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Vanderbilt University

The American Automobile

The History and the Art of Automotive Design

By Mathis Chambers

MLAS 6100-15 The Meaning of Modern Art

December 12, 2016

Vanderbilt University students pursue all academic endeavors with integrity. They conduct themselves honorably, professionally, and respectfully in all realms of their studies in order to promote and secure an atmosphere of dignity and trust. The keystone of the honor system is self-regulation, which requires cooperation and support from each member of the University community

Terreos M. Chambers


When looking at the cars of today, it is easy to get excited about all of the sleek lines, colors, and features that they may consist of.  In order to truly appreciate today’s automobile, one must take a journey back to the early days of automotive design to see how far American automobiles have come.  In this paper, I will share the historical information regarding the design of automobiles beginning around the early part of the twentieth century.  I will further examine the history of automobiles and their unique designs leading up to today’s vehicles.  Information regarding early pioneers in the field of automotive design will also be included in this paper.  I intend to convey my opinion that there is an artistic element that is involved with automotive design.  Whereas, many people today may regard automobiles as works of art, the idea of the designer and or designers serving as artists that create these wonderful mechanical masterpieces can often be neglected.  This paper in conjunction with my PowerPoint presentation will hopefully persuade the reader of the paper that the designers of automobiles should be considered as artists that are on the same level of sculptors, painters, and other artistic craftsmen.  I will begin by walking the reader through some of the different design elements that were attributed to vehicles during their respective time periods.  I will then proceed to discuss the pioneers.  In conclusion, I will recap the information that has been shared and bring together the material to draw a conclusive response to the “argument” in this paper regarding considering automotive design as an actual art.  

We will begin the decade by decade look into the history of automotive styling by looking at the cars of the 1910’s.  Henry Ford is known as the most important pioneer in automobile history due to his concepts of applying an assembly line production process towards the creation of automobiles.  The first vehicle, the Model T, was immensely popular and sold millions of units between its inceptions in 1908 to its discontinuation in 1927.  The Model T served as a “model” for automobiles going forward.  The first Model T’s looked more like horse carriages as opposed to automobiles.  The features that created the horse carriage look included the lack of doors and windows.  The first Model T’s also did not have windshields which further supported the horse carriage look.  

The 1920’s automobiles had more of an elegant look them.  They cars were longer and mostly consisted of closed body designs.  The elegance of the 1920’s automobile fit in with that decade’s focus on class, elegance, and renaissance.  The majority of the cars during that decade had long 16-cylinder engines that required their having longer nosed bodies which were supported by curvaceous running boards.  Opulent paint jobs and enamel details became popular as the car designers tried to reflect the artistic inspirations of the day.  The paint jobs of many cars during the twenties involved a two tone design.  


Engineering advances that came during the thirties made cars easier to manufacture, lighter, and

structurally stronger.  The external aesthetics were also affected because features such as running

boards, fenders, and headlights began to be incorporated into the bodies.  The two tone paint job

became a thing of the past during the thirties.  The teardrop design became popular during the

thirties and family cars like the Cadillac Sixty Special offered it.  This design remained popular

over the course of the following decades.  Prior to the thirties, automobile design was reliant on

engineers that were focused on function and not necessarily on the looks of cars.  The market

ended up being more competitive and companies began placing greater emphasis on looks

(aesthetics) as a way to draw a level of distinction to their brand.  Designers were brought on to

focus on the colors of both the exterior and interiors of cars but eventually became involved with

every detail of the creation of cars


World War Two slowed down the production of automobiles; it also contributed to several car design innovations.  For example, Ponton styling which was a blend of fenders and running boards, and headlights, was prevalent in the styling of vehicles during the forties.  The popularity of the style lasted well into the sixties.  Ponton styling contributed to the bulging headlights and hoods that ran along a car’s surface which created a “strong” look to cars. The Studio System,

After WWII the approach to designing cars was changed in order to accommodate that huge pent up demand for automobiles.  Car companies that included General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors Corporation had teams of artists that worked in studios to simply draw cars.  These artists drew car parts, entire cars, and concepts that didn’t exist.  Their designs led to increased sales in both the fifties and sixties.  General Motors alone employed more than 1100 associates in their styling division.  Job designations ranged from chief designers to junior designers.  There were also modelers who produced 3d clay renderings of cars.  Many of the designers were influenced by things that were happening during that time period such as plans for space exploration.  You will notice that many cars from the 50’s and 60’s had things like jet bubble tops, push button consoles, and rocket fins.  The designers also carefully considered the surrounding in which car owners would find themselves in and wanted to make cars that appealed to them.


