Jets vs. Sharks
In the late 1800s, the first automobile was invented for its function: to improve human transportation. In the decades following, style and substance have been competing factors in the longevity of the automotive industry. Today, cars are part of our larger identity, as a group and as individuals.
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer family foundation.
- Welcome to "Articulate", the show that explores
how really creative people understand the world.
I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode Jets vs Sharks.
In the late 1800s,
the first automobile was invented for function
to improve human transportation.
For the following decades,
style and substance have been competing factors
in the success of the car.
Challenging aesthetics to keep up
with ever-changing technologies.
Today, cars are part of a larger identity
as a whole, and as individuals.
- When you're pulling up into a driveway
and pick somebody up for an evening out,
or to drop off at the valet,
to go into the restaurant,
before you open the door,
you're signaling something about yourself.
- [Jim] That's all ahead on Articulate.
If you're like most Americans,
you'll probably spend more of your money on cars
in your lifetime than anything else,
other than housing or maybe food.
Yet cars are not an actual human necessity
like shelter or nutrition, and they don't just exist
to get us from A to B.
(car engine revving)
Yes, they are extraordinary feats of physics,
engineering, and technology,
but more than mere personal transportation
they have become among the most personal and public
statements of who we think we are.
Or maybe even who we hope to become.
(car engine revving)
- I don't care about clothes or watches
or anything like that.
So that kind of stuff, I don't have nice things,
but cars, yeah let's have some fun.
- [Jim] Doug DeMuro is an automobile journalist
who's review videos on YouTube
have been viewed more than one billion times.
And they've gotten him behind the wheels
of everything from million dollar Supercars,
to practical minivans, and everything in between.
- This is a 1987 Aston Martin Lagonda.
This is a 2018 Polaris Slingshot.
This is a 2020 Porsche 718 Cayman GT4.
(car engine roaring)
- Cars have transcended their function
and they've become something much more.
- [Jim] Paul Snyder is a former designer at Honda and Ford
and currently chairs to transportation design program
at Detroit's College for Creative Studies.
He believes one of the most important functions of a car
is to act as our own personal avatar.
- So when you're pulling up into a driveway
of let's say to pick somebody up for an evening out,
or to drop off at the valet to go into the restaurant,
before you open the door
you're signaling something about yourself.
For sure, and I think everybody kinda can understand
that once it's put in those terms,
but I don't think that's what car designers
are concerned with when they put the pen to paper.
- [Jim] One of the world's premiere collections
of racing sports cars
was assembled over more than six decades
by retired Neurosurgeon Fred Simeone at his father, Anthony.
He has a deep understanding
that a truly remarkable car must combine form and function,
acceleration, and anesthetic.
- The actual beauty was in many ways
the reason that you could sell the car,
somebody liked to be seen driving the car
as well as winning driving the car.
- [Jim] The designer responsible for some
of the most iconic car designs of the last half century,
is Henrik Fisker.
These include the Aston Martin V8 Vantage,
the best-selling Aston Martin of all time,
and the BMW Z8, one of the most collectible cars
of the past 20 years.
And since 2005, Fisker has produced cars under his own name.
♪ Ain't nobody sicker and my Fisker vroom vroom ho ♪
♪ Ain't nobody
Fiskers don't make noise when they start up,
just so you know.
- By the end of the day design is emotional,
it's something that you gotta have some talent for it.
There's no defined formula to how to make a great design,
but timelessness for me is really how well
does the design stand the test of time,
and do people still appreciate it after 10, 20, 30 years?
I think that's what good design is about.
- [Jim] At the dawn of the automobile era,
appearances didn't matter much.
Early tinkers were more concerned with function than form.
The machine just needed to move.
The first cars didn't even have a shell or a body
just an engine, wheels, and a frame.
Even Henry Ford, the most famous car creator in history
prioritized motion over style.
As he built his empire in the early 20th century,
he's famously quoted a saying about his Model T cars.
"You can have any color, as long as it's black."
One color made it easier to produce more cars
and black paint dried quicker.
Assembly lines allowed car makers
to switch out specific parts of a vehicle,
without changing the whole design.
But as more and more Americans bought cars,
how your car looked, became more and more important.
By the middle of the 20th century,
cars had begun shaping cultures,
as much as cultures have been shaping cars.
Amid post-World war II industrialization,
car designed for the masses took off around the globe.
But the designs themselves didn't travel much.
Rather they stayed mostly within their own country
of origin and became a source of national identity.
- I've always found it a very interesting thing
that each European country had its own people's car.
