Is there a purer shape than Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning Lotus 38?”

    No.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    I think it’s fairly obvious that the most beautiful racing cars were all produced when a given person was in his teens and early twenties. Same goes for pop music and computer games. Everything before then is old; everything since is shit.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I don’t think you can make that sweeping generalization.

      I like “modern” cars from when I was around 10 (1996). I like non-modern cars from 1945, like Packards. And also brougham vehicles from the malaise era.

      Almost all the popular music I like is from 1978 – Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan.

      I have no idea what race cars looked like in 06, when I was 20. Not bothered! The 1930’s race cars looked the best in their simplicity.

      And I like the computer games of now – graphics, gameplay, complexity, freedom.

    • 0 avatar
      hgrunt

      Pretty much this.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Given that modern airplanes still manage to look good, it’s not entirely unproblematic to blame “aero” isolation. Modern race cars are about aero stunted by extremely detailed, relatively arbitrary racing regulation.

    The lack of immediate “beauty”, except in the eyes of specially trained CFD engineers and others unusually predisposed, may well be related to this arbitrariness. The laws of nature tend to be fairly “simple.” Human perceptions of beauty may have evolved to appreciate designs that work optimally within such simple frameworks. Rather than within more complex and arbitrary ones.

    • 0 avatar

      I alluded to this when I mentioned that race cars have to fly on the ground. Airplanes can use pure aero shapes because they only have to contend with air. Race cars have to stay on the ground while going speeds that could easily get them airborne.

      • 0 avatar
        hgrunt

        Additionally, race cars often have to work inside a set of rules and regulations. I remember seeing a “what if there were no restrictions” F1 car render. The main changes were enclosed wheels and cockpit, to reduce drag.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        With more leeway wrt allowable aero surfaces and effects, high speed race cars would look/work much more like airplanes. To the point where computerized aero surfaces would aid in steering, as well as in aiding a controlled landing, should they unexpectedly lose ground contact for an instant.

        I’m still not convinced the more visually jarring appearance of race cars vs, say fighter, planes, are not to a large extent due to the lessened cohesiveness of racing regulations vis a vis the laws of nature.

    • 0 avatar
      tjh8402

      @stuki – actually aviation has been having the same debate. Spend time on an avgeek site like airliners.net, and you’ll find lots of criticism and complaints about the ugly A380 or the “borring” modern twins that are taking over the skies, while praise is heaped upon the dated and/or market failures – the A340, 757, and 747, nevermind the 707,727, or Concorde.

      An aviation blog recently wrote a couple posts that track very closely to the sentiment here:

      http://www.askthepilot.com/essaysandstories/high-art/
      “IN THE MID-1960s, aerodynamicists at Boeing faced a momentous task… and the airplane they came up with, the iconic 747, is an aesthetic equal of the grandest Manhattan skyscraper…On the other side of the ocean, however, designers don’t seem to be thinking this way. “Air does not yield to style,” is a refrain attributed some years ago to an engineer at Airbus Industrie…. Right or wrong, he was addressing the fact that modern civil aircraft designs have become so bland and uninspired as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another. In addition to the 747, Jet Age romantics recall the provocative curves of the Caravelle; the urbane superiority of the needle-nosed Concorde; the gothic confidence of the 727. Planes are a lot more boring now, we’re told, because in the name of efficiency and economy, they have to be. But is this really the case? The 747 is one of several good-looking planes to emerge from Seattle since the early 70s, yet Airbus has given us only one true head-turner — its long-range A340. True to their contention that air and style are zero-sum variables, the Europeans produced a line of aircraft at once technologically exquisite and visually banal.At Airbus, the pinnacle of aesthetic disregard was finally achieved upon rollout of…the A380…The Airbus A380 is the largest, most powerful, and most expensive commercial plane in history. And possibly the ugliest. There is something grotesquely anthropomorphic about the front of the A380, its abruptly pitched forehead calling to mind a steroidal beluga. The rest of the plane is bloated, swollen and graceless. It’s big for big’s sake, yet at the same time conveys an undignified squatness, as if embarrassed by its own girth. It is the most self-conscious looking airliner I’ve ever seen.”

