By on July 31, 2017

2018 Toyota Camry production line - Image: Toyota

Take a mental trip back to the late 1950s. Imagine, if you will, a Detroit Three dealer’s lot. Tailfins lifted themselves towards the heavens, slicing through the air in a bid to capture Sputnik 1. Conical headlight assemblies and bumper guards jutted from the chrome-laden fronts of America’s Interstate cruisers, virilely thrusting through the air as the country’s economic climb continued its dizzying ascent.

Sex was everywhere, just not on film. Well, for the most part. Images of Jayne Mansfield mingled with thoughts of powerful rockets and ICBMs in the minds of Detroit designers busily crafting the next jet-age car for nuclear families living in the Land of the Free. Let the Soviets have their gray, uninspired, designed-by-committee Commie runabouts.

While the need to draw eyes to new vehicles hasn’t faded from the automotive business model, the sources of inspiration have changed. It’s much more diverse (and far more PC) these days. While the latest crop of family sedans weren’t sculpted by designers with sex or weapons on the brain, you’d be surprised what object actually held sway over the final shape.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2018 Toyota Camry — the midsize sedan’s savior, according to Toyota — is all about that boat. A head-on view of a twin-hulled catamaran, to be exact. Said designer Ian Cartabiano, “I didn’t want to do a vanilla car.”

“We wanted people to say, ‘Man! I really want to get into this Camry,’” added Cartabiano, perhaps not realizing the suggestive language in his statement. Another inspiration for the next-generation Camry? Ballet dancers, because we’re all classy and cultured now.

Volvo has stated the design of its recent S90 flagship sedan emulates a lion. Frankly, I don’t see it. Past Volvo sedans, of course, didn’t draw inspiration from this uniquely Scandinavian animal (serious, though — going with a moose for inspiration would have been a disaster). That’s because past Volvos all coveted the alluring and seductive brick, and perhaps also its cinder block cousin.

Over at Hyundai, a human form once again reared its head, but not in the form of a 1950s blonde bombshell. While designing the revamped 2018 Sonata, Hyundai’s designers focused on a sprinter in the starting gates. Don’t see it? Half sure an insect actually served as the muse? Well, if it’s there, it’s far more subtle than the D-cup bodies of late Eisenhower-era vehicles.

If all this daydreaming about sedans seems more intense than in years past, you’re not imagining it. With the passenger car market falling prey to crossovers and SUVs — traditional cars accounted for only 37 percent of the new vehicle market in the U.S. in 2017’s first half — automakers, now more than ever, need their latest offerings to impress the eye and dazzle the senses.

No longer can an automaker go the 1980s route, building a vastly conservative Olds 88 that looks just like an Olds 98, which looks just like a Buick LeSabre, which looks just like…. you get the picture.

“They want people to give the sedan at least one look before moving on to a more popular body style,” AutoPacific Inc. product analyst Dave Sullivan told WSJ. “Whatever it takes to get you in the seat.

If it means hauling a model of the 2018 Honda Accord across the pacific just to see it bathed in U.S. sunlight, automakers are liable to greenlight any wacky plan dreamed up by a designer. Of course, too much “style” runs the risk of turning off buyers, instead of attracting them like flies to an Amish pie shop. Can automakers succeed in stirring the soul to such a degree that it saves the passenger car segment? All signs so far point to “Hell, no.”

[Image: Toyota]

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52 Comments on “Increasingly Desperate Car Designers Aren’t Interested in Bombs, Jets, Rockets, or Pinups Anymore...”

  • avatar

    Personally I’d be fine with pinups again, but not those skinny bit#%es that pass for ones today.

    Bill Mitchell had martinis and secretaries for lunch for his inspiration.

  • avatar

    ““We wanted people to say, ‘Man! I really want to get into this Camry,’” added Cartabiano,”

    I’m sorry, but nobody who is realistic has ever said anything like this, and in my experience, the folks at Toyota are fairly reality based.

