How Auto And Car Design Have Changed


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the saying goes. And car design has certainly thrown up some distinctive looks down the years - some of which have been caught the public’s imaginations more successfully than others.

Even if we say so ourselves, we like to think we sell some of the best-looking cars around - from the Fiat 124 Spider to the Audi R8.

We got a huge response to our recent 66 Most Important Cars In History article, which attempted to pinpoint some of the most important car designs of all time.

So this time, we wanted to focus on how car design has evolved, and show how this has often been led by wider changes in fashion, and particularly, clothing.

In the interests of being impartial - and because, well, we like looking at beautiful cars - we’ve raided the archives to look at how the relationship between cars and the fashions of the day have evolved.

Within the motor industry, the most influential and successful designers - the likes of Giugiaro, Bertone and Pininfarina - have often been held in the same high regard as their equivalents in the fashion world, like Yves St Laurent, Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

But because they tend to work in anonymous factories well out of public sight, rather than swanky offices in the world’s ritziest, glitziest cities, they don’t get anything like the same recognition.

With this article, we want to do our little bit to change that.

So put your feet up and take a look at the examples of the car designs which have left an indelible mark on time, from the advent of the motor car in the late 19th century to the present day.

1886 - Benz Patent Motorwagen

Seen as the first true car, it nevertheless looked very much like the horse-drawn carriages which were the main transport of the time. And it was also open to the weather, so driver and passenger ran the real risk of having their outfits ruined. Outfits such as these, as portrayed by artist James Tissot in his painting The Bridesmaid.


1910s - Ford Model T

Any colour as long as it’s black - Sir Henry Ford’s famous response to an enquiry as to whether his signature model was available in any other hue is also a maxim which many fashion designers stick to this day. But even then, this turns out to be an urban myth, as the car was also available in red and green.

Women’s fashions at this time were all about fluid, soft silhouettes, big hats, and short hair, as you can see here.

1920s - Ford Four-Door Sedan

Eventually becoming known as the Model A, this car sold more than two million within a year of its 1927 launch. It was a jack-of-all-trades car, produced in more than 20 body styles, so launching a trend for crossing over between styles and markets which continues to this day.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the time, being one of cinema’s first glamour couples. Their clothes show clearly why cars of the time had big, wide doors to make them easy to get into and out of in all your finery.

1930s - Mercedes-Benz 500K Roadster

Another car in which a standard chassis would be topped by a variety of body styles, a 1936 model sold for $1.43million at auction in 2014. Designer Ralph Cox’s imagination was fired by the modern aeroplanes of the day which were breaking all kinds of speed and distance records.

Men’s fashion of this time was characterised by padded shoulders and large jacket lapels, as worn here by Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney.

[PIC CREDIT: By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Fisher, Alan, photographer. - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.]


1940s - Jaguar XK120

Throwing off the shackles imposed by World War II, this car’s arrival in 1948 heralded a raft of technical innovations only previously seen in race cars. But when it was clothed in such a sleek, low-slung body, we don’t think these were the first thing on the minds of the bright young things who drove it.

The post-war period also saw mass consumerism get into its stride, and lots of women started to demand more comfortable, easy-to-wear clothes for trips to their local shops, as seen here in a branch of Woolworth’s.


1950s - Chevrolet Corvette

Chevrolet owner General Motors was seen as a staid and stodgy brand by most - until it shook the car world with the first model to carry this name. The brand proved so popular that it lives on to this day, but true car aficionados hanker after the version known as the ‘Mako Shark’, which was produced between 1968 and 1982, and which is named after a real breed of underwater predator. Designer Bill Mitchell is widely credited with having heralded in the era of the American ‘muscle car’.

Softer silhouettes, and designs allowing the wearer plenty of ease of movement were the watchwords around this time - rock n’ roll was born, and everyone wanted to be able to do the energetic, new dances of the day.

1960s - Jaguar E Type

Malcolm Sayer is one of that breed of car designers mentioned in our intro, who’ve had the knack of creating models which sum up exactly what the mood of the day was about. If it’d been born 50 years later, this sleek beauty would be all over the training grounds at our Premier League football clubs. George Best did own one, and it sold for auction in October 2015 for £43,000.

The Beatles swept all before them in the music world, and did more than any other group to influence men’s fashion of the time, whether it was their original ‘mop tops’ or the more sophisticated, tailored look as worn here when they landed in America for their first tour in 1964.