The Volkswagen Beetle,
the 2CV was in France,
the Fiat 500 and of course, Britain had the mini.
And that was interesting to me
but that's car production really started becoming a thing.
Everybody started to get cars at that point.
- Right, but even the people's cars,
I mean, if you look at them now they're iconic.
- But I look at them now and I go,
you know somebody thought about how that looks,
somebody didn't just throw that together.
You may not like it, but you almost feel
like there was a human hand involved in the creation of it.
- Although, one wonders if maybe we think that only
with the perspective of today.
Where we look back and see,
wow, those things Were kind of charming.
'Cause at the time, everybody had those cars
and they all uniformly complained
about how slow they were and how unreliable they were.
But now we look back and say
those cars mobilized those countries,
those cars changed the lives of the people who lived there
both from a production standpoint,
because they were able...
They helped get their economies going again.
And from a you could go somewhere point of view, you know.
- To me, that sort of the maker
of the design is Italy, right?
They make Ferraris, they make Maserati,
they have an incredible music,
hey have an incredible fine art history,
the food, the geography, everything, right?
To me they're the people that know how to live.
Is that what it is that makes their designs
so attractive to us all?
Because it's not just like I wanna be Italian,
it's like, there's something visceral
in Italian design that seems to speak to us
on a very sort of almost lizard brain level.
- Yeah. I completely agree.
It is unusual when another country's automaker
designs a car as beautiful as an Italian car,
but it is unusual when an Italian car is designed poorly.
- The goal seemed to be whether it's shoes,
furniture, painting, statuary, automobiles
even some people don't know the highest rated piano
in the world is not a B ösendorfer or a Steinway,
but it's a Fazioli.
So they only make a few of them
but they have to be the best.
And the idea is to produce a pinnacle object
which induces both joy in the design
and the way it looks and the finish, as well as performance.
There's no perfunctory knock it off the table,
the Italian mind is to make the best
and to please the customer.
You wanna step back when you're done and look at it,
whether it's a sofa, pair of shoes that you made
or a Ferrari, you wanna step back when it's done
and be proud of it.
- And I think that the Italians,
to some extent almost feel they have a responsibility.
The Germans were off creating cars in the German way,
they were built properly.
But the Italians were like,
"We don't need to think about that crap,
we're just gonna build it the most beautifully."
And that tradition is generally continued to this day.
- [Jim] The decades after World War II
brought a so-called jet age for automobiles.
All smooth shells and flowing lines.
As highways proliferated, cars became bigger and lower slung
as they no longer had to provide as much stability,
as on the bumpier roads of old.
They also became smoother, to go faster.
This new found speed opened up
more possibilities for the car.
It wasn't just a tool for transportation,
it could be a toy, for sport.
After a while, the desire for faster race cars
put new technologies in the hands of regular motorists.
- Most of the technologies
frequently start on the racetrack.
Getting more power out of smaller engines
that starts on the racetrack.
- Turbos and superchargers. - Exactly, yeah.
And just handling characteristics
and handling characteristics
do lead to safety to some extent.
Non-slip driving, you know
that also started in Formula 1.
(car engine revving)
- [Jim] The first Formula 1 race was held in 1950.
But people have been racing cars
since the century before.
Car racing began in Europe,
originating as glorified test runs,
but quickly turning into a spectacle.
The first official car race
went from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895,
with competitors reaching hetty speeds
of up to 15 miles per hour.
The first US race was from Chicago to Evanston and back
later that year.
(car engines revving)
Today racing speeds have increased tenfold
reaching over 200 miles per hour.
Most cars on any road can surpass the speed limit,
but very few of us are using the machinery at full power.
The capabilities of our cars are expansive
and arguably meant for nothing more than fun.
Are we kidding ourselves
that we care more about performance than comfort?
- I think you're gonna have a really good time
with a four cylinder and a manual transmission.
I mean, the speed limits are 70.
Everybody drives 80, but even then
you could blow through that speed limit
easily with any new car.
So beyond that, I think there is the hedonistic quality.
What do I wanna be seen in? For sure.
I mean, it's a fashion statement,
what do you...
- some people decide what they're going to wear
and take great care of that.
Other people just put on the same thing every day,
because it's more of a function than it is a statement.
- The hunger to all was own the latest
best car began in the US in the 1950s,
thanks to some canny marketing.
Middle-class families constantly strived
to keep up with the Joneses
or to become the Joneses, by being the first
to drive the latest, greatest model
through the neighborhood.
♪ See the USA
♪ In your Chevrolet
Why have we got this crazy messed up emotional relationship
with a collection of metal and rubber and oil?