    Someone should teach designers how to do PR.

  • avatar

    sadly most cars and suv, cuts… look alike , one of the reasons mini’s stand out so much and make me smile, I was behind a VW atlas the other day and it could have been 5 other SUV’s. Say what you want about a Saab 900 but when you saw one , you knew it was different and stood out.

  • avatar

    Ian, where’s my bumper dude?

  • avatar

    A hard-boiled egg was the inspiration for the Encore and most other subcompact CUVs.

  • avatar

    “Whatever it takes to get you in the seat.”

    Gimme more cylinders.

  • avatar

    Fifty years from now, no one will be ‘collecting’ a Camry. No one collects 30 year-old Camries now. They’re interesting for surviving that long, but stirr no emotion.

    • 0 avatar

      yep. Nobody collected ’57 Chevy 150s or 210s. If it wasn’t a Bel Air it was left to rot away.

      • 0 avatar

        I see the occasional 210 at a car show, but I’d say that’s more because the population is dwindling so even the poverty spec models are being pulled out of barns.

    • 0 avatar

      No need to collect 20-25 year old Camrys in my area. Many are still daily drivers.

    • 0 avatar


      No car is worth collecting, if you want to make money off it.

      The right way of doing it, is to buy a Camry and save big on the purchase, maintenance and have great productivity and resale. With all that, you could have spare money to invest into real estate, which will beat essentially any collectable over time.

  • avatar

    Do you mean to tell me that when we overvalue comfort, respect ignorance, and treat meaning and truth as just potential attacks on our ego, the resulting cultural aesthetic might become hollow and arbitrary?

    I’m shocked.

    • 0 avatar

      @brenschluss – I’m assuming that the “I’m shocked” part of your statement is sarcasm for effect?
      I agree with your sentiment. I tend to be shocked by selfless altruism since it is so rare.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Today, both bland and ‘different’ are ridiculed in the car world.

    Somehow, to many, only the old designs qualify as acceptable.

    • 0 avatar

      This…exactly this.
      Toyotas and Lexus’ were often praised for their reliability and just as often derided for their bland styling. However, when they try to do something different, everyone lines up with the “Must have beaten with the Ugly Stick” statement.

  • avatar

    “Can automakers succeed in stirring the soul to such a degree that it saves the passenger car segment?”

    The answer to this question rests ultimately on the willingness of the automakers to bring back pop-up headlights.

  • avatar

    Aesthetic still matters and people will buy beauty, but it’s gotta be more than skin deep. Example: Giulia. Beautiful car but apparently comes with serious mechanical baggage.

  • avatar

    So a boat, and ballet dancers – two unrelated things. And you wonder why the styling turned out that way, eh?

    • 0 avatar

      The Camry’s snout is supposed to be a catamaran? I sort of see it. That ugly black maw I assume are supposed to be waves?
      I figured that the designer was a fan of Predator and electric razors.

      • 0 avatar

        Japanese auto designers have no taste. No taste. And neither do their bosses who approve such designs. They think style means sticking weird lights and weird maws on a car. There is no cohesion, no proportion. The fact they tend to design cars from the inside out doesn’t help either. Ok, maybe the Yaris cars and the RX-8 approach acceptable appearance levels, but nothing else. I actually prefer the generic cars they used to make a while ago over what they make now.

        Sorry Japan, there is more to life than reliability.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The aesthetics of 1950’s/early 60’s American automobiles mirrored the attitudes prevalent then in North American society.

    As the sole ‘modern’ nations to survive WWII with their domestic infrastructure unscathed, they believed that they had the mandate to ‘rebuild the world’. Preferably in their preferred image. And the autos were an extension of that image, large, loud, shiny, and ‘vulgar’.

    Nothing was beyond them. No project was too great. Optimism reigned.

