They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Here’s a nostalgic look back at some of our favorite classic car designs.
“Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style.” – Massimo Vignelli, Italian designer
What’s distinguishes a “classic” car from just an old car? I argue it comes down to a difference between style and design. Style is ephemeral. It’s always in flux, ever-changing and evolving. But design, when it’s done right, transcends time. It outlasts the fashion of the day, and its quality can be recognized decades, even centuries later.
This article is intended to be a sort of grab bag, a fun but by no means comprehensive look at “classic” automotive designs. For a design to qualify as “classic” I’ve drawn the line at the turn of the millennium. A generation needs to have passed in order to grant proper prospective. That, and modern cars have grown increasingly unoriginal in their design. The current crossover apocalypse has put a serious damper on automotive design creativity. So, let’s celebrate the novel, ingenious, and downright gorgeous designs of classic cars.
1934 Mercedes-Benz 500 Class – Carsforsale.com | Shop Mercedes-Benz 500 Class on Carsforsale.com
Swooping and bulging, the fenders of the 30s and 40s added ostentatious character to countless coupes and sedans. Those on ultra-luxury cars of the day accentuated the opulence, while those of mass-market cars lent extra bulk to their street presence. Some were so big they happily housed the car’s spare tires. Favorite fenders include those of the 1934 Mercedes-Benz 500-class and those of the 1940 Cadillac Fleetwood.
1969 Land Rover Series 2A – Carsforsale.com | Shop Land Rovers on Carsforsale.com
Aside from being some of the most capable of all 4x4s in automotive history, the Land Rover “series” models had serious swagger. Our favorite design feature was that recessed front grille of the I, II, and III series. Our office is split into two Land Rover factions, those who prefer the series I and IIs with their close set headlights integrated into the grille (pre-1969), and those, like yours truly, who prefer the series II and IIIs, post-69 and newer, with their headlights positioned out on the “wings”. Example, the late 1969 Land Rover Series 2A.
1977 Lincoln Continental – Carsforsale.com | Shop Lincoln Continental on Carsforsale.com
The 70s Continentals were all about big, bold lines, and the longer the better. These things were massive. So massive in fact, that they included a set of opera windows for the back seat, complete with a little Lincoln insignia.
1957 Cadillac Fleetwood – Carsforsale.com | Shop Cadillac Fleetwood on Carsforsale.com
Cars still can’t fly, but the late 50s was probably about as close as we’ve come. If your car didn’t have wings back then, you just couldn’t get a date (no I haven’t looked that up, but it’s a pretty safe assumption). See the ’57 Cadillac Fleetwood, ’59 Chevy Impala, ’57 Lincoln Premier, et al.
1992 Ferrari F40 – Carsforsale.com | Shop Ferrari F40 on Carsforsale.com
Our obsession with additional downforce goes back well before the days of the Plymouth Roadrunner, but peak spoiler might have been the 1990s. Consider the Supra, the WRX 22B -STi, or the Escort Cosworth edition. Plus, a perennial all-star in spoilers, the Porsche 911 and its GT2 variant. Or the trend setting Ferrari F40, possibly the most “Ferrari” Ferrari out there until the La Ferrari. (Yes, that was a bet to see how many times I could fit Ferrari into a single sentence. Drinks are on you, Tad!).
1991 Ford Aerostar – Carsforsale.com | Shop Ford Aerostar on Carsforsale.com
Because good quality aerodynamics were at the top of mom’s list when picking out minivans, these family haulers offered smoother slopes than Vaile, Colorado in February. The Ford Aerostar’s design strapped an isosceles triangle onto a rectangle and called it good. Who doesn’t love the elegance of a 45° angle, after all? But the award for most extreme angle (cue Mt. Dew commercial guitar vamp) goes to the Oldsmobile Silhouette, with a front angle that seems to take up nearly half the vehicle.
1947 Mercury Woodie – Carsforsale.com | Shop Mercury Woodie on Carsforsale.com
Yes, steel and aluminum might be more durable and less prone to splinter into a thousand toothpick-like projectiles in a crash, but darn wood looked cool on panels and in truck beds. Plus, a tip of the hat to the faux wood paneling on the late 80s Jeep Wagoneer.
Triumph TR3 – Carsforsale.com | Shop Triumph TR3 on Carsforsale.com
In the 50s and 60s, the Brits liked their tiny convertible sports cars with even tinier doors. The doors are so small they really invite you to just leap, Duke of Hazard-style, straight into the driver’s seat. Examples include the Triumph TR3 and multiple MGs and Morgans.
1959 Cadillac 62 Series – Carsforsale.com | Shop Cadillac 62 Series on Carsforsale.com
The second gen Impalas had “tear drop” cat’s eyes. The ‘59 Cadillac 62 Series had double bullets. In 1969, the Mustang briefly had pultruding taillights (as opposed to recessed). This isn’t to say that some of today’s taillights aren’t cool, they are. But they are often more of a design afterthought than they were in decades past.
Aside from the hood of you car there are few things you probably look at more on your car than the gauge cluster. And yet, these are another area of vehicles where modern design has been punting. I love digital displays as much as the next person, but I can’t look at the speedometer on the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado and not be wowed. Or check out the dials Dodge was using in 1935, pretty nifty.
1992 Volvo 240 – Carsforsale.com | Shop Volvo 240 on Carsforsale.com
Boxy cars were a thing long before the Kia Soul. There was a time when a 90° angle was the hottest ticket in town. Examples include the early 90s Volvo 240 and the aforementioned 1970s Lincoln Town Car. And while most of those sharp angles were smoothed over in the late 90s and aughts, vehicles like the Mercedes G-Wagon and Jeep Wrangler have stayed true (and Tesla’s Cybertruck too, I guess).
Porsche 911 Targa Top – Carsforsale.com | Shop Porsche 911 on Carsforsale.com
It all started with Porsche anticipating the regulation hammer from the US Congress. The 1967 911 aimed to sidestep the safety concerns of a convertible by adding a roll bar and removeable roof panel. Now you could have that “convertible experience” “worry free” (BAM, double scare quotes, take that Tad!). Targa tops were adopted in all sorts of sports cars including the Toyota Supra, Chevy Corvette, Ferrari F355 GTS, and the beloved Miata.
Subaru SVX Automatic Seat belts – Carsforsale.com | Shop Subaru SVX on Carsforsale.com
Remember when the Honda Civic would buckle you in by itself? The quirky Subaru SVX did too. Of dubious safety value, the automatic seat belt was probably best left on the ash heap of design misfires. It began as a trade with government regulators for either installing airbags (expensive) or “automatic” seat belts (less expensive). Automakers chose the path of least resistance. Oddly, the SVX designers opted to include both an airbag and automatic seat belts.
Triumph TR3 – Carsforsale.com | Shop Triumph TR3 on Carsforsale.com
A mainstay of 60s and 70s Japanese car design, fender side mirrors can be found on classics like the Nissan Skyline and Honda S600. Even the Europeans dabbled with cars like the Triumph TR3 and Jaguar XK120 and some version of the Mercedes-Benz SL300.
Subaru SVX Windows – Carsforsale.com | Shop Subaru SVX on Carsforsale.com
I’m still not sure why we ever had these. Were they some kind of epistemological meta commentary on our understanding what a window actually is? You can find windows-in-windows featured on the Subaru SVX, Lambo Countach, and DeLorean DMC-12.