The automobile comprises of many different elements. Like any three dimensional compositions, it has a form, shape, surfaces, and lines on those surfaces which give it a specific character. On a simple note, however, cars are just differently-shaped boxes on wheels. In some design circles, they are even referred to as one-box, two-box, three-box, etc. Conventionally, cars consist of a greenhouse or the cabin, an elongated front for the hood and engine bay, four wheels, and a hatch or trunk at the rear. However, modern technology has pushed forward the envelope of vehicle packaging, and one may not stick to the typical layouts of the vehicle design.
Of all significant technological developments, ranging from the first satellite to man’s first step on the moon and many others, the automobile has come the farthest in evolution. Although its inception took place in the late eighteen hundreds, the automobile did not see production for nearly two decades. The first mass-produced car was built between 1901 and 1905, by a man named Eli Olds, and was called the Oldsmobile. Over eighteen thousand of them were produced, and Oldsmobile became the largest manufacturer of its time. Within a few years, however, a new name had risen to the top of the automotive production industry – Henry Ford. His first creation – the Model A gained almost as much popularity as the Oldsmobile but needed to evolve further. In 1908 the Model T was launched, which claimed the title of the world’s largest selling car at the time, having sold fifteen million units, each for just US$ 290. This marked the beginning of the age of automobiles.
In 1927, a man named Harley Earl set up the first styling studio ever, while working for the General Motors automobile company. The division was set up as a colour and trim section and began with just fifty employees. Earl had been thinking along the lines of keeping customer interest alive and active in the automobiles that the company produced, and the very first step was to give them options in colours and fit-finish. Within a few years, the fifty-employee section grew to house fourteen hundred people, making it the first official design studio of an automotive company in the world. This led the world to turn to automobiles on a much larger scale, thus sending their sales sky-high.
By the end of WWII, a new age had dawned in the industry, and the most significant changes became visible in automobiles. Better, stronger and lighter materials that could be shaped according to the will and were being used for the construction of automobiles, making further progress in design and styling possible. This brought in the era of tail-fins. Designers all across the United States started taking inspiration from planes and fighter jets, as they wanted their cars to look fast. Thus grew the popularity of swept rear ends and aeroplane-like fins and tails on automobiles.
Europe was moving in its design direction. Their cars were not just pretty but were built to be fast. The LeMans had inspired every European car builder to push their cars faster than ever before, thus beginning the era of sports cars. Alongside, two automakers had decided to make their automobiles compact and people-friendly. They designed their cars in such a way that the engine and wheel placement allowed more room on the inside for passenger comfort and luggage. One of them came to be known as Volkswagen-the peoples’ car, and the other as Mini.
By the sixties, cars had diversified into segments and classes, and the most popular class then was the sports car. Where the European craze for circuit racing had led to the birth of Ferrari, Alfa-Romeo, Renault and others, the American obsession with power and speed led to the birth of iconic cars like the Corvette, the Mustang and the Pontiac.
As is the case with any technological development, the faster its exclusivity wanes, the harder it is pushed further to stay ahead of the competition. As performance and speed became a necessity for modern automobiles, the fastest wanted to go even faster. By seventies, the supercar was born. It was a whole new breed of automobile. As tools for pushing the envelopes of speed, performance, excitement and thrill, supercars were all about calculated precision. Built to be more powerful and faster than any average production car, their designs were straight out of science fiction. The stuff of fantasy for the common man, supercars brought back the sex-appeal and the exclusivity that only the wealthy had once enjoyed. Companies realised that though very few could afford them, the very association with the brands that built such machines made people feel special. Every time a new product was offered in the market or crossed the finish line first at some major sporting event, it helped push the sales of other models by the manufacturer, by giving the people a sense of affiliation with the brand.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, cars made its way to the forefront of the automotive industry and have ever since pushed the boundaries of what man can do with four wheels.