Those of us who can see often take our sight for granted. We walk down the street and whip our head around: Trying to suss out what that cool car is that just went by. Unfortunately, there are far too many people who lack what we're not even thinking about. One organization that's trying to help change that is the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology (DIO). As it is about eyes, as is design, it is perhaps not surprising that there is an annual fundraiser for the DIO that draws upon the participation of designers and others within the Detroit automotive community. The fundraiser is called "Eyes on Design," and its centerpiece is a car show that ranges from classic concours-type vehicles to hot rods to even Indy cars. This past June, Eyes on Design was hosted at the DaimlerChrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills.
During the event I had the opportunity to speak with Trevor Creed, senior vice president of Design at DCX. Of the car companies in town, DCX has long been lauded for its breakthrough designs. (And it is therefore not at all surprising that Tom Gale, who headed up Chrysler design when it was at the top of its game, when we all were talking about "cab-forward," was given special recognition at this year's event.) When I asked Creed about some of the differences between the cars of the earlier part of the 20th century and those that we have now, Creed noted something that I'd certainly never realized but once I heard it, am incapable of overlooking. The cars, especially of the 1930s and into the ‘40s, tend to be exceedingly narrow. Creed said that he wonders what determined the size of the cars, assuming that the people then and the people now are approximately the same size. He suggested that the stylists and designers of that period were still greatly influenced by the horse-drawn carriage. Still, he pointed out that overall there tends to be great proportions in those early vehicles. When I looked at some of the fenders of the cars of yore, it struck me that there was some awfully good forming going on back then. I happened to notice a 1909 Simplex Model 90 Tourabout, however, that is fitted with canvas fenders. I'm not suggesting that anyone would want to go back to having cloth body panels, but it got me to thinking about the technology deployed today to construct vehicles. By and large, it isn't a whole lot different than it was 100 years ago. With, of course, some exceptions. One hundred years ago they used more wood.
Creed observed, "If money was no object, you'd make cars out of carbon fiber. We know how. But the cost is prohibitive." There's the rub.
As I walked among the classic cars (and some of those that hope to be considered so in the time to come, like the Chrysler Crossfire and the Chevy SSR), I wondered about those early designers and manufacturers, those who were faced with creating what has become the auto industry. A large part of their prevailing paradigm, as Creed suggested, was the coach: Some of you may recall the Fisher Body logo, which was centered on a coach. Wood body panels gave way to steel. Wood was also used, early on, to stoke the furnaces that created the steel that was transformed into body panels. Certainly, the early designers didn't have to worry about things like crash ratings and CAFE. Their designs were in some ways less constrained than what designers can do today. But today's designers are not only working within those mandated and/or good-sense constraints (I don't think anyone can argue against safer vehicles), they are still working within the parameters of production methods that were put in place well before most of their parents were born. Stamp-and-weld was the order of the day then as it is now. And for the foreseeable future, that will undoubtedly be the case.
Which makes me wonder: is the status quo optimal, or just convenient? Only time will tell.