Last fall Car & Driver writer, Jim Hall, wrote about how pedestrian safety regulations were affecting car design. He described it as a cascade of consequences resulting from the requirement to add a little less than an inch of space between the car’s hood line and the hard objects hidden beneath.
While currently the majority of these regulations for pedestrian protection are coming from European countries and Japan, they also affect the design of cars in the US.
In last year’s Autoweek Fantasy Camp it was very noticeable how bloated the front ends of cars were becoming as well as the striking similarities in their design. I supposed that with computer aided design of cars that once the consequences of regulation are factored into the structure of a typical front end there is little of substance that can be done to reflect a brand’s style other than the grill shape or the headlight design.
Pedestrian collisions happen most commonly when the front of a vehicle strikes the pedestrian. This might be a bit surprising since that is where the driver focuses most of their attention, or at least should be. But 54% of pedestrian impacts are off the front of the car and 29% are off the side. Presumably the first is due to a lack of attention by the driver and the second is due to a lack of attention on the part of the pedestrian. For those of you that care 5% involves the rear of the car and the remaining 12% is classified as “unknown”.
The fatality rate in Europe is 14 pedestrians per million, the US is 17, and Japan is 23. If a pedestrian is walking in front of a vehicle and the driver hits the brakes the pedestrian usually ends up on the ground in the front of the vehicle, but if the vehicle keeps moving the pedestrian is lifted off the ground and ends up on the windshield.
Those plastic engine covers that gear heads find so obnoxious also serve the purpose of cushioning a pedestrian’s impact with the vehicle’s hood. Volvo has tested a hood where an air-bag type of device lifts the rear of the hood away from the cowl in a pedestrian impact. In 2006 Citroen and Jaguar came out with cars that had pop-up hoods (bonnets) that would add over 2” of crumple space for the body of a pedestrian if the bumper sensed an impact. Mazda has developed a “shock cone” aluminum hood where the underside is made up of conical depressions that are there to absorb impact loads as well as provide stiffness for the hood.
With all these safety devices permeating our vehicles they are not only rolling computer networks but pyrotechnic devices ready to pad itself with inflatable bags at a moments notice.
As we look at today’s cars we also notice a certain sameness that has come over front end design. It looks odd, but in a nice way. Take a look at the front end style of cars and you might notice a certain pattern of design. It comes in threes.
A few years back a friend of mine and his wife were looking to build a house on some land that they had acquired. They wanted it to be a two-story house and so they started going out and looking through neighborhoods for two-story houses that they might like to borrow as a design basis for their own. So when I asked him how things were going he said, “Five over four and a door”. I wasn’t quite sure if he was going daft so he explained that while colors, siding, roof design were varied, most two-story homes they saw all had the same layout on their front side. There would be five windows on the second floor and a doorway in the middle of the front of the first floor flanked by two windows on each side. Hence, five over four and a door.
I have noticed a similar design rut in car front end design. It is a radiator between a pair of headlights, a space, and then three holes underneath.
There are variations, to be sure, but the basic layout is almost always the same. In the early days of cars the front ends had a distinctive radiator out in front because the heat generated by the engine had to be dealt with. Headlights were on either side and then underneath was a bumper that stood out from the body and fenders. Like this:
In the modern era we have dispensed with separate bumper and instead have a crash beam covered typically with a polyurethane “bumper cover”. The radiator is behind the beam and a pair of stylized headlights are on either side of the radiator that is still there to get rid of the heat generated by the engine, but is tucked in behind a grill, like so:
So let’s look at the front ends of many different brands of cars:
Notice the pattern?
I also noticed a distinctive feature of the shape of the wheel opening around the fenders of a car. A flat line. On some cars it might only be about a half an inch, but in others it can be rather large.
Back in the day the arch of a wheel opening was an area for real style to be displayed. The subtle blending of the arch into the main part of the car’s body. To look at the front fenders of an E-type Jaguar was to view sensual curves that conveyed, not an effeminate character, but transitioned into a strong and masculine body that promised the power that it delivered.
The swoop of a 1950’s Chevy fender showed a unique American style that also portrayed power and grace, but in a very American way.
But today’s cars have a flat character line that permeates the design of fender openings:
This one manages to do it twice on the same fender:
I am not sure just what is causing this styling flat line to permeate fender lines, but I think it has gone far enough. It would be nice to bring back a fender flare that promised more than just transportation.