1970s - Citroen SM

We had to squeeze in an entry from the fashionable French somewhere, and this is it. Its aerodynamic body meant it could shoot to a top speed of 140mph despite having a relatively modest 170bhp engine. This car was the most obvious sign of Citroen’s buy-out of a majority share in Italian car-maker Maserati in the late-1960s, adding a big dose of Italian flair to the technically advanced mechanics.

Fashion-wise this was probably the fastest-moving decade of all, with punk blasting off in the second half of the decade, partly as a response to the way fashions had become standardised, and trying to push the boundaries in terms of looks and ‘non-style’.

1980s - Ford Escort XR3i

This was the decade when car-makers scrambled to give sporting and stylistic pretensions to even their most mainstream models. But the one effort which took off more than any other was this, which nailed the balance between performance and practicality. The fact that Princess Diana owned a more upmarket version, the RS Turbo, gave the hot Escort models the ultimate fashion seal of approval.

And of course, fashion took many of its cues from Princess Diana herself, who inspired masses of coverage - and was snapped many thousands of times - wherever she went.


1990s - Mazda MX-5

Selling by the transporter-load, this Japanese entry managed to nail the concept of the lightweight, affordable sports car which was also easy to live with. It went on to become the best-selling two-seater convertible in history, thanks largely to its fun, responsive handling. By bringing open-top driving to the masses, Mazda showed that drivers of all ages could be tempted with that wind-in-the-hair driving feeling. And that’s why this model remains on sale to this day.

Madonna was probably fashion’s biggest icon of the 90s, her changing styles being at the forefront of a decade in which designers introduced ever more ‘new’ trends, as they looked to cash in on much wider interest in their work.


2000s - Fiat 500

We all know this little car as one of the best sellers of today, but did you know that the original 500 appeared in 1957? Since Dante Giacosa’s cute original was reborn for the original’s 50th anniversary, it’s gone on to carve out a major niche among modern buyers for its cheeky, rounded looks and almost endless customisation options.


Rap and hip-hop were the big musical influences here, so while we looked to make our cars more and more distinctive, artists like Jay-Z wanted to make it easy for their audiences to relate to them, so brought fashion closer to the street.


2010s - Volkswagen Up!/SEAT Mii/Skoda Citigo

Living up to the maxim ‘small is beautiful’, the VW Group has also pulled off the clever trick of making a nippy runabout which is right at home in the city yet that also feels roomy on the inside. Although all three of these cars share the same DNA and a whole host of parts, they have subtle styling differences. Yet their low running costs and frugal fuel consumption tap into lots of owners’ demand for a car which - literally - doesn’t cost the earth.

Designer Walter De Silva was probably the best-known name in car design in the 21st century up to his retirement in 2015 - he worked on everything from these down-to-earth city runabouts to the Alfa Romeo 156 and Audi R8.

On the fashion front, revivals have been big news, including the hipster look, which harks back heavily to the casual side of the 1950s and 60s, with workwear looking increasingly less formal - and artists such as Taylor Swift harnessing social media to create new trends with massive followings.


Today - Fashion And Auto Design In Harmony

Generally, car and clothes designers work in their own little bubbles, and it’s quite rare for their paths to cross.

But in 2013, Cadillac broke the mould. Launching its new XTS family saloon, it played heavily on how every detail of the interior design had been influenced by high-end fashion, and the company deliberately set out to forge links between the two industries. Its promo material used phrases like “bold, elegant design” and “new expression of luxury” to encapsulate the car’s stand-out features.

Even as Americans were being sold this car on the basis of its high-fashion credentials, here in the UK you only have to look at how models such as the Fiat 500 and Citroen C1 are put together to appreciate that they’re aimed squarely at young, fashion-conscious buyers.


Car-makers are embracing what they see as these drivers’ wish to be seen in a car that’s as unique as it can be, offering stacks of options to enable them to personalise their vehicle, and make it, effectively, an expression of their own personality.

From endlessly interchangeable interiors to every shade of paint job under the sun, it’s never been easier to drive around in a car which is as individual as its owner. We’ve certainly come a long way from Henry Ford’s day.

Sample for yourself an eye-popping variety of state-of-the-art new cars at your nearest Swansway Group dealership. Located across the Midlands and north-west, we represent 14 of the biggest and most-loved motoring brands, including Volkswagen and Fiat.