“Everyone’s doing it.”
That statement can serve proudly as the reason why fads become as widespread and prolific as they do, and why it takes so long for the hip-to-passé cycle to play itself out.
Hell, I’m still waiting for the neck beard/tattoo/slob look to die out, and that look is just ugly and stupid.
It’s no different with cars. In fact, it’s rampant in the auto industry.
The other day I found myself in a discussion with two fellow car buffs and this very subject came up.
Grilles, as you may have realized, are the new tailfins or decklid spoiler. Across the automotive landscape, cars – even stodgy low-end luxury sedans – are adopting gaping, wide, aggressive mouths. Think anything new from Lexus, the Toyota Camry/Avalon, or the new Mitsubishi Outlander (whose only change is a BIG NEW GRILLE).
My friend denounced the newly ubiquitous grille treatment he saw sweeping the world, but I just saw it a part of the inevitable evolution of design.
Throughout history, when one company makes a splash by going heavily in one direction, others often drop everything to hastily emulate the next big thing.
“Stop what you’re doing, Bob – we’re going in a new direction.”
“But we’re almost finished the project! We’ll be read to roll out in a few weeks!”
“Forget it, Bob. Big grilles went out with powdered wigs and smoking in elevators. They’re yesterday’s news. We’re hearing that fender skirts are coming back. It’s gonna be big, so get cracking. We want ours to be the biggest – don’t stop till they hit the ground.”
Design and styling conventions can define an era, especially in the auto world.
High-flying tailfins in the ’50s, ‘pony’ and muscle cars in the ’60s, baroque, vinyl-clad faux luxury in the ’70s, minivans and hatchbacks in the ’80s, SUVs in the ’90s – the list goes on.
Changes in actual styling are often quicker to be adopted, and dumped, simply because no company wants their products looking old. Think of the elimination of running boards (circa 1940-42), the proliferation of pillarless hardtops (c. 1955), the raised tailfin (c. 1957), quad headlights (c. 1958), compact car offerings (c. 1960) and the ditching of raised tailfins (c. 1960-62).
With all of these styling fads, however, there have been holdouts.
Ford really didn’t go all-in for the tailfin thing, leaving that party for GM and Chrysler. The stacked headlight motif of the mid-to-late 1960s (favoured by Plymouth and Ford) saw the last member of the Low-Priced Three (Chevy) call in sick.
This me-too phenomenon has its own dangers, though. Follow too close in the wake of the Next Big Thing, and you could find yourself pulled down when it all sinks.
Ford found that out when, after discovering the plans for the radically styled 1959 Chevrolet, it scrapped its planned 1960 models in favour of a production version of its Quicksilver design concept car (which contained elements similar to the Chevy).
The radical Chevy turned off many traditional buyers, while the boxy and conservative ’59 Ford sold well. The next year Ford was forced to roll out its new take on the ’59 Chevy even as Chevy was planning a return to ‘safe’ styling.
As soon as it became possible, Ford corrected its mistake and went the conservative route as well. Buyers returned.
Maybe one day we’ll see a backlash to big grilles, forcing automakers to revert back to their early ’90s designs (Front air slit? Check). Until then, open wide and enjoy the ride.