As an automotive journalist, I'm supposed to be on the cutting edge of all the latest car-related trends.
I have to admit, though, when it comes to matters of styling, I'm often closer to the dull edge. It's not that I don't care how a car looks. I do. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.
So I shouldn't have been surprised to find out while talking to a vehicle designer, that a major automotive styling trend had slipped past me unnoticed. "We're discontinuing our 'in-your-face' designs," he told me. "We're getting rid of our ribbed cladding and power bulges."
My initial reaction was, "My goodness, that sounds painful. I hope you'll be on the mend soon." But then I realized that the "in-your-face" design they were discontinuing was my own car.
If I was humiliated, though, it was only momentary. Oh, maybe I was a little bit embarrassed that, as a journalist, I hadn't seen it coming.
But as a car owner, I didn't feel an ounce of shame. If the automotive writers want to refer to my car as "frumpy" or "dowdy" (two favorite terms), I won't be humiliated. And if automakers want to discontinue my model, I won't be bothered--for the same reason that I don't feel a twinge of envy when someone speeds past me in a red Ferrari.
To some, that might sound un-American. In this country, after all, we claim that we are defined by the cars we drive. Men, in particular, are supposed to fantasize about driving an Aston Martin to a casino in Monaco, and then roaring off afterwards with a leggy model named Ursula. Or at least driving a shiny new Jimmy to a truck stop in Kansas for a quick snack, and roaring off afterwards with a gum-popping waitress named Irma.
But my mind has never worked that way. And I think I know why. The problem is, I'm an engineer. Or at least a former engineer. And engineers tend to be, well...practical. We are more interested in a vehicle's engine, transmission, suspension, and cost. While others imagine themselves driving along a moonlit beach in the south of France, we fantasize about spending our Saturday nights milling out a hunk of aluminum for our transmission's valve body.
What's more, we tend not to be very fashion-conscious. This may sound cruel, but engineering is not known as the world's best-dressed profession. Engineers often wear mismatched socks. Or mismatched shirts and pants. Sometimes, it seems like an achievement if we remember to wear any pants. Many of us own just one suit, the style of which could best be described as "1958 Sears Roebuck." Long ago, I even knew an engineer who, after ripping a pocket on his dress shirt, stapled it back together. Then he wore it that way, off and on, for nearly a year.
By now, you get the point: Engineers are, in general, fashion-challenged.
Which is why, after the automotive designer told me about "in-your-face" design, I had to return to my office and search through automotive journals to find out what it meant. Sure enough, I learned that such vehicles do exist. And they tend to be too expressive. In some cases, they are overstated, aggressive, and bold.
To be honest, I had never thought of my car's design as overstated. True, it's expressive. But I always thought that the theme it expressed was, "This guy doesn't have much money."
If I were style-conscious, I'd know what to do right now. Automakers--even American automakers--are moving to ward a design philosophy called "less is more." Less-is-more cars are characterized by smooth, fluid-like lines. They are supposed to be clean and uncluttered, yet simple and elegant. And everyone seems to agree that their design is more cultured.
So you'd think that I'd just go buy a less-is-more vehicle and be done with it. But I won't. If I did, I'd just face the same dilemma all over again. Five years from now, some automotive designer would sidle up to me and say, "Haven't you heard? We're replacing less-is-more with 'short-but-fat.'" And then I would again wonder whether I should be ashamed of my vehicle's out-of-date design.
So let them call me frumpy or dowdy or whatever. I don't care. I'm not letting the automotive style police dictate to me. As an engineer, or at least a former engineer, I can't stand that much introspection.
And I would expound further on this subject, but right now I've got some stapling to do. My shirt pocket is torn again.
Do engineers care about styling? Contact Chuck at email@example.com with your comments.†
Editor Chuck Murray decides to sell his frumpy old car, buy an Aston Martin, and move to Monaco and become a professional gambler. He sells his car for $9,000 to an engineer in the neighborhood who takes out a five-year loan. If the interest rate is 15% and the payback is to be made annually on an equal-amount basis, how much does the buyer have to pay each year?