- Don't you think that that's kind of true
of any of our possessions, right?
Like I think that the your house or your...
I mean people have this about their barbecue grill
in their backyard.
They got the better one than their neighbor, you know
anything and a car of course is a big purchase
and so, you're in it all the time, you're commuting in it,
you're sitting in it, people see it in front of your house
in your driveway, whatever.
And so it's a big way to show people,
yeah who you think you are,
that's a excellent way to sum it up.
It's a representation of who you think you are,
maybe not necessarily what you actually are.
- [Jim] And car makers became ever more responsive
to this notion.
Zoning in on how people saw their cars
as a statements of self.
By creating evermore unique, evermore iconic vehicles
the kind of designs we still yearn for today.
- You know, they change the model every year.
And so you would know
if your neighbor didn't have the newest phone,
and you would go out and get the newest phone.
And that was cool.
- That was the next one was the one you wanted to have.
And we always wanted to aspire to the next brand out.
So you might start with Chevy
and then go to Buick or Pontiac,
and then eventually end up with Cadillac.
- [Jim] Cars and mid century America
were all about optimism and comfort.
They were named after the lifestyles
they were created to evoke.
Like the Chevrolet Malibu,
meant to be driven down the Pacific coast highway.
The Cadillac quickly became a signifier of rock and roll.
When Elvis Presley drove his iconic pink Caddy
and sang about it in his 1959 hit Baby let's play house.
♪ Well you may go to college
♪ You may go to school
♪ You may have a pink Cadillac
♪ But you don't be nobody's fool ♪
♪ Now baby come back
- The 60s are still in my view,
some of the highlights of auto design
and probably I kinda put the reason
for that design really mature,
in the sixties and technology.
And it was also just before legislators
really came into place
so there was a sense of freedom.
Once we got fed and we had our bread and potatoes and meat,
now we'd like to go and see
an amazing chef create a beautiful meal,
beautifully set out, we know his heart is in it.
And I think design is the same, you know
once your basic needs are done with transportation,
the next step is I would actually like
to be chauffeured around a beautiful car,
I would like to drive a beautiful car
would like to own a beautiful car.
- There are a lot of designers
just consumed with nostalgia
to the point where all they can do is complain.
We can't do these beautiful cars anymore.
There's too much regulation.
There's all these different concerns of money
but you know, it's a different set of rules now
and different set of rules
offers different set of opportunities and possibilities.
- [Jim] Even though America was known
for cars with big engines and even bigger bodies,
the superficial comfort lacked proper safety measures.
But by the 1970s, regulations began to limit everything
from the size of taillights to the angles of metal edges.
Shifting manufacturers' focus back to function.
Design became an evermore delicate balancing act
between aesthetics and engineering,
marketing and practicality, profit, and safety.
- Every time we introduce something new,
not only is it more difficult,
but it takes a long time for both designers
and engineers to figure out how to work with that.
And let's say a very clear example was the bumpers
that was introduced in 1974.
And you saw, on all the cars here in America, for instance
how suddenly these giant bumpers
were stuck on these beautiful cars that was quite ugly.
And it took probably five, six years
until the designers and engineers figured out
how can we hide the bumper without you seeing it?
- The 70s came and cars quickly needed to change.
And the automakers had never really been through a change.
They had pretty much only been through expansion.
And so they didn't really know how to change
as quickly as they needed to.
And they weren't capable.
And the Japanese cars came in relatively quickly
in the late seventies and were easily able
to make a big mark,
and the Americans just had a very, very, very
difficult time playing catch up.
I think safety features just get developed and introduced as
quickly as possible.
There's such a race in the car world now
to get safety features together as soon as possible.
And so that is more like as soon as we can get it
let's put it out on the market and sell 'em
and we'll be the first to have that.
- Some of these safety features are crazy.
I always tell people the incremental increase
in safety technology in the last 10 years
is like the 40 years before.
- [Jim] After the oil embargo of 1973,
fuel efficiency standards around the world
began demanding evermore miles per gallon.
But by 1975, the US Congress had created a loophole
in the corporate average fuel economy or cafe standards.
Allowing automakers to classify certain larger vehicles
as like trucks, thus was born the SUV.
Covered pickups for suburbanites, big and brawny.
They screamed pioneer, free spirit, adventure.
- I think people wanna feel like
they're gonna go off road.
And the automakers really play it up.
Do you see a lot of RAV4 commercials
where people are driving through the desert
and stuff like that.
Half my neighbor has a RAV4.
Nobody's driving through the desert
- And the people who drive trucks,
they're not plumbers or electricians
like nothing's going in the car,
maybe the groceries from whole foods
are going in the bed of that pickup truck.