      http://www.askthepilot.com/ugliest-planes/
      “Aircraft themselves, meanwhile, have become so generic as to be indistinguishable from each other. In the old days, even at six miles out you could tell a 727 from a DC-9, or even the L-1011 from the DC-10, similar as they were. Nowadays, depending on the angle, you can be literally right next to a plane and not be certain which model it is. The A380 aside, most latter-day planes aren’t ugly so much as boring. We recall the gothic lines of the 727 or the sleekness of the Concorde and Caravelle. Conventional wisdom holds that modern planes, by comparison, are uninspired because they have to be — that there’s something about aerodynamics and economy that necessitate a certain monotony of design. “Air does not yield to style,” are the words attributed to an Airbus engineer.”

      For the record, I don’t completely agree with this sentiment in general (I think the 777 is beautiful in a powerful, muscular, and imposing way and the 787 is simply gorgeous, and the 737-800 quite elegant, while the DC-9 is just ugly and the 737-100/200s are awkward ) or everything the author contends specifcially (I’ll fight him over listing the Lockheed Constellation among the not attractrive), more as illustrative of the fact that aviation is not immune to the same debate and nostalgia we are having here.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    This appears to be a self-solving problem. With the continuous decline of motorsports viewership, fewer and fewer people will be offended.

    Kind of like gagging whenever you hear a Carpenters song. Its just not happening that often to that many people any more.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Computational fluid dynamics and restrictive rulebooks have ruined race-car looks. Even a pretty hard-nosed designer like Gordon Murray quit the game early because it became all about aero. I hate to admit it, but the McLaren F1 with the ‘moose-antlers’ is actually starting to look good to me. The last beautiful race-car may have been the Bentley Speed-8,and Newey’s Leyton House was quite attractive. Nothing will top Gurney’s Eagle-Weslake, not even the Lotus 49 (sudden intakes of breath and raised eyebrows!)

  • avatar
    tylanner

    When you start with a potato, the fundamental rules of aerodynamics are pretty straight forward. “elongate” “flatten” “widen” “add a wing at angle x”. As stated, the modern F1 car is a good example of where this path ends up.

    Computer-aided aero analysis combined with advanced manufacturing techniques allows designers and engineers to produce purposefully designed race machines with sections and parts that are heavily interdependent, seemingly organically fragile, yet economically reproducible.

  • avatar
    Snavehtrebor

    I don’t think it’s purely down to relating to the cars that were prevalent when you first got the racing bug. I’m in my 40s, and while the mid to late 80’s Group C and IMSA GTP cars will always “look like a race car should look” to me, I can relate to examples from just about every generation.

    Porsche 908/3 (Gulf)
    Lancia 037 (Martini)
    Lancia Stratos (Alitalia)
    Ferrari 641
    Ferrari 512S (Sunoco)
    McLaren F1 GTR longtail (Gulf/Davidoff livery)
    Audi R15 (the first car, not the R15 Plus)
    Jordan Peugeot 197 (the “snake car” from the Benson & Hedges days)
    Sauber C18
    Porsche 962LH (Shell/Dunlop from ’88 LeMans)

    For me, the more interesting question is, can you separate these cars from their liveries? So many iconic cars look right in a certain set of decals & paint, and seeing bodies-in-white might change the perception.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      In spite of the uhh, not pretty, Nissan, endurance racing has plenty of good-looking cars (and I’m not talking about Daytona prototypes):
      2003 Bentley Speed 8
      2004 Audi R8
      2008 Peugeot 908
      2015 DOME S103

      Personally I prefer the 908 LH to the 908/3, but both are classics.

  • avatar
    tubbess

    As to whether aesthetics and technology are irreconcilable, I don’t think it’s necessarily an either/or choice. I have seen some cars which employ the latest aero-features that actually have some visual appeal. The scg003s comes to mind. Anyway, the current crop of GT’s still look good, even to an old geezer like me. I do find it amusing, from the everything-old-is new-again department, that these ultra-new state-of-the-art prototypes incorporate features like fenders, running boards and tail fins. Go figure.


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