supercar / CC0 1.0.

Classic Lines, Modern Features – Can These Go Together?

Are you wondering why you’re constantly seeing fewer of your favorite classic vehicle styles? True, fans of vintage cars count their ranks among the young and old alike, but such vehicles are becoming rarer by the day.

While such trends are partially due to changing social attitudes about what looks good, factors like safety, technology, cost and regulation all play their part in the ongoing transformation of vehicle design. Here are a few things you might not know about what sets the automobiles of the past apart from those constructed in the modern era.

How Car Design Trends Have Changed Over Time / CC0 1.0. / CC0 1.0.

Consumer opinion changes with time, and manufacturers change their ways accordingly. For instance, the large-fender, whitewall-tire aesthetic that was originally the hallmark of American cars emerged in foreign markets along with popular cinematic exports, like American Graffiti and The Great Race. Vehicle makers naturally adapted styles and designs in response to public demand.

Of course, design trends owe their existence to more than just movies and commercials; engineering practices and tools also make a difference. For instance, the widespread application of computer aided design (CAD) software starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s made it economically feasible to do new things. While the vehicle designers of earlier decades were certainly skilled artists in their own right, drafting complex curves and intricate parts took far more work when such tasks were performed exclusively with pencil and paper.

The Evolution of Car Safety

Over time, consumers also became increasingly aware of other factors, such as vehicle safety. The publication of vehicle crash tests and the institution of safety standards influenced automakers and drivers alike, and the results were significant.

Vehicles sold in the United States, for example, weren’t required to include seat belts until Title 49 of the United States Code was passed in January 1968. While this isn’t a major visual design factor, it’s indicative of the changing attitudes that influenced the market.

Seat belts were among the first safety systems. Image courtesy of State Farm on Flickr.

Seat belts were among the first safety systems.Image courtesy of State Farm on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other now-standard safety features, like crumple zones that intentionally collapse to absorb vehicle impacts, weren’t always as prevalent as they are today. For decades, common opinion held that vehicles needed to be rigid to survive crashes. This concept often led to the construction of wide, long frames and solid bodies.

What about the old idea that big tank-like vehicles would come out better in collisions? Although rigid cars often did better in impacts with smaller ones, the passengers, who didn’t have the benefit of air bags and collapsible steering columns, didn’t always fare as well. Modern safety standards take both vehicles involved in a crash into account; the goal is maximum safety. Design features that protected one car at the expense of another were eventually dropped in favor of those that kept all occupants as safe as possible.

Well-Defined Standards and Car Ratings

Organizations like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t always exist. As a result, classic manufacturers could once be far more flexible about the safety of their designs.

Nowadays, however, consumer bodies and insurance testers publish detailed information on the kinds of tests cars have to adhere to to obtain high ratings. Manufacturers take these considerations into account when making new cars, and as the IIHS admits, original classic designs often failed to do so.

Car Technology Advances

Classic car designs were also shaped by the practical limitations of vehicle know how. Many of the advanced metal alloys used in a modern Honda, for example, weren’t even available to the major car makers of the 1980s. These materials can be manufactured to incorporate strengthening structural folds and other features that make them more likely to stand up to impacts and survive. Modern alloys and high-strength plastics can also make vehicles lighter without sacrificing durability or compromising safety, meaning that modern passengers can stay secure without as much bulk.

Also bear in mind that the same computer technologies that began to drive aesthetic design following the classic car era also contributed to safety. Engineers gained the ability to simulate crashes before they actually sent their designs to the plant, and this definitely influenced how they constructed vehicles.

Critical Cost Considerations

Most countries use legislation to promote the importation of specific vehicle types. Cars that adhere to modern safety standards, for example, may be cheaper to bring into a particular nation and sell successfully. Import tariffs and environmental regulations often make it easier for vehicle makers to build cars that satisfy more contemporary values and design principles. In short, classic cars simply aren’t as profitable for automakers.

Drivers are also more savvy about vehicle operating costs than they were in the early days. In 1973, the price of oil nearly quadrupled as a result of the oil crisis. Changing public attitudes following this event can be directly linked to the increased popularity of compact Japanese and European imports that cost less to run. Even though many of these vehicles initially encountered high tariffs and trade restrictions, they were still wildly successful, and their prosperity prompted American manufacturers to make changes as well.

By the time oil prices leveled out, drivers were used to cars with increased fuel efficiency, and few wanted to return to the old standard. Smaller, more economical engines and lighter frames remained extremely popular. The fact that many of these cars also had more responsive handling characteristics and better emissions qualities only increased their appeal to a broad range of drivers.

The Final Word

So is the classic car aesthetic gone? Probably not, but factors like safety and technological advances are impossible to ignore. Vehicle manufacturers who want to move forward know that they’re competing with major innovations by other manufacturers, and to survive, they’ll have to keep pace.

As much as they love classic cars, vehicle buyers know they don’t have to settle for their potential flaws to enjoy them. While vintage models are certainly worth preserving and keeping around, the simple fact that you can save money and stay safe in a modern car may change the way you feel about what you drive.

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