Automotive design: the evolution of car lines from the 1950’s until today


By popular demand following the article on the Citroen AMI and also after your suggestions, I ventured into some research and delved into the world of the automobile.

Obviously to not lose myself in the sea of information out there, I focused mainly on the aesthetic point of view, with particular attention to the field of automotive design, which really intrigued me.

It may seem trivial to mention this but automotive design, together with the technical characteristics of the car has evolved over time. What I would like to do now is go through the highlights of this evolution. This is a journey starting from the 1950’s, a period in which cars became less of a luxury and more available for the masses.

I’ll give you a little preview: as you will see, it’s a series of round trips that starts with curved lines and arrives at square lines, or vice versa.
For each period, which roughly corresponds with a decade, I have chosen cars that I personally feel are representative of that period – or simply put – have taken my eye.

The 1950’s: generous and feminine curves

In this particular decade the United States dictated the main trends over the many western countries, from a cultural point and beyond. The curves of Marylin Monroe make men and women fall in love, rock’n’roll plays from the radio and the desire for change begins to be felt. 

James Dean and his Porsche Speedster.
The Fiat Multipla.
The Jaguar C-type and the Mercedes 300SL, with its particularity of the "gull-wing" doors that enriches the overall look which is already extremely elegant and refined due to the lines of the bodywork.
The Ford Thunderbird, a curvy champion of selling, and the Cadillac Series 62.

The 1960’s: boom and scenographic design

The 1960’s, we know, are the years of rebirth and economic miracles. The cinema increasingly becomes a point of reference for fashion and trends. Advertising pushes forward, Pop Art fills the gap between museums and celebrities. The dolce vita becomes synonymous with lifestyle. 

Truly incredible years: for design, growth is palpable and also generally for all art forms.

The Triumph TR3 in La Dolce Vita
The Jaguar E-Type, Diabolik’s car, characterised by its particularly sinuous lines. A panther by night.
The legendary Fiat 500.
The Morgan Plus 8

The 1970’s: the beauty of contrasts

The 1970’s, compared to the previous years, you could think of them as dark years, just remember the terrorist attacks and the oil crises. Even art isn’t able to offer relief: it’s no longer for everyone, it becomes introspective and conceptual. As an example, body art and performance becomes more extreme and ephemeral. 

Almost as if to compensate for this social darkness, the cars often were made with shiney chrome and bright colours: the surface area of glass increases.

In these years, also as a consequence of the energy crisis, car design becomes more rational: the lines change, they become progressively sharper and we begin to glimpse the trend that will be in the following decade. This can also be explained by the need to reduce production costs: now the key word is utility.

The taxi Checker A-11 of Taxi driver.
The Alfetta, a beautiful example of curved lines which integrate with broken lines.
The Cadillac Deville and the Chevrolet Camaro.
The Fiat Ritmo
The Citroën DS.

The 1980’s: shoulder pads and masculine lines

The trend that began in the 1970’s reaches its peak in this decade: the lines become decidedly more square and sharp, this time it seems to evoke the masculine body

Even on the catwalk, women with decidedly wild and aggressive hairstyles, dresses with huge shoulder pads and generally oversized clothes, as if to symbolise their emancipation.

The Fiat Panda, here customized by Garage Italia.

The Fiat Panda! I admit it, I couldn’t wait to get to this point in order to mention the name of Giorgetto Giugiaro, who won one of his five Compasso d’Oro in 1981, thanks to the clean and marked lines of this legendary car.

The Delorean from Back To The Future.
The Porsche 959. Legendary, of which only 292 examples were produced between 1986 and 1988. I believe that this car represents the electronic innovation, but not only that in this period: it has really particular lines in which the design has been optimised from an aerodynamic point of view.
The Lancia Delta.
The Toyota Corolla GT.
The BMW M3 and the Golf GT.

The 1990’s: sophisticated lines and technology

In these years technology has made great strides and design has become more expert and also harmonious. The lines do become softer but not quite like we saw in the 1950’s. They are more sophisticated and respectful of aerodynamics: allowing cars to be faster and consume less.. 

In short, in this decade we begin to see the fruit of many years of experimentation of the fashions and trends of the past years.

The Lotus Esprit of Pretty Woman.
The Mercedes 500E.
The Mazda RX7, the Nissan 300ZX and the Jaguar XJ200.
The Ferrari 500.
The Lamborghini Diablo.

The decade of the year 2000: innovation and revival

The 2000’s are synonymous with bewilderment and insecurity, with terrorism and wars: the shock of 11th September – with the long term consequences of which we all know – waking everyone from a dream.
This decade – however – also means innovation. In particular, I’m thinking about the world of technology and communication. After getting through the millenium bug unscathed, extraordinary things happened. Among the many events that could be mentioned, here are some: 4th February 2004 Facebook was born, 14th February 2005 there was also Youtube and 29th June 2007 Apple launched the first model of the iPhone. From the automotive point of view, the Smart car brought an example of novelty introducing the concept of the city Microcar.

Another side of innovation is linked to environmental issues, which are beginning to become important: the response from the world of the automobile comes at the beginning of the decade with the hybrid, I’m talking about the Toyota Prius, a breakthrough with soft lines.

Innovation can also mean reanimation of old models and ideas, but updated and improved: cars appear on the market that reproduce and evoke the style of iconic cars of the past, what we could say – their grandparents!

The Mercedes Class S in The devil wears Prada.
The Toyota Prius.
The new 500 (my car), the Smart and the Mini.
The Bugatti Veyron Pur Sang and the Rolls Royce Phantom VII.
The Ford Mustang designed by Giugiaro.

The decade of the year 2010: strong determination

We are approaching our time and in any case a century seems to have passed!

The decade of the year 2010 is particular and full of determination. There are continuing concerns with the crisis of 2008, ISIS and terrorism, the earthquakes in Emilia Romagna and in central Italy, the resignation of the Pope, the Wikileaks scandal and lots more, it didn’t stop: it demonstrated the ability to deal with many different situations.

Speaking of cars, we could almost say that the collective energy released in dealing with these different problems is reflected in the massive spread of the SUV, which means Sport Utility Vehicle, synonymous with power and resolve but also with style.

The BMW X5-E70 in Locke.
The Alfa-Romeo Stelvio, the Porsche Cayenne and the Range Rover Velar.
The Audi A4.
The BMW I8 and the Aston Martin DB10.
The Tesla Model 3.

Tomorrow is already here

Yes, today? In which direction are we headed now?

What can we say, Elon Musk surprises us once again with this totally electric and extreme design car, inspired by the film Blade Runner.

I think you understand what I’m talking about: amongst other models, I leave you with the new hyper square Tesla Cybertruck.

The Tesla Cybertruck inspired from Blade Runner.
The Aston Martin Rapid-E.
The Maserati Ghibli.
The BMW I4 (on sale in 2022), the Audi E-Tron GT (on sale in 2021) and the Jaguar XJ (on sale in 2021).
The Rivian R1T (on sale in 2021) and two concept cars: the Honda Augmented Driving Concept and the Mercedes Vision AVTR.
The Tesla Cybertruck (orderable, distributed in 2022).

Well, my research into the evolution over time of the lines of the automobile ends with these cars. It’s been a long journey, with many stops, which I hope has given you inspiration and a chance to remember times gone by. Who knows how many love stories started on the seats of the cars that I have just mentioned… Let me know what you think, maybe even some personal stories, as long as it’s publishable! 🙂

So, did you like this excursus in the world of cars? What is your favorite model? Do you have iconic and representative cars to add? You know, I’m curious: leave a comment or write me at [email protected].

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