Design May 2002

Spring Cars

As the weather grows more seductive, so do the new-model automobiles

When the new Mercedes SL500 morphs from a hard-topped coupe into an open roadster, it is a moment of mechanical transcendence. Like an Olympic diver, the car's curving rear window seems to strike a pose in midair, and then it tucks itself gracefully into the roof unit and both disappear into the car's trunk.

This transformation is more than ingenious—it is a revelation of the car's design. You see that the line of the car's roof is not merely an aesthetic gesture; it's what allows this beautiful roof to disappear so efficiently. Here form follows function, and induces delight.

This muscular two-seater is the perfect car for spring. It's seductive and exciting, self-indulgent and impractical, fresh and evocative—a high-powered augmentation of animal spirits.

The SL500, at $85,000, is a very expensive and wonderful toy. Before cars were everyday necessities for nearly everyone, they were toys for the rich. But don't all the rest of us want to have a touch of the toy in our autos? Cars introduced in the spring and the summer aren't necessarily better than those introduced at other times of year, but they do tend to be more fun. As the weather warms up in much of the United States, drivers are more likely to respond to the romance of the open road—even if most of their driving is on blocked freeways and clogged arterials.

"You want to sit in the car with the sun on your face," says Fred Suckow, the marketing manager for Nissan's forthcoming 350Z, which revives a fondly remembered but recently dormant line of sports cars. "It's not just how the car looks but how the clouds and landscape are reflected on the surface of the car and how you feel you look in the driver's seat." Good-weather months are the best time, he says, for introducing good-time cars.

Typically, models that have become outmoded, bloated, or boring are reinvented and revivified in the spring and summer. (Drivers might hope that the same magic can work on them, too.) Examples include the Volkswagen Beetle in 1998, the Ford Thunderbird last year, and the Mercedes SL and Nissan Z this year. Sometimes, too, whole new concepts are introduced, as happened two springs ago with the Chrysler PT Cruiser—a minivan disguised as a 1930s getaway car. That season also brought us the Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle whose industrial, ugly-and-proud-of-it look failed to excite the youthful clientele for which it was intended. Not every spring car is a winner. But even the Aztek, with its built-in tent and configurable interior, was more than just another boring car.

Perhaps the prototype for all spring introductions was the first Ford V-8, which came off the line in March of 1932. It brought unprecedented power and speed to the American mainstream. And it truly was a great getaway car: the bank robber Clyde Barrow said so in a fan letter to Henry Ford.

But the car that really defines the spring genre is another Ford: the first Mustang, the one that is remembered as the 1964 1/2. In order to get the car maximum attention, Ford tied its introduction to the opening of the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the gimmick worked: the Mustang made the covers of both Time and Newsweek. Its arrival coincided with the graduation from high school of one of the earliest classes of Baby Boomers, and thus with the beginning of the phenomenon that we refer to as "the sixties." It cheered up a population that had been traumatized by President John F. Kennedy's assassination the previous November. More than a car, it was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.

And yet the Mustang was little more than a gussied-up version of the Falcon, Ford's rather austere compact. During the early 1960s Detroit auto makers produced compact cars to compete with European imports, but most of the small cars were rather dull, for the most part because the companies still preferred to sell larger, more profitable models. The Mustang was a semi-compact that spoke of pleasure, not self-denial. Its styling was simple but sporty. And it proved to be a very profitable car, because the average buyer added about $1,000 worth of options to its $2,368 base price. It broke sales records because it was something new, and because people wanted it.

At the time of the Mustang's debut virtually all American cars were introduced in the autumn—the annual model change. In the 1920s Alfred Sloan, the mastermind of General Motors, pioneered this practice of updating the company's established brands; each of these had its own class association and design characteristics. Some people saw being a Buick or a Dodge driver as a lasting kind of identity, almost like being a Presbyterian or a Baptist. The designs were varied subtly from year to year, with major changes every three years.

The unveiling of the new models became a coast-to-coast event. Dealers would whitewash their windows so that the appearance of the new cars could be kept secret until the appointed day. Magazines offered sneak peeks, often with important details masked, and the entire culture—including children—participated in a ritual of anticipation.

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