Detroit, MI

How Did Car Design in the Motor City Evolve Over the Years - Exhibit at Detroit Institute of Arts

Heather Raulerson

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Calling all car enthusiasts! There is a new exhibit at the Detroit Insitute of Arts - Car Design in Motor City 1950-2020. Detroit has always been at the forefront of car design in America from the beginning. And this exhibit does a fabulous job in showcasing how the car’s design has changed over each decade and what it took to make those changes. Come and explore with me as I show you muscle cars, hot rods, and some bizarre cars (I still can’t describe them) in this wonderful demonstration of how designers created the vehicles you are driving around today!

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During the 1950s, designers created cars with cues from the sky. They pulled in details and features like sweeping fins, sharp front ends, and bomb-shaped elements reminiscent of fighter planes and rocket ships. These cars reflected the celebratory feeling of winning World War II, and you can see how the military features made their way into the cars during this decade. Check out the 5-foot-high fin and the glass bubble enclosure on the Car for Tomorrow. And the first Chrysler 300 looks a lot different from the one on the roads today, but even then, it was designed for speed with its 375-horsepower under the hood.

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A fascinating aspect of this exhibit is that you can walk through the entire process of how a car is designed from a concept, refinement on a larger scale, modeling in clay, to the final stage of engineering and manufacturing. You will see tons of sketches that were used for brainstorming sessions as the cars are being developed. Some of these sketches show vehicles in motion or even more detailed drawings on portions of the car like the taillight.

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This process is still used today as a car begins as an abstract idea/concept on paper. Then design teams sketch and draw for hundreds of hours, focusing on the lines, shapes and eventually sharpening the details and adding color. Then the drawings evolve with more designers being added to the project until they develop one refined design.

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In the 1960s, it was all about speed and the thrill of racing. The design of the 1960 cars morphed from looking like jets to having more clean lines and sculpted surfaces to show the power and speed of the vehicle. During the 1970s, the Detroit designers created some of the most iconic vehicles - the Muscle Cars. These cars had long hoods and powerful engines that evoke fantasies of freedom driving across the open highway.

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Then came the 1980s! It was all about efficiency in the design of the vehicles due to the new environmental protection laws. Aerodynamics became a big part of the plan, with designers adding sleek, unified curves to reduce wind drag and increase gas mileage. And with technology starting to expand to the masses, the computer started showing up in cars.

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The next decade of the 90s saw designers pulling nostalgia from the past and tweaking that with visions of the future. This decade was a pivotal time when some designers used designs from the past and updated them to others that went a completely different route on the design, creating new forms of vehicles that haven’t been seen yet.

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Today, the market is driven by demand for sport-utility vehicles and trucks. This leads the car’s design away from the traditional two- and four-door cars that have been the staple of Detroit automotive companies for so many years. Adding self-driving, safety assistance, electric-powered engines, and alternative fuels to today’s newer vehicles, and the car’s design is ever-changing. However, I think most people would agree that the thrill of speeding on an open road and having a powerful engine will always be wanted! It will be interesting to see how car design changes going forward.

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What do you think? What was your favorite decade of car design?

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Freelance travel writer and photographer who loves sharing her adventures from around the world. It is never too late to pursue your dream!

Rochester Hills, MI
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