    Now we are bombarded by criticisms, concerns and failures. We are scolded for our past practices. Our optimism is diluted. Our vision, myopic. Thus, many would prefer to return to the past than attempt to build a new future.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know of any French people who are offended by Baroque or Rococo architecture or the needless embellishments in Art Nouveau or the arrogant simplification of light and color by Monet. I don’t know of any Germans who are embarrassed by the gaudiness of Bavarian castles built by Mad King Ludwig or the elite haughtiness of Bauhaus or the over-sexualization of society by Klimt or the frivolity and mockery of basso continuo by Mozart’s symphonies and operas.

      American self-loathing is a strange thing. The collapse of American optimism from the Atomic Age is due almost entirely to regulatory policy and failed bureaucratic experimentation, and yet somehow many Americans have been persuaded to despise various symbols from our opulent past, going so far as to revise history such that whatever shortcomings existed during the era are augmented until they crowd out whatever achievements were legitimately made.

      Weirdest kind of self-loathing anywhere in the G20.

      • 0 avatar

        I’d like to subscribe to your column. Well said.

      • 0 avatar

        American self-loathing didn’t just spontaneously sprout out of thin air. Successful America didn’t hate itself then and doesn’t now. But the losers and left-behinds of that Atomic Age optimism found safe harbor in academia where they’ve spent the past 50 years passing on their bitterness towards their hosts. That’s been every bit as good for social cohesion as it sounds.

        The rest of the G20 doesn’t have it because the rest of the G20 didn’t have Columbia.

      • 0 avatar

        Beautifully said.

        We’re the nation who put the first men on the moon, yet by the fourth flight a backlash against the achievement was already developing.

        And, horrors, it was predictable and not entertaining anymore. So let’s treat it like something horrible and ugly.

      • 0 avatar

        “American self-loathing is a strange thing. The collapse of American optimism from the Atomic Age is due almost entirely to regulatory policy and failed bureaucratic experimentation,”

        Oh horses**t. it has nothing to do with that.

        it has everything to do with the fact that we were in a unique place in the world immediately post WWII, and it was only sustainable for a short time. Now that the rest of the world has caught up we’re no longer unique. You and the rest of those old white guys in charge are going to have to accept the reality that we’re never going to be able to go back to your supposed “utopia” of the 1950s despite what that Boiled Ham in a Wig promises you. not least because it didn’t really f**king exist in the way you think it did, but also because if you think another global conflict on the scale of WWII should happen because it’d be good for us you’re a psychopath. All of your pathetic looking for easy scapegoats (e.g. “liberals,” “academics,” etc) is all going to be for naught.

    • 0 avatar

      Are you European? Don’t be ungrateful. I know you guys despise Americans and everything American including American leadership but Americans saved your butts from Nazis and Commies. They just could stay at home and enjoy vulgar cars and let you guys to continue to collaborate with Nazis and suffer Thousand-Year Reich.

      • 0 avatar

        Hate to tell you this, but the Soviets were at least as big (if not a bigger) factor in defeating Nazi Germany.

        It’s like you’ve never seen these photos before.

        what’s that? Stalin sitting next to Churchill and Roosevelt?

  • avatar

    With all the technology and advanced materials we have access to, why can’t someone design a car that looks as good as the 50s/60s ones did…or even the 70s/80s?

    • 0 avatar

      Fuel economy requirements dictate aero improvements, which is why a lot of vehicles in a particular segment are shaped similarly.

      Requirements such as the EU’s pedestrian protection standards dictate the shape of the front end of a car, which is why pretty much everything has a high cowl, drooping hood line, and flat bullnose with upright grille and squinty headlights in the very corners.

      crash safety standards means high door sills and thick roof pillars.

      I give props to stylists for being able to make cars as distinct as they are given all of the constraints.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      I like the rear 3/4 view Infiniti G37 Coupe. There are several early 21st century BMWs and Mercedes sedans and coupes that have nice proportions.

  • avatar

    “We wanted people to say, ‘Man! I really want to get into this Camry,’”

    As to design, name one person, please.

    I was certain the ONE THING that influenced the current crop of cars was CAFE, not bugs or the movie “Them”.

