Richard Arbib’s The History of Automobile Styling

Richard Arbib, a prominent stylist for GM, Packard, and AMC, taught a beginners course on automotive styling to returning GIs at the Detroit Institute of Automobile Styling from ’45-’49. The following text, “The History of Automobile Styling”, was written by Arbib, presumably for his students during this period. This essay can be found in Future Retro, Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles, by Frederic A. Sharf, Boston; MFA Publications, 2005.  I have not seen the essay in its full form anywhere else on the internet. 

The History of Automotive Styling

Art is the oldest form of human expression known to man. From the crude sketches made by the cave men over fifty thousand years ago to the present day modern works of individual expression, architecture and design, the world has been repeatedly affected by the influence of art. Over this long period of time the great civilizations contributed their shares of expression – the Egyptian pyramids and the mathematical simplicity of the triangle, the Cretan pottery and its varied colors, the engineering triumphs of the Babylonians, and, certainly, the creative skill of the Greek architects and sculptors. Eventually the Romans, the Asiatics, and the early European and Renaissance peoples were to contribute their share. And now, with the coming of the machine, the development of mass production and the demand for modern design, we can expect in all probability that our time will emerge as one of the greatest ages in the evolutionary history of art.

With the introduction of the machine, the world passed into a new era of living. In America the development of machines was underway before the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. At first, the rate of development was slow, but as new machines were invented and older machines refined, the momentum of advances in machine development culminated in mass production early in the Twentieth Century.

During the first quarter of the Twentieth Century mass production activities were confined to the technical aspects. The manufacturers of mechanical contrivances found a ready market for all that they could produce. Their customers were interested in the practicality of the article – not the appearance. People continued to think of art in terms of paintings, sculptures, and the architectural designs. But this brief period was destined to be short-lived.

The novelty of the technological era soon wore off. In the middle twenties, manufacturers of motor cars focused their attention on an increasing public demand for a better appearance of their products. New automobile competitors claimed portions of the markets of their older manufacturers with more style in their products. Prices of the stylized motor cars were higher, but the public was eager to pay. An evolutionary change was the inevitable result. Art in industry was established.

Naturally, the first styling departments were small and insignificant when compared to the highly developed studios of today. Their activities were suppressed, by and large, by the more powerful engineering factions of the then well-organized production plants. However, this was a normal development.

In those days, style-wise changes that appeared in motor cars were limited in scope. None of the manufacturers dared to border radicalism. They knew that the public would not accept radical changes. Most manufacturers focused their improvements on interiors. These improvements were usually in the form of lavish details, such as vases on the rear pillars, curtains and short drapes.

It was about this time that colors came into prominence. One well-known manufacturer once said that the public could have his product in any color they desired so long as it was black. This statement was soon retracted. However, in their anxiety to satisfy the public, many of the manufacturers instituted such a large variety of color selections that production suffered materially. It was at this time that the more popular colors and shades were determined which resulted in systems of standardized colors.

Exterior changes followed rapidly on the heels of interior changes. The unsightly radiator core was covered by a more pleasing grille of plated metal. Bolts, rivets, and constructional “eye-sores” were covered by the sheet metal of the bodies, hoods and fenders. Sharp edges were rounded and fillets were introduced, and the various appointments of hardware were studied and styled to harmonize with the newer sheet metal surfaces and plated trim.

In the early thirties, fender skirts, pronounced louvres on the sides of the hood, and more pleasing grilles were styled for the public’s acceptance. The old-fashioned wooden wheels and wire wheels were substituted by pressed steel wheels. More thought was given to body shapes, and so toward the middle thirties the public were shown flowing backs, V-type windshields and the revolutionary all steel top.

By this time, styling departments in the larger automobile manufacturing concerns were forcing the engineering skill of the industry to make greater developments to coincide with styling trends. Such steps as moving the engine forward between the front wheels, lowering the chassis, and developing new drivers were but a few of these developments. By 1940, motor cars were low, bulky in appearance and finished in the interiors of comfort, convenience and style.

At the beginning of World War II, styling had established itself as a definite science in the gigantic and complicated automotive industry. The designing of new bodies, grilles, and appointments became closely integrated with engineering, tooling and production. Public opinion was polled in as many ways as possible. The feminine viewpoint was a decided factor in interior design. Colors were studied with regards to geographical preference. The result was that the automotive industry was producing a product which was carefully developed for safety and comfort and had a pleasing appearance to the public’s eye.

That’s the story up to today. What will be the next step? What will the cars of tomorrow offer to the consumer? No one really knows, but we may at least expect that the automobile stylists will be working logically and will create newer and more attractive motor cars for the people of the world.

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2 Responses to Richard Arbib’s The History of Automobile Styling

  1. Tapz says:

    Interesting- I had not realised that the ascendance of the styling department can be dated pretty exactly to the establishment of the Detroit Standard Model (longitudinal V8 driving a live rear axle through a slushbox, body-on-frame) that is still with us today in truck form.

    Arbib argues that styling started properly around the time the Ford V8 came out, and I’d argue that its dominance over engineering was complete by the time automatics became standard- the early ’50s. Taking it one step further, you could say that Arbib’s Art – beautiful though it was – nearly killed the US auto industry…

  2. Tapz says:

    Interesting- I had not realised that the ascendance of the styling department can be dated to the full establishment of the Detroit Standard Model (longitudinal V8 driving a live rear axle through a slushbox, body-on-frame) that is still with us today in truck form.

    Arbib argues that styling started properly around the Ford V8, and I’d argue that its dominance over engineering was complete by the time automatics became standard- the early ’50s. Taking it one step further, you could say that Arbib’s Art – beautiful though it was – nearly killed the US auto industry…

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