The cars of the fifties were brawnier looking.  Cars like the Chevy Corvette originated from this decade.  Brighter colors also began to show up due to auto designer’s experiments with colors.  The multi-colored look remained popular into the sixties.  The cars of the sixties are best represented by the introduction of the pony car.  Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs were examples of the new style during that time.  The pony cars had longer hoods and lower cabins which made them more compact.  The cars were given more horsepower which made them faster than their predecessors.  Designers began offering metallic colors for the first time which added sheen like exteriors to the cars.  

The cars of the seventies were affected by the economic problems during that decade that were a result of the oil embargo of the early seventies.  Muscle cars and other high performance vehicles began to take a back seat to monetary considerations.  This economic climate further impacted how consumers bought cars.  Considers for performance took a back seat to affordability.  Auto designers began to create smaller and more compact vehicles to meet this demand.  Previously, such cars were made in foreign countries, but Americans because of their taste for both the performance and looks of cars, did not have an active interest in creating smaller and more affordable cars.  Cars such as the Ford Pinto and AMC Gremlin became popular economy cars.  The larger bodied vehicles still remained a small market of buyers and so auto designers offered options like vinyl roofs and plush carpeting in the interiors of the cars.  A variety of colors from brighter colors like red to darker ones such as brown began to be offered during the seventies.

The autos of the eighties became dominated by a boxy design.   Customers became more concerned about fuel efficiency and safety.  Brighter colored paint jobs became less popular and metallic paints became the norm.  The interior designs of the cars became more important and the ergonomics of vehicles began to be studied more.  The auto designers became more concerned with how a car felt as opposed to how one looked.  The cars of the nineties allowed for curvier designs and the box shaped designs of the eighties took a back seat to smoother and refined lines of which the auto designers were striving for looks that were reminiscent of the sixties.

It is difficult for a person to convey a consistent theme to the designs of the cars that were built in the 2000’s.  It appears that designers tried to embrace many different concepts that contributed to a variety of themes.  The SUV although originating from previous decades, began to take a more dominant role in the lives of the automobile consumer.  To meet the demand for SUV’s, auto designers embraced many different forms, shapes, and styles to appeal to the SUV enthusiast.  The teardrop design appeared in SUVs such as the Lexus RX, while other SUV’s like Land Rovers maintained the boxy body designs that they kept for a period of over several decades.  

Most automotive designers remain anonymous due to their work in large designing sections of automotive manufacturers and it is because of often necessary secretive nature of the industry that many designers go unnoticed for their creations.  There are a few exceptions to this; people such as Harley J. Earl, Alfred P. Sloan, and Richard Teague are a few notable exceptions.  In the following paragraphs, I will briefly describe who these people were and how they were instrumental in the field of automotive design.  A note of interest includes the fact that some of the following people did not have to be designers in order to have an impact in the field of automotive design.  

Harley J. Earl was a business executive for General Motors whose career with the company originated in the design department.  Earl led the department that was known as the Art and Color section from its beginning in 1927 until his retirement.  I would be remiss if I neglected to include Earl in this paper on the background of automotive design.  Harley J. Earl’s career began in the field of coach building which was a trade that his family was largely involved in.  For example, his father owned a coach building business where your Harley was able to develop his skills such as drafting and designing.  Harley’s career began when another company purchased his father’s business.  The company which happened to be a local Cadillac dealer, gave Harley a position over its body shop that created designs for cars.  An encounter with Alfred P. Sloan Jr. who was the President of General Motors resulted in Harley’s serving as a design consultant for Cadillac.  Harley’s relationship with Cadillac further resulted in the creation of the 1927 Lasalle.  Harley’s involvement with General Motors also resulted with his being appointed by Alred P. Sloan as the director of a newly formed department that was to be recognized as the Art and Colour Section (later Styling section).  This appointment allowed Harley to lead a team of fifty designers and draftsmen who involved in the color and body design work for all General Motor product lines.  This position gave Harley an immense amount of influence in the automotive field, but he was also met with a great opposition internally from the engineering department at General Motors.  The opposition was attributed to the engineer’s dismissive view of a department regarding the styling of cars.  In their view, the engineer’s believed that cars were only to be built to serve the purpose of being a method of transportation for people.  Designing and styling cars to be appealing to customers was not considered important during that time.  Harley’s career as an automotive designer came around during the Great Depression which contributed to a poor automotive market.  Nevertheless and despite the poor automotive market, Harley was called on by Cadillac to develop a specialty model which was called the Cadillac Aero-Dynamic coupe.  The car turned out to be popular and the executives as General Motors became convinced that the design department was necessary going forward as it pertained to automotive development.  Harley proceeded to go over to General Motor’s Buick division where he developed the Buick Y-Job in 1938.  The Y-Job was significant because  it was a convertible that appeared longed that it actually was due to the styling techniques that Earl applied to its exterior.  The Y-Job featured innovations such as a convertible top that was concealed by a metal cover.  The concealment of the convertible top was done automatically which was an exciting innovation during that time.  The Y-Job further featured windows that were electric and although such windows are taken granted for today, they were exciting additions to the automotive field during that time.  Harley’s contributions to the Y-Job cemented his status with General Motors and the direction of its design team, and he was eventually elected to the role of vice president of the General Motors Corporation in 1940.  Soon thereafter, automobile production declined due to the events of World War II, but Harley became inspired by P-38 Lighting fighter plane which allowed him to create Cadillacs with jet-like features.   The 1948 Cadillac had tailfins which were popular for automobiles for the following two decades.  Harley Earl eventually become intrigued with the idea of designing and developing “dream cars” and he focused the later part of his career towards the development of these cars which were designed by the Styling department.  Harley J. Earl reached General Motor’s mandatory retirement age of 65 and handed over his position to a mentee of his.  Harley J. Earl’s “mark” on automotive design is without measure.  I will include examples of vehicles that Earl was involved with before retiring following this paragraph.


