Jukebox on Wheels

Studebaker's designer and stylist expresses his irrepressible opinion of the American automobile today, and of what it may be fifty years hence
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In every phase of the automotive industry certain factors have been more important than all others in relation to the way the automobile has looked. Phase One is really the Ford story. Function and production were the most important considerations. The automobile was an invention, and it looked like one.

Phase Two is marked by the introduction of the steel body in mass production, and appearance became a major factor for the first time. Walter Chrysler discovered that robin's-egg blue helped sales; so all other companies tried to top Chrysler in styling. It was an era of individuality and healthy competition.

By the time of World War II, the industry had reached a point where many factors had leveled out: body types, price differences, market potential, manufacturing methods, advertising, technical developments (at least, those released to the public). Independents believed that styling, with improved function, would not only sell well but create good will for the small company.

The style factors were: good visibility, compactness, lighter weights. Big companies jumped on the "style" bandwagon, but what so-called functional factor did they select? Bulk—a sorry choice! Bulk gets to be habit-forming, and bulk means weight. To this manufacturers added "flash." So they got into a spiral of increased weight and ornamentation. This led to the horsepower rat-race and the chrome gadget rat-race—a costly combination. As a result, standardization—a byproduct of mass production has established as today's dreamboat a vehicle that's too big for most people, too expensive, too costly to maintain, and too gaudy.

Some might say that this apparent wastefulness is indeed a blessing—that it brings about the use of more materials, more employment, prosperity. I believe the theory would be even more valid if the industry's basic product were a model — cheaper, more economical, and therefore available to more people—within reach of the wide mass market that lies at the bottom layer of the consumers' pyramid. Instead, what have we got? The total loss of distinction among all automobiles plus the finest state of jitters in the history of the automotive industry.

Designers today are briefed to "give the public what it wants," and "what the public wants" is being translated into the flashy, the gadgety, the spectacular. I refuse to believe that today's automobiles represent, stylewise, "what the public wants" any more than they reflect what we in the automotive industry want. But the result of this mistaken opinion is vulgarity and blatancy. Instead of the automobile's expressing advancement, the story is now one of external bric-a-brac. This reflects a distorted notion of what is competitive.

I think that vulgarity is dangerous for many reasons. The American automobile has changed the habits of every member of modern society. In the past fifty years it has become the symbol, all over the world, of American industrial genius and enterprise. It has become so potent a force that it is very nearly the symbol of American thought and morals to people who don't know us. It is more than an object to be sold for money. The automobile is an American cultural symbol.

"Some culture," one might say as one watches the sad parade of the 1955 models. The world will soon forget that under these gaudy shells are concealed masterpieces of inspired technology. What we see today looks more like an orgiastic chrome plated brawl.

There was another great American symbol, probably exported by the GI—the jukebox. Today's jukebox moves! The automobile. This year's production includes two-tone and three-tone jukeboxes. We are probably going to have a fluorescing six-passenger jukebox before long. Seriously, aren't manufacturers doing disservice to this country if they mass-present the automobile in such misleading vulgarity? Aren't they depressing the level of American taste by saturating the market with bad taste? Is it necessary?

This point has always interested me: Big companies make two conflicting statements --"We give the public what it wants" and, also, "Whatever design we choose becomes the accepted style standard through saturation." I do not agree with this last statement. But, if it is right, isn't it the company's cultural responsibility to choose a high standard instead of a low one? I realize that I am setting myself up as an arbiter of taste, but I have helped develop a profession in this country that sells taste.

This situation in the automobile industry is the more tragic because it is so unnecessary. Without doubt there are sufficient design taste and talent in the United States to correct the situation. But someone must demand better taste and not just better sales.

I am told that cab drivers have the highest rate of duodenal ulcers. I'll bet a chrome-plated carrot that automotive stylists have them beat. Every really creative and imaginative stylist and many engineers I know seem to be frustrated in their work today. The near-shattering pressure of their repressions is relieved in constant doodling — blue-sky dreaming. They rush home and make scale models in the attic. Or they long for the weekend to go road-racing in the old red Isotta-Fraschini or the souped-up pre-war Ford.

We know that the men at the top of the industry are well aware of their economic responsibilities, of their vital roles in the nation's economy. What about their cultural responsibilities? Is it responsible to camouflage one of America's most remarkable machines as a piece of gaudy merchandise? Is it possible that they don't know the merchandise is gaudy?

I don't think the automotive industry in general is showing faith in good taste today. With rare exceptions, it cannot be accused of backing design sophistication. One shocking condition is the servile copying of one company's product by the others. It seems that giants in industry are taking refuge in sameness. This is just the time when they ought to be pioneering while they have the money, the momentum, and the market. This "management by escapism" is usually a manifestation of a fearful and insecure society. Perhaps we should ask the teenagers—the consumers of tomorrow. They love automobiles—especially ones that look like automobiles. Today these kids rib what used to be the family's proudest possession. Pop buys a chrome-plated "barge" just like the one he traded in. It's a wise kid who knows his own barge.

Fixing responsibility for the present state of design and styling this year is a tricky business. It probably starts with someone's deciding that the American public really likes vulgarity. However, numbers of men in a company do decide to give the public what it is supposed to want, in spite of their own consciences in the matter. Hesitation and doubt then creep into the whole design-engineering-sales team. The result is just what you'd expect—safe, imitative, over-decorated chariots, with something for everyone laid over a basic formula design that is a copy of someone else's formula design. Form, which should be a clean-cut expression of mechanical excellence, has become sensuous and organic.

Progressive management may realize that it is losing contact with a segment of consumers and that, however spectacular the sales, the company is losing popularity. This unpopularity has not yet reduced sales. But I think resentment is growing. And resentment is never an asset.

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