Since their mass popularization around the turn of the twentieth century, cars have been an extension of artistic expression within the current cultural zeitgeist. In fact, you can trace the entire evolution of mass-market automotive design and draw parallels to relevant social trends, ideals, and attitudes of recent eras. Read on to discover the many ways popular car styles reflect the times of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Paint Colors & The Economy
Have you ever noticed the onslaught of white, black, and gray or silver automobiles on the roads today? What happened to colorful, vibrant, eye-catching paint jobs and exterior designs? You might glimpse the occasional blue or red coupe, but the days of extravagant shades of pearlescent greens, purples, and more are gone. Ultimately, many industry officials and economists believe trends in automotive paint preferences almost always reflect the current economic conditions.
1920’s Economy Boom
For example, automobiles manufactured in America in the 1920s featured newly developed DuPont company paint coatings that often boasted colorful shades and designs. Non-coincidentally, the American economy was also experiencing a massive boom that established a stronger middle class full of consumers who could now afford a family automobile—among many other essentials and amenities!
The Great Depression
But when the Great Depression struck in 1929, the middle class was devastated, and many Americans were forced to downsize. Even families with the means to live relatively comfortably avoided lavish or flashy purchases in fear of appearing overly haute or ignorant to the times. In response, automotive companies found greater success selling brown, dark green, and otherwise dull-colored cars throughout the 30s and 40s.
Recent Economic Trends
American automobiles wouldn’t truly start embracing extravagant colors and designs again until the early 50s when the post-war economy and increase of social programs rebuilt the middle class. And you can see this exact same correlation between car colors and the economy in any era. For instance, futuristic and chrome-like designs were extremely popular in the late 90s when many Americans benefited from the Tech-Boom. Conversely, matte black became immensely common in the 2010s following the 2008 recession, showing once again society’s tendency to avoid opulence in mass times of economic struggle.
Exterior Stylings & Popular Media
For the past 100 years, car design has primarily fluctuated between boxy and sleek styles. Interestingly, many believe that popular media of various eras directly impacts the “boxy vs. sleek” trend. Think about the decades where futuristic cars dominated the market: the Plymouth XNR 1960s concept car, the Delorean and similar designs of the 80s, the “spaceship” trims of the Ferrari F50 or Lamborghini Diablo from the 90s, or the many modern electric vehicles of today all probably come to mind. What do all of these periods have in common? In essence, a cultural interest in space exploration, science fiction, and the future!
Streamlined vs. Boxy Designs
In the 60s, NASA and the worldwide space race defined the entire decade, and, in response, consumers flocked to futuristic automobiles with designs similar to the Plymouth XNR. Popular media throughout the 80s and 90s includes Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, and many other sci-fi franchises. And today, space exploration is once again part of the cultural zeitgeist.
A perfect example of this societal reflection is the evolution of the Ford Bronco. Once a boxy and large SUV, modern Ford Broncos are mid-size 4x4s with sleek and modern trims. Notably, it’s doubtful that overtly-boxy cars will regain popularity, as many manufacturers now know streamlined designs often create more fuel-efficient automobiles.
There’s no denying the direct relationship between social trends and the most popular automotive designs of the era. Importantly, recognizing that our society reflects all aspects of our lives gives us a greater appreciation for finding the art in the mundane—especially concerning cars!