In cars, as with people, beauty is only skin deep

One of our regular community contributors, Tony Corvo is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, holds a Ph.D. in physics, is a longtime Ohio and Greene County resident and author of ‘All Politics is Loco.’

My wife and I recently bought a new car.

If you’ve been looking at new cars or are just naturally observant, you may have noticed the same thing we did: cars, in the same class, regardless of make, have pretty much evolved the same look.

I don’t mean in the sense like at one time all cars had big ugly fins. But as teenagers, my peers and I could have identified a Plymouth Roadrunner from a Pontiac GTO from a good distance without much effort. I’m not sure you can say that today between a Honda CR-V and a Ford Edge.

For a good part of auto history, marketing told engineering, “People want these features, here are the requirements, now design the cars.” Today, engineering tells marketing, “We have new fuel specs, here are the designs, now sell the cars.”

Although this relational flip is not completely true, it’s true enough. So what happened?

It’s hard to imagine now, but at one time consumers demanded big cars; not necessarily for any special purpose, but just because bigger was better. These cars required high horse power gas guzzling engines capable of reaching ridiculous street speeds. But then came air pollution and oil embargoes, and we started to talk less about MPH and more about MPG.

Since a higher MPG means lower fuel consumption and less pollution, MPG became a major specification behind practically all car designs. And if you have to squeeze every drop from every gallon, then you have to make cars smaller, lighter and aerodynamically slicker to cut through the air with minimum resistance.

Physics tells you how to do that without caring what you and the marketing department think. Thus, Isaac Newton posthumously became the figurative head of all automobile design departments.

A smaller car meant the floor hump had to go, which led to side mounted engines, front wheel drive, and the loss of fully functioning spare tires. A lighter car meant less metal and more plastic. And, of course, a slicker car meant smooth curved edges with the same general optimal aerodynamic shape.

When asked what colors the Model-T came in, Henry Ford purportedly said, “You can have them in any color, as long as it’s black.” If Newton were alive today he might say, “Ye may haveth any design thou desires, as long as it be shaped as an egg.” (That is, assuming Newton talked that way.)

I recently had a blast driving my grand nephew’s 1970 396 Chevy Nova SS. But as the old saying goes, you can’t go home again, and as we reminisce about the good old days, we have to be careful about our nostalgia getting the better of us.

At 18, I thought my era’s muscle cars had lots of raw power and with regards to looks, great “personalities.” However, they failed miserably when it came to comfort, safety and quality.

Today, if cars are going to differ, it can’t be on looks; they’ll have to differ on comfort, safety and quality features. Speaking as a Golden Buckeye cardholder, as opposed to an 18 year old, that’s plenty of personality for me.