The Visual Language in Automotive Design 1960s till now

Bimg_0893y Stanislav Nachev 

There is something common between the Jetsons, the Tesla Model S P90D, and the 1962 Ford Thunderbird. No, I am not talking about what cars George Jetson could’ve bought after the show’s first run in ’62. Instead I am more interested in how the show started a process of imagining the future in terms of visual design, shapes, colors, and forms as early as the 60s. The Jetsons is very much part of popular culture and despite its short run in the 60s, it came back in the 80s, which was another fruitful decade for popular culture, more specifically, reimagine what the future would look like.


More interestingly, the show debuted around the same time Ford came up with its third generation of the Thunderbird. It was also the first time Ford came up with the ‘projectile’ look and design. Hence, it was very much part of the movement started by the Jetsons, to move forward into the future. The 1960s are characterized by their strife for picturing and re-imagining the Future. It was a sort of recantation but in future tense, reliving and rethinking how people would live. The Ford Motor Company strived for the same and people loved it. The Thunderbird was popular and sold because of its futuristic design. Its advertising portrayed a new design in person luxury transportation.

Unlike the Ford Thunderbird, elements of which would have been present in some Soviet Era cars I vaguely remember, the Jetsons I have very good and fond memories of. The cartoon show in its day  perpetuated the image of what our future should look like. From houses to flat screen TVs, to escalators, to cars. I mean who wouldn’t want to zip above all the traffic stalling along major highways and intersection. Of course that would make for a messy air traffic control.

1962 Ford Thunderbird Ad-05

Ford, very much like the car that George Jetson piloted in the cartoon, wanted to project itself forward and be a part of a future, which others have not yet imagined. In the design of the Thunderbird one can see sleek shapes and minimalist lines but one can also notice the rear headlights shaped like afterburners of a spacecraft. The rear fenders and quarter panels are adorned with winglets that follow a line from the front of the car all the way back. Despite their lack of physical functionality these elements have a deeper meaning shaping the Thunderbird as not just a car for the road but a vehicle to propel us into the Future.

I had similar impressions when sitting for the first time in the new Tesla Model S. The p90D, despite its uninspiring and heavy on numerics name, is a vehicle that propels one and his family very quickly into the future, just like the Jetson’s car. Perhaps not in the distant future but the near one for sure. Once, one hits the throttle pedal, literally, his body experiences over 1g and moves much quickly than anything else around. Thereby, momentarily fast forwarding to the point when a speeding ticket would be the inevitable outcome.

2015-11-20 19.20.40

However, speed isn’t the only party piece of the P90D. It’s astonishing design continues the lineage of George Jetson’s flying car and the Thunderbird. The overall design aims to have the most efficient drag coefficient and most important aims to propel its occupants into the Future. The droplet shape of the car helps with that, however, is only noticeable when one stands beside it and looks at it from the side. The bright luminous LED lights, despite being efficient, are shaped like a set of eyes in an attempt to warm the soul upon an initial gaze. Every element of the Model S is aimed at making the statement that this is the Future. Ford saw it one way in the 60s and now Tesla sees it visually differently. Yet they share one thing, their strife to imagine what the Future would be like before anyone else, similar to the creators of the Jetsons.

George Jetson may be just a fictional character in a cartoon long forgotten but he never realized that his fiction ended up being our reality. Most of what we see in the show we have a modern equivalent of, minus the flying cars of course. It is through the narrative of the show that children and families in the 1960s could dream about what the Future could be. Unlike them, we have the privilege to live like the Jetsons without always having the money of the Jet set. Culture allows us to establish a context for what we want our future to be like. Whether it is filled with electric cars, flying cars, or simply beautiful cars it is up to us to architecture it and design it. It is up to us to project ourselves in our thoughts into the Future and not wait around for it come by.


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