Automobile Design History, Auto History Beginnings, Auto History Firsts

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The automobile design or design of modern cars is typically handled by a large team of designers and engineers from many different disciplines.

As part of the product development effort the team of automobile designers will work closely with teams of design engineers responsible for all aspects of the vehicle.

These engineering teams include: chassis, body and trim, power train, electrical and production.
The 1955 Citroën DS
The 1955 Citroën DS; revolutionary visual design and technological innovation.

The automobile design team under the leadership of the design director will typically comprise of an exterior designer, an interior designer (usually referred to as stylists), and a color and materials designer.

A few other designers will be involved in detail design of both exterior and interior. For example, a designer might be tasked with designing the rear light clusters or the steering wheel. The color and materials designer will work closely with the exterior and interior designers in developing exterior color paints, interior colors, fabrics, leathers, carpet, wood trim, and so on.

In 1924 the American national automobile market began reaching saturation. To maintain unit sales, General Motors instituted annual model-year automobile design changes (also credited to Alfred Sloan) in order to convince car owners they needed a replacement each year. Since 1935 automotive form has been driven more by consumer expectations than engineering improvement.

There have been many efforts to innovate automobile design funded by the NHTSA, including the work of the NavLab group at Carnegie Mellon University. Recent efforts include the highly publicized DARPA Grand Challenge race.

Acceleration, braking, and measures of turning or agility vary widely between different design makes and models of automobile. The automotive publication industry has developed around these performance measures as a way to quantify and qualify the characteristics of a particular vehicle.

Development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to the hundreds of small manufacturers competing to gain the world's attention. Key developments included electric ignition and the electric self-starter (both by Charles Kettering, for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, and four-wheel brakes.

Since the 1920s, nearly all cars had been mass-produced to meet market needs, so marketing plans had often heavily influenced automobile design. It was Alfred P. Sloan who established the idea of different makes of cars produced by one company, so buyers could "move up" as their fortunes improved.

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In the USA, automobile design reached a turning point in 1924 when the American national automobile market began reaching saturation.

To maintain unit sales, General Motors head Alfred P. Sloan Jr. devised annual model-year design changes to convince car owners that they needed to buy a new replacement each year. Critics called his strategy planned obsolescence. Sloan preferred the term "dynamic obsolescence".

This strategy had far-reaching effects on the auto business, the field of product design, and eventually the American economy. The smaller players could not maintain the pace and expense of yearly re-styling.
Car designers at work in 1961
Car designers at work in 1961. Standing by the scale model's left front fender is Richard Teague, a famous automobile designer at American Motors Corporation (AMC).
Henry Ford did not like the model-year change because he clung to an engineer's notions of simplicity, economics of scale, and design integrity. GM surpassed Ford's sales in 1931 and became the dominant player in the industry thereafter. The frequent design changes also made it necessary to use a body-on-frame rather than the lighter, but less flexible monocoque design used by most European car makers.

Another turning point came in 1935, when automotive engineers abruptly dropped aerodynamic research after discovering, among other problems, aerodynamics would tend to produce one single optimal exterior shape.
Ford Model T 1927
Ford Model T, 1927, regarded as the first affordable automobile.

This would be bad for unit sales, and for GM it would obviously work against their new strategy of market differentiation. Style and engineering went their separate ways, and all body shapes underwent cosmetic changes every year, whether or not the underlying automobile had changed.

Since 1935 automotive form has been driven more by consumer expectations than by engineering improvement. Form still follows function, but the primary function of the car was to get itself sold.

The most famous American auto stylist is probably Harley Earl, who brought the tailfin and other aeronautical design references to auto design in the 1950s. He is joined among legendary designers by Gordon Buehrig, responsible for the Auburn 851 and iconic Cord 810 and 812 (hence also the Hupmobile Skylark and the Graham Hollywood).

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