Cars With Personality Vanish Along With Cadillac Fins

Tap for Slideshow
Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg

The tail fins of a 1961 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Safety regulations influence the dimensions of new cars.

Close
Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images via Bloomberg

The tail fins of a 1961 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Safety regulations influence the dimensions of new cars. Close

The tail fins of a 1961 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Safety regulations influence the dimensions of new cars.

Photographer: Keystone/Getty Images via Bloomberg

A Citroen DS-19 on the research track at Crowthorne Parks, Berkshire. Close

A Citroen DS-19 on the research track at Crowthorne Parks, Berkshire.

Source: Saab via Bloomberg

A Saab 900. The ignition was located in the center console. Close

A Saab 900. The ignition was located in the center console.

Photographer: John Voelcker/Mototrend via Bloomberg

A 1961 Morris Minor Traveller. The rear frame is made of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks. Close

A 1961 Morris Minor Traveller. The rear frame is made of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks.

Photographer: Antony Jones/UK Press via Getty Images via Bloomberg

A 1950s Ford Thunderbird. Close

A 1950s Ford Thunderbird.

Source: Infiniti via Bloomberg

A pair of 2013 Infiniti FX crossovers. The FX37 model in the series starts around $45,000, while the FX50 will begin at $61,000. Close

A pair of 2013 Infiniti FX crossovers. The FX37 model in the series starts around $45,000, while the FX50 will begin at $61,000.

Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

The 2011 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, with its retractable soft top down. It is a convertible version of the all-wheel-drive Murano crossover, powered by Nissan's 3.5-liter V6 engine. Close

The 2011 Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, with its retractable soft top down. It is a convertible version of the... Read More

As I cruised down a New Jersey interstate in a late model Infiniti, a 1971 Buick Riviera “Boattail” floated alongside.

Imagine a gargantuan two-door coupe with a shiny canted grill and a radical “V“-shaped rear. And, oh, that fast-back rear window!

What an utterly shameless piece of extravagant design, showing an optimistic, hedonistic, we-won’t-be-denied bravura.

That thing had personality.

My Infiniti, a conveyance stuffed with conveniences, suddenly felt a little pale. Banal.

It got me to wondering. In this age of mass production and global distribution, have we seen the last taillights of cars with personality? Where are the oddball autos that appeal to only a heartfelt few?

While those mid-century American cars with big fins weren’t practical or even always beautiful, they sure had charisma.

Perhaps we’ve lost something along the way. While our cars rarely break down and are safer and more efficient than earlier autos, one has to wonder if we are now living in an age of characterless cars.

Saab Proclamation

The death of Saab certainly points in that direction. The much-loved Saab 900, for instance, was so nerdy that it was cool, with a flat roof, odd angles and an ignition in the center console. Driving a Saab was a proclamation that your marching drummer was actually playing a trombone.

General Motors Co. took over full ownership of the Swedish automaker in 2000 and sucked out the remaining quirk, going so far as to develop a Saab SUV based on a Chevy Trailblazer. A decade later, GM dumped the brand, where the marketplace toyed with it until it slumped out of existence.

Citroen is also struggling, partly because the French themselves are ignoring the maker in droves. Shame.

Google the term “Citroen DS” and then goggle the sedan, produced from the 1950s to 1970s. I challenge you to find another wackadoo contraption so chockfull of unadulterated charm. Zooey Deschanel, eat your heart out.

Speaking of dysfunctional makes, the British leap to mind. Not Jaguar and the Land Rover, but Rover, Triumph and Morris. I’m surrounded by car colleagues who shamelessly adore defunct British models that I’ve never even heard of.

Morris Minor

Take John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, who focuses on ruthlessly aerodynamic and efficient modern vehicles. He owns a 1961 Morris Minor Traveller, a car his dad originally bought new in London.

How odd is this car? The rear frame is made out of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks. It requires, he said, “as much maintenance as a boat.”

“The Morris has a rounded front end and it comes across as very friendly,” he said. “People look at it and smile. You get that reaction from many older cars, from the extreme fins on a 1959 Cadillac or the humped gangster profile of a 1940s Chrysler Windsor. People think, ‘Wow, that’s wild.’”

Asked how that compares to today’s cars, he said, “Relatively few new cars give me that warm fuzzy feeling. Of course I don’t expect an old car to do the same things as a new one. We make allowances.”

Thunderbird Style

Modern cars must meet a phalanx of safety regulations set by the Americans, Europeans and others. This includes crumple zones and pedestrian safety parameters, which influence the dimensions of the hood. One wonders what regulators would think of the fins and protrusions found on a 1950s Ford Thunderbird.

Not necessarily, say some. “We like to blame regulation, but I really think the issue is globalization,” Vic Doolan said, a longtime industry executive who was president of both BMW North America and Volvo North America.

“I was walking around the Detroit show, and all the cars were competent. Very nice. But other than a few that are truly set apart, like Ferraris and Maserati, none were driven by passion.”

“People want to make money, which means more mainstream, predictable designs. Look at BMW, Mercedes and Audi: These days they are high-volume brands. It’s difficult to stand out in the crowd when you are the crowd,” he said.

He makes a good point. I can think of only a few, recent, oddball designs, like the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, a convertible SUV. It is surprising and interesting. It is also hideous.

Fisker, Tesla

The others are from Silicon Valley startups: The Fisker Karma and the Tesla Model S. The Fisker, an electric-gas hybrid, is a design-forward car with sensuous curves, a wacky nose and madcap interior details.

The Model S, meanwhile, is conservative on the exterior. The interior is full of innovation including a flat floor and storage under the front hood, both owing to its all-electric powertrain.

Doolan agrees that electric technology will influence future cars, allowing for innovations that surprise and stimulate. “Hopefully we’ll see designs that stir both the passion of a six-year-old boy and a 60-year-old boy.”

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Scott Reyburn on the art market.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.