Every Car on the Road Looks the Same. That Wasn’t Always the Case

A new book details the best, worst and wackiest designs from the likes of BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and more.

(Bloomberg) — It’s easy to feel bored with new cars today. Designs driven by safety and emissions standards have reduced many of them to looking like lozenges or home appliances at best. Half the time, if you remove the brand badging, it’s difficult to tell them apart. That’s if you can remember them at all.

Here’s an antidote for the malaise: The Atlas of Car Design ($150, Phaidon) by Jason Barlow and Guy Bird. It’s a symphony of fins, wedges, bubbles, rivets, pop-up headlights and hundreds of air vents located in the most unexpected places. Organized by region, country and timeline, the more than 650 vehicles from 190 automakers and 30 countries—plus associated advertising, studio shots and vintage photography—are pure delight to see.

There’s the Saab 900 Aero with its three-spoke steering wheel and Ikea-ready Scandinavian silhouette. The DeLorean DMC-12 is there in all of its gull-winged, scandal-fueled glory. So is the obscure Rover SD1 hatchback that haunted British roads in the late 1970s. Here are a few more.  

Despite their large, elegant appearance, early Duesenberg cars were racers. In 1920, one won the French Grand Prix; subsequently, they won the Indy 500 four times. The Model J arrived in 1929 with a V-8 engine and an allure that appealed to Hollywood: Gary Cooper and Clark Gable were early owners, so was Greta Garbo. In 2018, Cooper’s 1935 Duesenberg SSJ sold for $22 million at a Gooding & Co. auction during Monterey Car Week. The sale set a record for an American car sold at public auction. 

Designed by Battista Pinin Farina, the man behind the famous Italian coachbuilding and design house, the Cisitalia 202 was among the first prominent cars to come out of Italy after World War II. It was notable for its fully integrated form devoid of the wacky flares, then prominent, out of Detroit. It appeared at New York’s Museum of Modern Art automobile exhibit in 1951, but just 170 were made.  

The Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz is a classic example of the large, long, heavy cars that the US produced in the 1950s and 1960s. It was made to explore the design possibilities of the tail fin detail on the backs of cars. The inspiration came from P-38 Lightning, Lockheed Corp.’s single-seater fighter aircraft. This car was 19 feet long and appeared on the cover of Life magazine in an issue celebrating the centenary of the automobile. 

The tiny Isetta was a tactic by BMW after World War II to create inexpensive vehicles that didn’t require too many components. At just over seven feet long, it had a literal front door, with the steering wheel attached. BMW called it a “motocoupe” and charged the equivalent of just $1,400 in today’s money. More than 160,000 were made. 

The Fiat Nuova, an Italian version of the Volkswagen Beetle, was built on simplicity, with a fabric roof and contoured body panels intended to reduce the amount of (expensive) steel used on each one. As the book says, the Fiat Nuova 500 weighed just over 1,000 pounds and was “effectively a four-wheeled Vespa.” It gained a happy following: In 1970, more than 350,000 were sold in Italy. 

Introduced in 1953, the Corvette was named after the British navy ships beloved for their nimble cruising capabilities. It reached new heights with the Sting Ray of the early 1960s, which boasted a “spine” similar to the ineffable Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic. The final design included pop-up headlights, a sharklike front end and a roaring V-8 engine. The American icon has never stopped production, with modern versions earning rave reviews even today. 

Volvo’s 140 series was the start of its boxy design phase, a project that started in 1960 and can still be seen in the marque today. The series came in two- and four-door versions, with multiple body shapes, including a five-door estate version. The layout is informed by safety more than aesthetics or sex appeal, with such notable details as the steering wheel repositioning far away from the windshield and roof-bar reinforcements leading the charge. The formula worked: More than 1 million were made.


The Studebaker Avanti was fiberglass two-door, four-seat coupe distinctive for its dual round headlights and grille-less nose. But it also made waves by breaking speed records (in supercharged form) in 1962 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Production remained low: Studebaker made fewer than 3,900 in 1963 and discontinued them after that. 

The Bronco emerged from Ford’s focus on making utility vehicles in the 1960s. As such, the wheels of the truck sit at the farthest corners of its body, with minimal overhangs, while the body itself is short, almost stubby. The nameplate existed for generations before Ford discontinued it in 1996—only to bring it back in 2021. First-Edition Ford Broncos of the modern era sold out almost instantly. 

The Mercedes SL (sports leicht, or light) came with a soft or hard top and a special windscreen strong enough to support the car’s weight in the event of a rollover. It started the prime era of Mercedes’ SL line, which was beloved by stylish businesspeople, artists and, most famously, Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980). The line continues to this day with the Mercedes-AMG SL 55 and -AMG SL 63. 

The Mazda RX-7 was meant as a way to enhance fuel efficiency—this was after the oil crises of 1973—and show off a low center of gravity, which the company achieved by putting the engine behind the front axle. With its retractable headlights and rear glass hatchback, the car quickly gained a fervent following similar to those who loved Porsche’s 924 of the early 1970s.

The supremely rare Wikov 45 Kapka was named after the shape of its body (“drop”), but as the book notes, it looks kind of like a giant torpedo on wheels. The vents on the nose help draw in cooling air, while wings over the rear wheels enhance the streamlined look. According to the authors, only six were ever built. 

The Atlas of Car Design is available in two colorways and finishes: a high-gloss Rally Red or Onyx finished in a black leatherette. With a foreword by automotive journalist Brett Berk, it’s available now in bookstores and on phaidon.com. 


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