Cadillac Orleans

Cadillac LeMans

Oldsmobile Starfire

Pontiac Parisienne

Chevrolet Corvette


Cadillac El Camino

Oldsmobile Cutlass

Buick Wildcat II


Chevrolet Corvette Corvair

Chevrolet Corvette Nomad


Cadillac Eldorado Brougham

Buick Wildcat III

Oldsmobile Delta

Pontiac Strato-Star

Chevrolet Biscayne


Buick Centurion

Chevrolet Impala

Firebird II

Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Town Car

A detailed history regarding automotive design would not be complete without mentioning Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr.  Born in New Haven Connecticut in 1875, Sloan studied engineering at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute before transferring to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Sloan was the owner of a roller and ball bearing company that was purchased by General Motors.  Sloan served as a vice president for General Motors before progressing to President and then eventual Chairman.  Although Sloan served primarily in business executive roles, he was instrumental in automotive design due to multiple decisions that he made during his time at General Motors.  What may be described as Sloan’s biggest contribution to the automotive design industry is the concept of planned obsolescence.  Planned Obsolescence is a practice of developing cars that have annual model-year design changes that would compel car owners to consider purchasing new ones as replacements.  This approach that implemented by Sloan proved to be a radical concept to the car industry.  It was critics of Sloan’s that coined the term planned obsolescence versus Sloan’s preference for the term dynamic obsolescence.  In contrast to Henry Ford who saw little reason to create annual changes to the Ford Motor Company’s Model-T, Sloan saw the implementation of planned obsolescence as being an impetus for increasing vehicle sales at General Motors.  Sloan was proven to be correct when General Motor’s sales surpassed that of Ford’s in 1931 several years after Sloan introduced the concept to General Motors.   General Motors proceeded to dominate the auto industry in the years ahead while becoming the largest corporation in the world at that time.  

Richard A. Teague was a designer that began his career as a technical illustrator of aircraft.  It noted as being a remarkable that Teague had such an illustrious career in the automotive design industry which was later carried on by his son due to the fact that he had endured several tragedies in his life that involved automobiles before he began his career in design.  The first tragedy involved a car accident in a Ford that left his mother an invalid, and caused fractures to his body, and permanent blindness to right eye.  Two years later, Teague’s father was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve.  These tragedies did not deter Teague from eventually pursuing a career in automotive design.  Teague went back and forth during his career going from the aircraft industry to the automotive and it was George Romney (Former 2012 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s father) of AMC that hired Teague.  At the time AMC was an upstart auto company, and Teague was instrumental towards establishing the company.  Two years after joining AMC, Teague became the company’s chief executive for design work.  Teague proceeded to stay on at AMC until retiring in 1983.  Teague’s first AMC design came in 1964 when he introduced a Tarpon show car that eventually made it into production. The car was not a big seller, but it was and intriguing design concept for another reason which involved the minimal cost that it took to build the car.  AMC was placed in the unfortunate position of having to compete against what was known the big three auto manufacturers. AMC did not have the financial resources and to compete with the larger car companies and so Teague had to be creative with his auto designs while maintaining focus on minimal cost applied towards creating the cars.  For example, Teague’s design team took existing cars in the early sixties and retooled them into new creations.  The design team’s efforts resulted in the eventual creation of the AMC Marlin and Tarpon show car.  Later model cars created by Teague and his team include the AMC Pacer and Gremlin lines, and  while being on the receiving end of jokes today, were well received by the general public and proved to be successful lines for AMC that required minimal cost to build.  Other examples of this cost focus include the AMC Sportster and Javelin.  AMC was a company that struggled financially for years before being bought out and absorbed by Chrysler.  .  Other designs that Teague created include the Jeep Cherokee, AMC Pacer, AMC Matador coupe, and the infamous AMC Gremlin.  

It is often asserted by auto industry experts that AMC would have folded much sooner if it were not for the designs of Richard Teague

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