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Design History of Automotive Streamlining

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The History of Automotive Streamlining

With fighter jet-style air intake ports, smooth body lines flowing up and around a gracefully curved canopy, ending with a pair of rocket-like tailfins, streamlining has been an intrinsic automotive design feature almost since day one. Most noticeable since the thirties, and for a variety of reasons, automobile streamlining has been an esthetic feature which has seen a cyclical popularity spanning the decades. Every social or economic era has had its corresponding manifestation in automotive design, reflecting how society has viewed itself, from spirited, modern and affluent, to cautious, practical and austere.

1925 Minerva picture

Industry was booming in America in the twenties, with ample food, good wages, and plenty of jobs. The automobiles of the Roaring Twenties expressed the upbeat attitude that followed the First World War with exuberant designs of long touring cars with vertical windscreens and long running boards. Design of automobiles in the twenties was nothing more than fashioning metal boxes for the engine compartment, the passenger cabin, and the luggage compartment. The main compartments were attached to a frame, and any accessory components, like headlights, fenders, and spare tire, would be attached to the main compartments.

1934 Tatra 77 picture

The Depression had its influence as auto designers struggled to rescue a drowning automotive market by offering vehicles that appeared to be utilitarian in design with decreased drag and better mileage. The idea of streamlining the exterior of an automobile in order to reduce wind resistance first appears sometime in 1934. The laws of physics declare that as an automobile increases in speed, forces of friction, including wind resistance increase to oppose forward force. Chrysler in the thirties produced the Airstream line of vehicles, while the Tatra T77 from the Czech Republic, with an air-cooled engine behind the passenger cabin, claims to have been the world's first production aerodynamic car in 1934. Economics had a hand in the effective use of streamlining when Citroen developed the first monocoque car body as a method to reduce a car's weight in 1938.

1936 Chrysler Airstream picture 1936 Citroen monocoque picture

Also during this era, the Art Deco movement matured and a parallel movement called Streamline was influenced by the modern aerodynamic designs emerging from advancing technologies in aviation, ballistics, and other fields requiring high velocity. The intrinsic esthetic beauty of shapes and volumes that were tested in wind tunnels, used in aircraft, rockets and other ordinance was recognized as a new modernist esthetic and was embraced by product designers who integrated it into the design of common appliances, tools and vehicles. In the thirties, even refrigerators looked like they could fly.


1937 Talbot Lago picture

World War 2 also had an effect on car design, with car designs emulating aerodynamic fighter aircraft with tailfins, air intake ports, and jet canopy-like windshields creating frenzy in the post-war era. No era has since surpassed the fifties as the quintessential decade of the tailfin. The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz has the unique distinction of holding that record, "Tallest Tailfin in Production."

1959 Cadillac Eldorado Mirage fighter jet picture

Beginning in the early eighties, after a period of post-industrial era austerity, yuppies with new wealth sought a way to show off their success without the political faux pas of conspicuous consumption. Thus the auto industry reverted to functional, aerodynamically-designed cars, reminiscent of those in the 1930s, that reduced wind resistance and improved gas mileage. A missing link right from the Bauhaus era is the 2001 Audi TT Coupe. An example of the effort to add aerodynamic substance rather than chrome or fins was the "Cab Forward" designs that were drafted by Chrysler, which later became their trademark design element for all of their vehicles in the mid-nineties. A prime example of this design, boasting a beautiful yet aerodynamic profile, was the 1996 Dodge Intrepid ES , which looked like it was moving, even at a standstill.

2001 Audi TT picture 1996 Dodge Intrepid picture

Whether you are a casual car buff or a rabid automotive design aficionado, anyone can appreciate the symbiotic relationship modern society has with car designs over the decades. As a barometer of the human condition at any given era, or as a catalyst for economic change, automotive design, streamlining being a modern mile marker, is an essential yardstick of human industrial history.

by John Prinz

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