Modernism in car design?

I may also be just getting old or have an affinity for old things, but I also tend to agree that most modern cars are overdesigned. Case in point, just look at a new porsche 911 vs. a 1960’s/70’s one. The new ones are nice, but seem bloated, with too much generous radius on everything. the interior is even more disappointing, and seems as though its been done by a completely different design team (likely it was). I realize things like safety bumpers etc. are partly responsible, and I can’t pinpoint what the difference really is at the heart of it, but feel as though the lines on anything post early 70’s are just too fat, ill-resolved, and lack the purity of the earlier forms.

the new 370z does look a bit better i gotta say in that side view pic posted by choto. somewhat closer to the original proportions which i like.

in terms of new cars (coupes specifically), i also think the solstice/aura is pretty nice. i also love the 3 series BMW coupe, 1 series, and would put the a5 coupe on my list. Aston’s also are fantastic, the Maser Gran Turismo, (not a fan of the quattroporte), and the new TT is also pretty nice… wouldn’t give away an R8 either :0

any of the new US cars (challenger, camero, etc.) don’t do anything for me.

still, for the same/less $$ i’d go with a vintage car anyday. 250SL MB, 60’s 911/912, E-type, 3.0CS BMW, karmann Ghia, 240Z, etc…

I always do wonder why car companies don’t do the same as footwear companies and do re-releases of previous models. updated for safety, modern conveniences, etc. but as close as possible to the original. would bring down the value of the originals, and there are kit cars of the like, but I would have no doubt a retro version of an e-type would would out sell anything in the current jag lineup if even 90% as close to the original styling. would be a great thing for brand heritage and value as well, i would think.


I think it’s funny how Richard wants, what I consider, the most iPod of cars: '66~'7x 911. That 911, the 924 and the 914 were all designed by Butzi Porsche.

I’m not sure what I would name as a pretty car, but those three are the most modernist cars ever designed. Remember too that the 924 debuted in '76. How futuristic must that have looked?

I’m not sure how’s it’s “funny” i like those cars, but i’ll bite on your evaluation of them being most “ipod/modernist”. That certainly fits my overall general aesthetic. I can perhaps somewhat see what you are saying, in terms of a refinement and lack of decoration and overall simplicity in that the proportions are key and they aren’t overly aggressive. These aspects I certainly do like, and would add to that some other cars I feel the same way about…

The 60’s 250SL.

1980’s 3 series

and it’s papa, the 2002 and 3.0CS

and the ultimate derivative of simplicity, the 018C

I probably could also go on with more, but maybe you get it. obviously there are lots of similarities in proportion and DLO, but I think what gets me most is how they all are really nice cars that don’t seem to try to be more than they are. No extraneous vents trying to look “fast”, not trying to be aggressive, just the equivalent of a Braun appliance that falls into the background when you don’t need it, but is a pleasure to look at and use when you want. In cars in particular I think that is one of the hardest things to achieve, and perhaps what makes those above “modernist”.

I’d also certainly add to the list the DS, and perhaps the P1800,…


PS. FWIW, though, I really dislike the 924 and the 914 (sorry).

For me, I think the Merc has too much chrome to be iPod/Braun. The BMWs are too derivative. The BMW is what we expect a car to look like, but minus the decoration.

The Porsches were clearly derived from mechanical constraints & their unique layout (other than the 924). I only like the 911 stock, because the other two suffer from period trends. The chrome bumpers and tiny wheels always made the 914 look toy like and cheap. The 924 had the same problem, plus it had those god awful North American turn signals bolted to the fenders. I think if you look only at the form though, you might find more to like.

Back to the cars though in relation to iPod/Braun. None of these Porsches were decorated like the Merc with its big chrome grille. They had little brightwork accents, but just where they were needed. Such as the rails to hold rubber seals, the cache around the windshields. The form wasn’t square, but it was derived from the mechanicals. These cars didn’t need fender bulges, because the whole car was sculpted just large enough to cover everything perfectly. None of these cars had ornate detailing in the interiors or exterior accessories (headlights, little vents, handles, etc), because everything was mechanically honest. The handle was only there to open the door, not to project a “brand image”.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen another car that takes these values to heart.


I’m not sure how’s it’s “funny” i like those cars, but i’ll bite on your evaluation of them being most “ipod/modernist”. That certainly fits my overall general aesthetic.

That’s why I find it funny…ironic funny. I know you are a big Braun/Apple/Modernist fan/junkie/follower.

we talking about this, right?

i see your point about chrome grill on the MB, but i guess I was looking as well at the overall form. I see the MB grill perhaps more as graphic than decoration (fine line, i know). I disagree though on the BMWs… That kind of restraint, is pretty touch to pull off and i think to some extent the definition of modernism.

There is a fine line between minimalism and boring-ism. The BMWs are on the right side of that, compared if you will to an 80’s K car which has similar form, but not anywhere near the execution.

Honesty is a good way to sum it up. I’ll have to think more about that.


