By on September 14, 2018

classic car

Mister Steve writes:


There seems to be a trend, at least among the younger crop of auto writers, to anthropomorphize an automobile based on its looks. It seems like you can barely get through a review of a new car without mention of automotive anthropomorphism: “angry eyes” or “ugly mouth” to describe styling. Definitely not how I recall descriptions from the likes of David E. Davis, Jr. or Chubby Chedder.

My theory for this is that they’re the generation that grew up during the Cars movie franchise. Seeing as I’m one of the “olds” who grew up when this wasn’t a thing, I could be wrong.

Sajeev answers:

As someone with a love/hate relationship with this profession, whose interaction with David E. Davis proves you should never meet your heroes, I doubt they’d do any better. But I digress…

Automotive anthropomorphism has multiple origins, and the Cars movie is valid for the modern era. You might recall how folks in the ’50s (i.e. men) made Dagmar references and comments like “the ‘slant-eye’ face was particularly jarring” that’d now be considered racist.

I still use a phrase from my school yard to describe automotive posteriors with terrible visibility and tiny cargo apertures: if I judged, I’d clearly need to look at the man in the mirror.

Perhaps this is a vicious cycle?

But here’s the thing about styling: it adapts to new technology (like any other industry).  Thanks to modern plastics, computer assisted designs, etc., most any grille/headlight shape can pass government standards and conform to a plastic fascia. Cars aren’t architecture-esque any more. The malaise era’s massive chrome bumpers and rectangular headlights are gone, and DIY 3D printed fascia elements aren’t far away.

So might as well make cars appear happy to be on the road! Pixar capitalized on these faces but everyone sees it — car designers, too. You could say it’s “by design” (sorry) and I betcha even Mr. Chedder sees it, too.  

[Image: Shutterstock user topseller]

Send your queries to [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model-specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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25 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Primer of Automotive Anthropomorphism?...”

  • avatar

    Cars came out in 2006. Unless you think most automotive journalists are 14-20 years old, no, it’s not because of Cars.

    • 0 avatar

      This reminds me of the guy I saw posting on Quora asking how it was possible that movies from the 1980s had tall buildings and automobiles in them.

      People! The world did not begin with you!

      • 0 avatar

        “how it was possible that movies from the 1980s had tall buildings and automobiles in them.”

        I am puzzled. Is it true, is it even possible? I mean automobiles in tall buildings? Why do you need that anyway when there are elevators? Elevators are not public transportation, I mean there are no crazy people and homeless in elevators (I mean if you are not in SF) and trip lasts only few minutes.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pretty sure people older than 8 watched Cars.

  • avatar

    the 2010+ Mazda 3 doesn’t look happy, it looks like it’s about to go for your neck.

  • avatar

    There’s a whole philosophy on how we react to cars, because let’s “face” it we built them to resemble us. This should be no surprise to anyone. People had a lot of trouble with the front end of the new Cherokee, because they couldn’t find it’s “eyes” (headlights)

  • avatar

    “Well there she is,” said the garage man sadly… “Doesn’t look much, does she? I’m afraid she’s due for the scrap-heap. Can’t afford to go on giving her living space. They’re coming to tow her away next week, as a matter of fact — take her to the dump… Seems a shame, doesn’t it? You can almost see from her eyes — those big Marchal racing headlights — that she knows what’s in store for her. But there it is. You can see the shape she’s in…”
    — Ian Fleming, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, 1964

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I’ve never personified cars in this way. I don’t think of headlights as eyes or grilles as mouths. Maybe the only part of a car that does warrant comparison to the human body is the butt- some cars definitely do have a badonkadonk butt, I’m looking at you Chris Bangle.

  • avatar

    Jim, it’s happening right under our noses and we can’t see it. We take machines and stuff ’em with information until they’re smarter than we are. Take a car. Most guys spread more love and time and money on their car in a week than they do on their wife and kids in a year. Pretty soon, you know what? The machine starts to think it is somebody.
    — “Herbie The Love Bug”, 1968

  • avatar

    OK, I gotta know the David E. Davis story now. Out with it.

  • avatar

    While on a walk my dog will incessantly bark at the face of a Smart Fortwo. She must think it is some large animal. She barks at no other car fronts, just that model and each time.

  • avatar

    They certainly never made the bug eyed sprite until after the movie Cars.

    American cars had a very machine look about them. The Conti in the top picture doesn’t really resemble a face very well. Certainly the square sealed beam lights of the 1970s and 80s didn’t quite look biological. I think the federal allowance of molded headlights and modern aerodynamics did quite a bit in giving modern cars a more anthropomorphic look than cars of the past.

  • avatar

    My vote for the angriest-looking car is the 1959 Dodge. These were popular as police cars – imagine seeing this menacing grimace in your rear view mirror.

  • avatar

    Personally, I am glad to know that anyone born after 1952 is “younger”.

  • avatar

    To me, most cars do have a face, and even those that don’t still tend to have a personality regardless. Even relatively bland cars still have something of a look to them. It might not necessarily be pleasant, but its there.

    I don’t see anything wrong with this. And those with a passion for automobiles do tend to personify their cars to a certain extent. I don’t mean you name your prized BMW “Sam” or “Charlie”, that’s rather immature IMO. But when you get attached to it, it does seem to become part of the family.

    Again, I don’t see anything wrong with this. I’m sure that, given a choice, any of us would choose to sacrifice our most beloved vehicle to save a human life. So, its not like we value a machine above flesh and blood, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about, or even love, our vehicle(s).

    I deeply regret getting rid of some of my cars in the past, although some were most definitely not by choice. They became a friend, a trustworthy companion that was/were there for me. They shared the good times, the bad times, and the mundane times, they made life a little better because they were a part of it.

    But, its not like I sit and cry if I think about them being crushed or whatever. In the end, they were just machines that had no real soul. That doesn’t mean they meant nothing, they just made an impression on me that I do miss. I feel more emotion about the death of someone I read about in a news story that I didn’t even know. So, what I’m saying is, even if we do personify our cars and think of them as a friend or loved-one, that has its limits. At least, for me.

  • avatar

    I remember reading about the E46 when it was launched, the designer (possibly Bangle?) saying that the front of the car was a face, the headlights were the eyes.

    If that was bangle, where did it all go wrong?

    The current breed of crossover SUVs with multiple stacked headlights just look jarring, like a person with 2 pairs of eyes.

    I grew up, the face of a car was headlight eyes, grille nose, and licenseplate mouth (works better with long european license plates, or a state with front plates). Though the last gen Mazda 3 had that silly smiley emoji mouth.

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