No Fixed Abode: Triumph of the Grille

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Here’s something to depress our older readers: There is an entire generation of drivers that has never known a world without Lexus. Note that I did not say “Lexus and Infiniti.” The majority of American drivers probably have no idea Infiniti exists.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I was there at the start, working for a BMW dealer, and I can tell you that many people on the retail side of the business thought that Infiniti would prove to be just as successful as Lexus. Maybe more successful. All of the momentum seemed to be on Nissan’s side: They had the near-legendary Nissan Primera as Infiniti’s entry-level car, beloved of autowriters and cognoscenti everywhere. Toyota had a Camry with frameless windows. Infiniti had the mighty, dream-crushing Q45, which was as fast as a V12 Bimmer and styled from nose to tail in an original, tasteful, fake-wood-free fashion. Toyota had a store-brand copy of the S-Class.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course. We now live in a Lexus world. The brand is so strong that other brands, like Cadillac, obtain the bulk of their sales volume selling knockoff versions of the RX350. I don’t have access to hard numbers, but I would suspect that Lexus dealers are more profitable, per unit sold, than any other franchise south of, say, Porsche.

And where is Infiniti? Nowhere. Lost. Sinking. The reasons for the brand’s failure are too numerous to consider in a single article. But I’m going to discuss what I think might be the most important reason here, because it doesn’t just apply to Nissan’s boutique brand and it continues to affect everyone from Honda to Hyundai.

Quick question: What is the purpose of the grille on a modern automobile? We all know what the purpose of the grille used to be: it protected the radiator shell. The first few decades of gasoline-powered automobiles had their radiators in “shells” that were placed at the front of the car because that’s where the airflow is. Once cars began to be styled in earnest during the ’30s, the radiators were placed behind a metal grille that was meant to protect them from rocks and whatnot, but which also conferred a sense of brand identity on the vehicle. That was an “all-change” moment for automotive brands; of all the manufacturers that existed in the exposed-radiator-shell era, only Rolls-Royce retained their particular radiator shell shape as an identifying element.

Until the ’80s, the grille had a second and no less important job; it routed airflow towards the air cleaner on the top of the engine. Unless, of course, you were lucky or cool enough to have a through-hood intake, but that sort of thing was typically reserved for muscle cars and whatnot. So grilles were usually made as large as possible.

The arrival of the General Motors “J-car” in 1981 was significant for a number of reasons, but the one that interests me is it was the first mass market, non-speciality automobile to obtain all of its cooling and intake airflow from beneath the car. (I know that the B&B will probably come up with an earlier one; do your worst.) The J-car was engineered in a wind tunnel and it did not need a grille. So most of them didn’t have more than a token front intake. The interesting exception was the Cadillac Cimarron. It didn’t need a grille any more than the Cavalier did, being possessed of an utterly identical drivetrain, but it had a grille.

If you look at all the J-cars lined up next to each other, you will see that they have a visible air intake area sorted more or less by perceived brand prestige. The Cimarron is the only one with a conventional eggcrate grille, but the Skyhawk has a full-width intake beneath the headlights that is clearly meant to evoke a grille. It’s almost possible to read the minds of GM Design: in the future, mass-market cars won’t have a grille, but prestige cars will have a grille, because they are bought by older, more conservative customers.

Give GM credit for knowing at least half of the future. The other half was that even poor people felt that they deserved a grille. Why? It’s this simple: human beings are engineered by God or the blind watchmaker to recognize faces wherever possible. We have an absurd amount of mental processing power devoted solely to reading faces, most likely because accurately understanding the emotional state of a fellow cave-tribe member or enemy had a nontrivial bearing on survival. We see faces in cartoons, animals, natural rock formations, clouds, the moon, and the post-plastic-surgery Kenny Rogers. We can’t help it.

We need our cars to have faces. We are more likely to buy a car with a face that reflects our outlook on the world. A car with no face, or with a deformed-looking face, doesn’t excite our purchasing interest. No wonder, therefore, that pretty much all the J-cars had obvious grilles by 1986. The Cavalier, in particular, transitioned to an extremely conventional “face.”

