Beauty is certainly not a definite attribute. Classic proportions and ideal symmetries have a place in discussions of what makes a person, an artwork, a machine beautiful, but good looks are extremely relative. All kinds of factors contribute to prettiness, and a thing’s physical dimensions are only one contributor. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For a variety of reasons, a person’s perception of prettiness has a lot to do with not only culture, but also class. Cars that exist in pictures on the internet are usually fawned over without much thought to the socioeconomic factors that help cultivate such good looks. Taking two automobiles from very different social contexts and exhibiting them on an equal plane may change how they look as well as expose some of the class judgments that we make when assessing a car’s styling.
What is so nice about these two automobiles is that neither of them has a clear reputation for beauty or ugliness. On the one hand we have a Chevrolet pickup that started out ugly and has moved towards beautiful. An old S-10 is hardly going to get into the MOMA on looks alone, but this one has been given new wheels, new paint, and new trim. On the other hand we have a car that got off on the right foot styling-wise, but veered into hideousness. The Ferrari California has the right badge and the designers (Pininfarina), but has a leaden, bulky shape disguised/marred by a number of busy details. But it means very different things to call one or the other “beautiful.”
The beauty of the California is tied up in its exclusive, fantastical roof, in its price tag, in its name and in its speed. These are elements of its exoticism that have little to do with the shape of its body panels, horribly shaped as they are. I actually believe that there is a strong element of authority in its exterior styling. As I was taking pictures of the California, it was as if the car was directing me around its styling, pointing out its intricate and photogenic headlights, its reflection-catching rear haunches, and its ruby taillights. Those taillights especially had me feeling used; taking a step or two back and they look so unharmonious and tacked on,
but if you draw in close you see reflective jewel rings that are so deep and alluring. Moreover the busy and overstyled look of this Ferrari has a certain presence merited by its exclusivity – the twists and turns of its bodywork aren’t seen on everyday production cars, likely because of the cost of manufacturing its complex curves and disjointed flat planes. Ugly as it might all be, the design is a very assertion of the Ferrari’s exoticism. Design critics might call it “striking,” but to everyday eyes it registers as beautiful.
It’s a rather different proposition to weigh in on the beauty of a daily-driven construction truck that hauls equipment to and from work sites. Thought there might be nothing less tacky about the glued-on Nissan GTR badges on the Chevrolet’s front quarter panels than the real vents on the Ferrari, the very act of customization plays into the good looks of the pickup. That there was a beautification program at all on this work truck makes it gorgeous, and the details themselves are never looked at in isolation.
The three-spoke rims, for instance, might be derided as embarrassingly passé on an Audi or a Cadillac, but somehow this S-10 takes them in stride. There’s a kind of retro sporttruck vibe in the Chevrolet’s look, but there’s nothing really nostalgic about it.
This red/black pickup defines its beauty through contrasts. Contrast it to the other work truck in the picture above and the care for the shiny new Chevrolet becomes apparent. Moreover, contrasted to the ultra-chic downtown Manhattan Bond Street and its proletariat cool just beams from its flashy paint.
The Ferrari’s centerpiece, its folding metal roof, also defines itself in contrasts. The California does not hide away the mechanical inner workings of the complex roof motors and components, as has been the design mantra of luxury vehicles since Harley Earl started transforming automobiles from greasy, churning masses of shifting gears and driver-operated controls into clean, contained, metal and plastic creatures. While GM was working to make driving a more relaxing event for people who operated machinery all day at work, today, for the people who don’t spend their day at the assembly line, visible and operable mechanics are more of a treat – a luxury good. The steering wheel-mounted shifter paddles on the Ferrari are good examples of a device which could be designed to work without any user input, but is instead is oriented towards driver interaction. The Manettino switch, the sport button – only more examples of devices that a “user-friendly” Ferrari would have made automatic a few decades ago (for example, the 400, with it’s 3-speed auto transmission), but today are geared towards the more modern working lifestyle.
Both vehicles show the care and money spent by their owners to drive a good looking, individual looking automobile, but you don’t think of them being in the same kind of realm of beauty. You can celebrate them both, but more importantly, seeing them next to each other you can recognize the different lenses of perception you use to judge them. My constant praise for rusted-out daily-driven beaters takes on a new light with culture and class in mind, and it also becomes clear that the beauty of a car’s styling doesn’t just change as the car grows older, but is always in constant flux depending on the condition of the vehicle and the perception of the viewer.