    The OEMs need to go back to the past for inspiration, because what passes for sedans now just doesn’t cut it for the most part.

    As far as designing sedans as coupes is concerned, it makes them all but impractical for back seat passengers.

    Sedans need more formal rooflines. I’m not talking Dodge Dynasty formal, even though that look may work for them!

    Strict aerodynamic styling really doesn’t slice through the air any better at less than 45 or 50 mph.

  • avatar

    Americans didn’t abandon the sedan because the styling was poor. They abandoned the sedan because the utility had disappeared. As much as we like Harley Earl’s sexy horizontal profiles, human beings are vertical creatures. We like to be upright.

    Before Earl, cars were designed like CUVs of today. Head height while driving was similar to head height while standing, which provided a familiar view of the world. Now that the novelty of low-slung sedans has worn off, people are eager to return to vehicles with an upright architecture, specifically CUVs.

    Really, the manufacturers should stop channeling the ’63 Impala and they should be channeling the ’49 Hudson Commodore. BUT……..there’s a problem called CAFE. The footprint regulations reward cars that are wide, long, and low, which means sedans are being regulated out of existence, for the time being. The auto industry has no choice but to contemplate catamaran-like shapes. Maybe this will change if hybrid powertrains become cheap and ubiquitous, since aero performance will be less important, but we’ll see.

    • 0 avatar

      I prefer being horizontal to being upright. Don’t know about you. Maybe that’s why I still drive a sedan.

      I also discovered a huge bonus for sedans that people rarely talk about after driving my wife’s CUV for a while. When you open the boot/trunk of a sedan, your stuff doesn’t tend to fall out. When I pack the back of my wife’s CUV and then open the hatch later, I have to crouch under it to catch anything that may have wound up resting against the hatch. Sometimes the stuff that falls out is heavy!

      My sedan also corners a lot better than her CUV (which is not lousy but definitely more “floaty”). I also prefer sitting lower. Sitting up higher doesn’t improve visibility at all. A truck that blocks my forward vision in the sedan blocks it just as well sitting in the CUV. And I can fit a baby seat much better in my car. CUVs may look big from the outside but can actually be pretty cramped inside.

  • avatar

    “We wanted people to say, ‘Man! I really want to get into this Baleen Whale”, er, Camry.

  • avatar

    Every Asian car design is just a whale in spacesuit. Spacewhale.

  • avatar

    “We wanted people to say, ‘Man! I really want to get into this Camry,’” added Cartabiano,

    You could make the car a crate and people would say that, no boats nor belly-dancers required. Its stylists like this why I have to bend my neck getting in and out of cars.

  • avatar

    “I wanted to make it look like a two-hulled catamaran”. Are there any other kind? Two hulls riding a wave! And the styling boss, said “OK, make it so – your budget is $13.87.”

    This is the result, a nobly acidic perplexed frown crowned by a cyclopic carbuncle, but you only have to squint your eyes just a wee bit to see it, that nautical theme. After someone tells you what to look for. Yeah sure, I see it now. Of course. How silly of me for not seeing what people stoked on designer drugs were getting at.

    I had thought it was inspired by the wrinkles of Jabba the Hutt with a stomach ache before this article let me in on the truth. Shows that they should have spent two bucks more and removed any possibility of incorrect interpretation. That Akio likes his excitement, what a guy!

    Looking out the window at this in the driveway every day would be to cave into the world of diminished expectations in taste. It is strikingly insanely ugly. The cheapo models look far better with a simpler grille, but if you want a V6 or a hybrid, you get this gruesome article.

  • avatar

    I think the inspiration and motivation for designers has changed. They are now inspired by comic books and anime, so no wonder everything looks muscle-bound and overblown. And their motivation is to move from company to company, not to beat the competition. I am convinced that U.S. car designs of the 60s were so good because the designers at Ford hated the guys at Chevy and wanted to beat them, and vice-versa across the industry.

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