You can argue, and I used to make this argument all the time, that the styling of the Lexus LS400 and the Infiniti Q45 reflected the different opinions that their automakers had of their customers. The Q45 was uniquely Japanese, hugely tasteful, with nary a single look back to the past. It had a wood-free interior because it was 1990 and real structural wood in dashboards hadn’t been necessary since before World War II. It had a blunt, low nose because that made it faster and quieter. And it had no grille because it didn’t need a grille. The LS400, by contrast, had a fakey-doo Benz grille because it was a fakey-doo Benz.

That’s all well and good, but it turned out that people really wanted a powerful face on their expensive luxury cars. So the Q45 got a grille in 1994. By then, it was too late. Infiniti had bet too heavily on the intelligence and sophistication of its customer base, a bet that, let’s be frank here, it would never make again.

Had the Q45 come with a grille from the beginning, what would have happened? Perhaps the outcome would have been the same; the ’92 ES300 was a “killer app” from the moment it appeared, and selling the G20 against it was tantamount to assisted suicide. But I think the race would have been much closer and a lot of people, if they had given the Q45 a chance, would have preferred it to the LS400. It was a better car to drive. No, it wasn’t built nearly as well, but if build quality mattered to luxury cars, BMW never would have gotten a foot in the door with the original 7 Series.

And that’s where we could have let the story end, were it not for the fact that there is, apparently, a consumer out there that is even more crass and taste-free and face-obsessed than the average American. This fellow, and millions like him, live in China. In China, err-body gotta have a grille. It’s why Audis went from being tasteful to gauche and it’s why every low-prestige maker from Buick to Kia now puts massive toothy grills on their cars. Without exception, every one of them is unnecessary garbage. Look how much grille a Santa Fe or Envision has; then look at a Challenger Hellcat. Which one needs more cooling? Which one appears to be getting more cooling? But not to worry; most of that grille surface is blanked off. Check the newest Honda Odyssey for an in-your-face demonstration of that.

The vehicle of the near future is, apparently, a jacked-up five-seater with the proportions of a telephone booth. Maybe I shouldn’t say “telephone booth.” Who knows what one of those is nowadays? The automobile to capture the dreams of the global lower-middle class might not have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, but it will have a massive grille. You can depend on that. And that, too, makes me feel both old and tired. Here’s something else most TTAC readers won’t recognize, even in parody form: I could have told you, Q45, the world was never made for one as beautiful as you.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Erikstrawn Erikstrawn on Aug 10, 2016

    The first gen RX-7, introduced for the 1979 model year, had no grille.

    • Heavy handle Heavy handle on Aug 10, 2016

      The first RX-7 was a blatant copy of the 924, which also had no grille. neither did the 928, which was designed earlier but introduced later. None of these were mass-market cars, although they were common enough (if not on the streets, at least on TV). Lots of 1970s sports cars had tiny grilles or no grilles, like the 240z, TR-7, etc.

  • THX1136 THX1136 on Aug 16, 2016

    Just got around to reading this. One of the things Jack mentioned - the concept of the "face" of the vehicle - connects with something I've been noticing of late, that being the "angry" looking appearance of many vehicles. It comes from the downward slant toward the middle of many of the headlights on current models. Most vehicles in the past seemed to have a more passive look/expression - (there are some semis which have a sort of smiley face). That musing lead to thinking about the connection to the state of society/culture at the present time. Is the "angry" front end of our vehicles a reflection of the general mood of the culture - frustrated, angry, pissed off, "I'm not going to take your guff" attitudes - or a contributing factor to that general mood? Perhaps I'm just carried away to this place by the political atmosphere of late. Thanks for the article, Jack. Got me thinking some more.

  • Eric As I would not buy a GM or any other EV the question is moot. As to Apple or Android play, I don't care if the car uses them. I don't use those apps anyway.
  • SCE to AUX I'd want Android Auto.
  • FreedMike They're highly important to me, particularly for navigation.
  • Bill Wade No Android Auto, no car. How else would I listen to Radio Paradise. ;)
  • KOKing "One of the most interesting parts of this situation is that Stellantis, and by extension, the Chrysler Group, is increasingly considered a foreign company instead of a traditional American automaker."Does that mean Simca and Hillman are coming back?