My Car Quest

January 19, 2022

Editorial: Planned Obsolescence – Trying to Break Free

by Wallace Wyss –

Maybe it was because I was born in the ’40s and first became aware of cars in the ’60s. This was the Glory Days of GM when they had over 50% of the US auto market and Japanese cars weren’t here yet.

I yearned to go to the Detroit Auto Show where I would see how each company changed their models. A fin higher, maybe some scoop on the hood, simulated wire wheels, simulated rocket exhausts, fake Continental wheels, Dagmar bumper guards, dashboards of blinding chrome, piped upholstery, swivel seats, vinyl tops, landau bars, racing stripes. Oh,I ate it all up.

Flash forward 60 years. Here’s Tesla, the leading electric car brand everywhere and they have the chutzpah to keep the Model S styling going on 11 years (They did start out with a fake grille but eventually dropped it.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

I read Tesla owners are not bummed out by this. They no longer feel the pressure of not-bring-able-to-afford-the-new model. No heat on them for driving a car so old because hey, that old Tesla looks like a 2022 Model S.

Harley Earl must be reaching a high rotational speed in his grave because he had American consumers feeling wretched when they were seen in last year’s car. Showing up at work in a three year old car meant you were no longer an achiever at work or maybe in life itself.

Elon Musk changed all that. Part of it is due to his chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, who believes in a design philosophy called minimalism where you begat a plain form and don’t purposely add any details, gee-gaws, frippery and what-not to distinguish a given new car from the now-dreaded Last Year’s Model.

So what we have now in many Tesla owners are adherents to that new philosophy; that being manipulated by changes in styling is a pointless waste of money. These enlightened car owners have other things to send their money on.

And irony of ironies, Earl never imagined cars would someday receive up-dates from their maker through something called The Internet. An 11 year old Tesla might have received dozens of updates, so its owner is not reminded he has an “old” car because it’s got the latest software app.

I could compare the operating philosophy of car design back then to women’s fashions. One day the skirts would be below the knee and then there was the mini-skirt and then the mu-mu and…well you get the idea. It was change for the sake of change. Women are still throwing out perfectly good clothes to have the latest fashion. I don’t think my comments will deter anyone. You go, girl!

But back to cars, the Tesla design philosophy has created new territory by breaking free of the my-tailfin-is-taller philosophy. Instead Elon and Franz concentrate on the newest models (I should mention Elon has a side hustle, building rocket ships with as many as 27 engines…)

I was congratulating GM only a couple of years ago for ditching the front engined Corvette to mid-engine but now, with my new penchant for minimalism I’m looking at the old front engined ones as better styled, less change for the sake of change. True the new Corvette probably corners a tenth of G better than the front engined one but who’s driving at the limit of g-force anyway?

In sum, I think I’ve almost cured now, Harley Earl and his imitation Rockettes (dancing girls at Radio City Music Hall) no longer can make me think I’ve got to own the latest, the newest of the new. It will be interesting to see if Detroit adopts this philosophy. Which is counter to everything they’ve ever preached (and I was one of the preachers, at two different ad agencies…)

I try to apply the minimalist philosophy to other aspects of life, like the choice of a leather jacket. I’ve got a bomber jacket, of the style worn by WWII military aviators. Mine’s a four pocket. There are hundreds of men’s leather jacket styles hatched since the war but hey this design can’t be improved (except for materials, mine’s exceedingly soft). I think Franz and Elon would approve….soooo minimalist.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss, author of 18 car histories, has been a guest lecturer at the Art Center College of Design.

 
 
 

Notice the difference below in the front end design between the ’55, ’56, and ’57 Chevrolet. The rear end was also completely different. All 3 were one year only designs.

Mike Gulett, Editor

1955 Chevy

1955 Chevrolet

1956 Chevrolet

1956 Chevrolet

1957 Chevrolet

1957 Chevrolet

All photos by Mike Gulett.
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Editorial: Planned Obsolescence - Trying to Break Free
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Editorial: Planned Obsolescence - Trying to Break Free
Description
The Tesla design philosophy has created new territory by breaking free of the my-tailfin-is-taller philosophy.
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Comments

  1. Rob Krantz says

    Times have definitely changed! I was also brought up on model and/or trim changes from year to year. It was fun back then as a car crazy kid and then young adult, to look at the cars on the road and talk about what year car it was based on the design or trim (a 1963 Chevy Biscayne had two tail lights vs. the Impala’s three tail lights for instance, and other trim differences). Now, there are so few changes from year to year across all brands and models, and with the proliferation of different models (BMW 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 series….outa control!) it’s hard to know what is what on the road now. The upshot of the lack of change and platform sharing is that the auto manufacturers have greater economies of scale/cost savings. But, it’s not as much fun as it used to be for the car buff IMO. I can still tell the make, model, year, trim levels etc., but only of older cars….1960’s through perhaps most of the 70’s models. After that, not so much!

  2. Glenn Krasner says

    Volvo as a brand purposely kept their designs identical or near identical for decades at a time. When they did do a new design, it would be an evolution of the previous design. Same with good old Saab as well. I don’t know if this was a cultural trait with respect to Swedish practicality, but that’s how they did it, as did the American manufacturers in the old days. Henry Ford literally cried when they replaced his Model T with the Model A, even though it had been out of date for years. As a teenager, my big thing was memorizing the taillight designs for all the GM models from the 1960s through the 1970s, since this was the one design detail that definitely could be counted on to be changed from year to year, which aided my car spotting efforts. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

  3. Glenn Scott Krasner says

    Mike,

    I’ve known those Chevy Tri-Fives since I was ten years old. However, I still have to learn the Chrysler/Plymouth/DeSoto Tri-Fives – I love those ’57 DeSesoto Firedomes and Fireflites with their sculptured sides and tremendous tailfins!!! Especially, the convertibles are phenomenal looking. The Chrysler Corporation lineup from ’55, 56′, and ’57 make those Chevies look small in comparison.

    Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

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