But it says, you know, rugged individual.
- [Announcer] Here comes the unstoppable big six,
the Toyota Landcruiser.
World's toughest four wheel drive.
- [Announcer] The American adventure,
brought to you by the Jeep corporation.
It takes guts to go where no one else goes.
- [Announcer] That's one has 145 thunder on horses,
to the back country faster and take your way back
to where the big ones are, with more comfort and safety.
- I heard once that people dress in three basic ways.
And I think that it could be applied
to car design as well or cars in general,
it's costumes, uniforms, and disguises.
So I think most people choose the uniform
which is just quality, safety, reliability,
but the disguise's in the costumes
or where the real interesting stuff lives.
- So go on, give me an example of a costume.
- Wall Street exact wanted to be a rancher for a day.
I mean, that's kind of like a costume
or a disguise depending on his state of mind.
It's time, I suppose
- [Jim] But there's one car that breaks all the rules.
(bright upbeat music)
- You cannot assume anything about a Tesla owner.
I know people on extremes of this political spectrum
and one of the few things they can agree on, is Tesla.
Everybody who's into stuff likes the technology,
everybody's into tech likes how new it is.
The design is debatable, but you know,
this is what you have and that's what you get.
The built in America thing,
factors and I think for a lot of people
who want the car, the innovation, the self-driving,
the superchargers and they've created a whole culture
- [Jim] Currently electric cars
are only a sliver of auto history.
Yeah, there's no telling how the rap pace
of technology will shape the design of cars, moving forward.
Even though electric cars don't need a grill
to provide airflow and cooling for a hot engine,
many manufacturers have still
so far are kept on electric models.
A mechanical necessity has become an aesthetic ornament.
I reminder of the long road car design has traveled.
- We're gonna get a sense of freedom again
because we have understood how to deal with legislation.
We have understood how to deal
the most of the normal functional parts in the vehicle.
And finally, I think going into electrification,
will open up a whole new avenue for design
as we're not any more restricted of a large gasoline engine,
the large gas tank has to be placed in a certain place.
- [Jim] As car design becomes driven
by evermore advanced technology,
to the point that before long
they won't need us to drive them at all.
Something human remains at their core.
Perhaps that's why Paul Snyder still advocates
for the life-sized clay model.
- Is in that sculptors head that sensitivity.
We haven't figured out a way to digitize that, right?
That human touch, the connection to looking
at an object in three-dimensional space,
not virtual three-dimensional, but real walking around it
and feeling it and touching it,
closing your eyes and really understanding
what that surface is doing.
And the customer understands that.
Whether or not they're aware of understanding it
but that care is conveyed through the care in the creation.
- [Jim] Today, the jet age of cars
has given away to the shark age.
All angular designs and angry appearance.
This is in part because designers are guided
not only by intuition, but also by data.
They've turned to focus groups
to test potential car designs,
even going as far as measuring brain waves
in response to different images.
Now they're peeking under our hoods
into our subconscious.
(bright upbeat music)
Cars are symbols of power, of freedom of possibility.
We use them to tell the world who we are
and even who we hope to become,
even as they inflict labels upon us.
It's a dynamic interaction ever unpredictable,
always in motion.
For more "Articulate", find us on social media
or on our website, ArticulateShow.org
On the next "Articulate" the singer-songwriter
Rufus Wainwright has done things his way.
But it's made for struggles, both internal
and with the world.
Yet he says the times that were rough
didn't make him tough.
- In the end of the day, it doesn't make you stronger,
it doesn't make you more kind of implacable,
if anything it makes you more sensitive
and more kinda vulnerable as you get older.
- [Jim] Composer David Serkin Ludwig
comes from a long line of exceptional musicians.
But it took him decades to accept his place
in this storied heritage.
- I was very resistant to people
knowing about my family for a long time.
I want to cut my own teeth.
And that lasted actually until my 30s
like a very long time, I was very reticent.
'Cause I noticed people treated me differently somehow
like having some kinda I don't know...
Like you get this automatic stamp of validity
and I didn't want that.
I want my music to speak for itself.
- [Jim] Life can sometimes bring you down.
But life can also raise you up.
Articulate, stories from one life, meets art.
At a time when we are reassessing, what is truly valuable,
our most precious asset might be imagination.
It allows us to envision a better world
to wonder, what if?
That simple fearless question
has forever driven the world's greatest innovators.
"Articulate" brings you
some of today's most creative thinkers
to explore how they can help us better understand our world.
"Articulate" ask yourself, what if?
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.