A massive shift in consumer automotive preference was telegraphed 42 years ago, but auto industry executives didn’t notice. That’s when the Ford F-Series pickup truck became the best-selling vehicle in the America, a title it’s never relinquished.
The new-car buyer swing to crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks has reached a crescendo. Those models account for about 70 percent of new light-vehicle sales.
Examine today’s most popular crossovers, and you’ll see that they mimic sedans of the late 1930s. They have what the auto industry calls a “two-box” design. The term comes from the vehicle’s profile. Look at the section from the front bumper to the windshield; that’s one box. From the windshield to the rear bumper is the second box. If it were a sedan, there would be a third box, from the rear window to the bumper.
Both a 1939 Ford Deluxe (or “Fordor”) Sedan and the 2019 Ford Escape use two-box design. Moreover, their size, length, height and ground clearance measure within 1 or 2 inches of each other.
“If these two cars have a commonality of dimensions, I don’t think it is a mere coincidence,” said Taro Ueda, vice president of Nissan Design America. “I think that human- and usability-centered design has made it so. One thing that did not significantly change in 80 years was the dimension of the average human being.”
The basic two-box design is a what Holt Ware, exterior design director for Chevrolet cars and crossovers, calls a happy medium. “You have good couple distance, good shoulder and lateral room, and you have enough cargo room.”
But the size similarities don’t mean that little has changed in the eight decades between the Deluxe and the Escape.
“That would be a little bit of a disservice to how advanced the cars are and how much more space-efficient that they are,” said Ralph Gilles, vice president of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
“I think that although dimensionally we’re the same, there are different reasons for getting there,” said Moray Callum, vice president of design for Ford Motor Co.
“A 1930s sedan and modern crossover have vast differences in the usefulness, utility and the functionality of the vehicle.”
But the cars of yesteryear still have something to teach modern-day designers.
“I do think there’s something to learn from ingress, egress and interiors that we don’t spend enough time doing,” Callum said, “And I think some of the interior materials were actually much more adventurous.”
Others echo Callum’s sentiment.
“Looking back at the ’30s and ’40s, I just love the dash-to-axle ratio in those vehicles,” said Chevrolet’s Ware. “The front wheels are way far forward, and you get that dramatic proportion.”
But giving a modern crossover a distinctive look is every bit as challenging as sculpting a distinctive car 80 years ago.
“It’s actually much more challenging to give these cars a unique character based on the fact that the utility is making them all the same,” Callum said. “I think we all need to look at ways of differentiating ourselves, and that has to start with design.”
Chevrolet is tracking an automotive styling gravitation back to more sculptural excitement in vehicle’s surfaces.
“We’ve been pushing Chevrolet to get there,” Ware said. “The main reason why is because the human love for sculptural surfaces is coming back, and we’re enabled to do that by the technology.”
But, whatever shape vehicles take, they’ll probably have the same size and interior space that they have now and in 1939.
“Styling of a car reflects the brand and sense of times,” Nissan’s Ueda said. “But ultimately the most important factor is the excellence of package design.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
Compare the overall package size of the 2019 Ford Escape and the 1939 Ford Deluxe Sedan.
- Deluxe: 112 inches
- Escape: 105.9 inches
- Deluxe: 179.5 inches
- Escape: 178 inches
- Deluxe: 68.6 inches
- Escape: 66.3 inches
- Deluxe: 8 inches
- Escape: 7.9 inches
- Deluxe: 16 inches
- Escape: 18 inches
- Deluxe: 22-28 mpg, estimated by Ford
- Escape: 23-26 mpg, estimate by Environmental Protection Agency