Since your already led this thread astray I might also post this:

How do you like the “Pininfarina SL”? It’s even more calmed down than the
original version:

Is it prettier than the original? More appropriate? Or is the original THE one ?

Tell me.

yours mo-i

I’m adding a little visual aid.

The progression to modernist furniture was inspired/caused/made possible by new material & process.

My argument is that in the same way, the three Porsches (including the 911 you posted Richard) are inspired/caused/made possible by new knowledge, engineering, etc. However, the BMW is still using a visual language adapted from earlier cars. Note how the 924, which has the same mechanical layout as the BMW has deleted the grille. Also, the decoration is completely gone from the 911 and 914, and minimized to the absolute in the 924.

It’s definitely all about honesty. It’s not that the BMW or Merc are bad designs, in fact, I love them too. But they are modernistic interpretations of the existing visual language, Butzi Porsche created a whole new language based on modernist principles.

Since we are already in a post-modern world, wouldn’t it follow that design is also in a post-modern phase?


Post-modern world? That was the '80’s man.

I think it’s interesting that the car you show under “pre-modernist,” the 1956 Chevy, debuted the same year as this:

Of course, European car design in the 1950’s followed a very different path, in part I suppose because of the devastation and painful rebuilding those countries went through.

(I had one of these. Kind of like a Ford 021C, but crappier.)

Although there are of course exceptions to the hardship and deprivation theory:

America was just not on the same page, and really never has been. Our guys were designing spaceships:

This is about as close as we got to modernism at the time:

(All of the cars in this post are 1956 model year.)

I never thought I’d see someone other than myself post a picture of a Tatra. Amazing.

Scott: it is interesting that we have the Eames developing mid-century American modernism at the same time as the most flamboyant examples of streamlined/spaceship American cars. Maybe modernism just doesn’t translate to successful cars?

well, hm. Now don’t throw rocks on me, but how successful has
minimalist modernism translated into furniture design ?

Isn’t the total absence of decoration not only another form
of decoration?

just a nit,

I got to disagree about the TT, the original is an icon of modernism.
the new one is very nice but will never be an icon. (in the same sence every corvette is great because of the lineage but only a few are icons)

So… in a post-post-modern world, we get the Prius, the Mini and the 370Z, and SUVs with 24" rims. It’s a mish-mash and maybe, like current clothing styles… people don what they are most comfortable in. Some people must have the latest styles and others identify best with the 70’s. And then, some have been firmly stuck in a world of Father Knows Best. Maybe the new President is a sign that North America is finally ready to get away from the past, both socially and culturally.


I can this close to buying a really nice T603 on Ebay about 10 years ago. Should have done it. Ended up with the Dauphine instead- what a disaster.

Scott: it is interesting that we have the Eames developing mid-century American modernism at the same time as the most flamboyant examples of streamlined/spaceship American cars. Maybe modernism just doesn’t translate to successful cars?

Yeah, I can’t explain it either. I don’t think it’s that it doesn’t translate- most of the European cars of the period are quite good examples of modernism. But for whatever reason, Americans at the time wanted modern furniture in the house, and rocketships and jets in the driveway. I guess it’s really not that different from a couple years ago, when people had a military offroad vehicle in the driveway, and Tuscan villa furniture in the house.

Scott: a Dauphine…I feel your pain.

This has turned into an interesting thread…I’m going to have to be like Richard and go think some before I can add anything else.

just a a point to add to the discussion.-

  1. modernism. it doesn’t just refer to something modern, or something minimal. it is/was an actual movement started in the late 19th C. early 20c. and is best associated with the 1920’s bauhaus in germany. i think it’s key to this discussion to get the terms and timelines correct. US may have been doing modernist furniture in the 50’s but this is linked back to the 20’s in Europe.

Perhaps we should be discussing these cars not in terms of modernism (which arguably perhaps none of them really fit into), but terms like pure, honest, minimal, etc. might account for less confusion. Also I’d like to separate simple/minimal in intent from execution (not everything simple is a well designed execution of the principle ie. 928/924/914 i’d argue).

likewise post-modernism is not about anything post 1980’s but refers to a specific movement best associated with the memphis group in the 80’s. The prius is others are in no way post modernist. I don’t think there really are any post modern cars though perhaps some concept cars like mazda Furai could be(?).


I think the 018C might be the closest thing to a post-modern car. It had a sense of a humour, brightly coloured, it was like a cartoon of a car in many ways.

Thinking to Memphis furniture, the cars being designed at the same time were so different. Perhaps there is just zero relationship between furniture/product trends and cars?

Really? I’d say the 018C was the closest thing to a modernist car. Simple, refined purposeful design linked to technology and function (like the slide out trunk), etc.



If we define post-modernism (at least as practiced by Philip Johnson and Michael Graves) as the recycling of simplified classical forms in a modern context, then I would argue that most of the crop of “retro futurism” cars should be classified as post-modern. The current Mustang, the New Beetle, the Ford GT, etc.


Is to this:

As this:

Is to this:

In a slightly different way, some of the wacky Japanese keicars hit me the same way:

But this is getting OT a bit.