The History of Car Design


Car design is the styling of the exterior and interior of an automobile that marries the look of the vehicle with its mechanical components. Guided by the rule that form follows function, automotive designers ensure that the mechanical and electronic components perform properly and efficiently in an aesthetically pleasing package.

Horse-drawn era

  • Following the inception of the automobile in 1886, automakers relied on horse-drawn coachbuilders to design the bodies. The automaker manufactured the chassis, drivetrain and cowl and then turned the vehicle over to the coachbuilder. Virtually all mass-produced automobile deisgns through the end of World War I were based on the horse-drawn carriage.

Planned obsolescence

  • Perhaps the most dramatic change in automotive design occurred in 1924 when General Motors' chief Alfred P. Sloan devised the "planned obsolescence" policy. He devised a strategy that required GM designers to implement annual model restylings with major design overhauls every four years to encourage car owners to buy new models.


  • Chrysler engineer Carl Breer tinkered with aerodynamics in the early 1930s. He sought to apply aircraft design to the automobile by using wind tunnels to gauge drag. He developed the 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow that employed aircraft technology. He used unibody construction to strengthen the car's body. But automakers preferred body-on-frame building because single-unit unibodies made it economically impractical to overhaul styling under the planned obsolescence strategy.

Art Deco Era

  • The Airflow's look was heavily influenced by the Art Deco architectural and industrial design movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco and later the Streamline Moderne era transformed the automobile from a box on four wheels to streamlined cars that employed functional design and resisted unnecessary ornamentation. Sweeping hoods with flowing chrome jetting from front to rear, "fastback" styling and lower profiles were used.

Postwar Eera

  • The Airflow failed to catch on with the public, but it set the stage for Streamline Moderne styling to thrive from 1936 to 1941 with a no-nonsense form-follows-function philosophy. But after World War II Americans, who had suffered four years of rationing, wanted bigger more flashy cars. General Motors obliged with chrome-laden behemoths that eschewed the simple but efficient styling of Streamline Moderne. Planned obsolescence was rigorously enforced.

Earl and Exner

  • GM's Harley Earl and Virgil Exner were the most influential designers of the era. They engaged in a decade-long battle to best each other with more elaborate tailfins. Earl saw the tailfin as a marketing ploy to attract buyers. Exner believed fins improved the road handling of the car. Exner was not far off. The fin eventually evolved into the rear spoiler to control the rear end at high speeds.

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  • Photo Credit Rennett Stowe, Chrysler LLC, General Motors, ChiemseeMan, Randy Stern, Kroelleboelle, IFCAR
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