New cars are ugly… discuss


Author: Russell CampbellPublished:

I was flicking through the pages of one of our freshly delivered auction catalogues when it struck me – when did cars start becoming ugly? Or, more accurately, when did good looks become all about large wheels, multiple exhausts and flash-tastic bodykits?

The car that got me thinking was a 1967 Mercedes-Benz 300SE Cabriolet and the car that made wonder what’s gone wrong was a Youngtimer SL of 2000 vintage (something like the one shown below). A “pimp’s car” my father would say.

But whose fault is it? I think it’s the endless quest for performance, and the need to shout about it, that should shoulder the majority of the blame.

The 300SE is a case in point. The wheels are steel, the lines are simple, but everything about it oozes uncompromising quality. The interior mirrors the outside – nothing flash, but it’s all clear, simple, classy.

Meanwhile the SL – with its low suspension – looks like it’s been sat on, the pokey-outy exhaust may as well have been salvaged from several youths’ Corsas and the interior, well, the less said about that the better.

But if the Germans can be accused of turning a trifle vulgar, what can we say about the boys from Maranello?

An office consultation confirms my fears. The 458 is good looking – in a dramatic sense – but we’d bin the rest on stylistic terms.

So when did things go front-end up at Ferrari? Well, in my opinion (something people around me are used to hearing), the 456 was the last truly pretty Fezza. It looked right with it’s gapping grille long bonnet and beautiful resolved proportions. Bernie Ecclestone’s made it to C&SC’s birthday party and I took five minutes just to take it in.

Jump forward to today and what have we got? The F12 berlinetta, which looks as if it has been attacked by a sword-wielding loony. And the FF? It’s a hatchback for peat sake…

But at least Ferrari (or Pininfarina is) being original. It’s trying. The ones that really get my goat are the lazy cars: the new Mini, Fiat’s latest 500 and the awful Beetle revival. Are they really saying they can’t do better? Or is it human nature to look to the past with envy?

Thankfully, I have a solution: buy the real ones. They’ll cost less, lose less, are easy to fix and are genuine design classics. In the world of recycling, this plan’s even eco-friendly. But don't get me started on that...



"To be or not to be" means in German: "Sein oder nicht Sein"! So this is why i'm writing: modern cars are "Design oder nicht Sein"! Before cars where "form follows function"! And in English, to "Design" means also the construction! Today 'design' means only design! And thats why modern cars are looking all like Chineese Dragons or Playmobiles asking for Barbie Puppets! And the budget of the carmakers is huge to sell us this as 'good design'! Well, if you like Chineese Dragons or Barbie's...


You have chosen some particularly soft targets from the modern world to make your point. I can think of plenty of examples of modern cars being far prettier than older ones. To name but a few:

Mercedes W212 E-Class (current one) versus W123
Lotus Evora versus Eclat
Lamborghini Gallardo versus Urraco, Jalpa, etc.
Bentley Mulsanne versus erm, old Bentley Mulsanne
Current Aston Martin Virage versus 90's Virage
Maserati Granturismo versus Bora

Coventry Climax

I couldn't agree more about modern cars being ugly and vulgar.

Not sure I'd agree about the Ferrari 456 though - I'd say it was bland and overweight, with none of the understated, slim-hipped elegance of, say, a 250 PF. In my opinion Ferrari haven't made a good-looking car since the demise of the 328 (the 355 might have come close, albeit in an uncomfortably brash look-at-me way, but was so wide it looked ridiculous from behind).

As far as I'm concerned, car design has been going steadily downhill since the mid-sixties, and I can think of very few cars built in the last 30 years that have much aesthetic appeal.

Chris Martin

Russell's points are all valid, but the main cause is government intervention. Even a so-called performance car these days has to meet certain fuel consumption figures, and the 'Green' lunacy has reached it's moronic tentacles into most, if not all, world markets.
To be fuel efficient requires the right aerodynamics, and between wind tunnel testing and computer simulations all car makers are coming to similar conclusions, and therefore similar shapes.
Then there is the constant little additions to safety legislation by individual governments. Any major manufacturer has to keep abreast of all of these reg's to maximise it's potential market.
These two criteria, aero, and safety, have bred a computer generated modern car with little or no opportunity to distinguish itself from the competition.
So, where cars were once designed by designers, and the engineering and the greasy bits were made to fit, we had a clear difference between say a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a Skoda or a Mini, or any others you care to name pre-seventies.
The exception to that individuality, for those that remember, was the heyday of BMC badge engineering. Back then an Austin was differentiated from a Morris by the tiniest identifying marks, ditto Riley or Wolseley, but the basic designs were all the same.
To put it another way, if fifty teams of engineers spent a year throwing the same information about what was required to make a perfect car into a computer, they would all eventually come up with something similar - and bland.
What we have today is a similar sorry tale. It is no surprise that Volvo's computer has come up with the same car as Hyundai's, or Toyota's, or Ford's. So, how can the marketing guys make their product stand out?
The only external details that can be tweaked to identify a brand are the shape of a grille or lights, bumpers, vents (often dummys anyway) and an increasing number of desperate add-ons.
Hence that Mercedes SL, looking like a blinged up Toyota.
My simple answer to Russell's question "when did cars start becoming ugly?" is somewhere in the seventies. By the mid seventies there was a famous fuel crisis and the Japanese had infiltrated most world markets. By this time, the car makers would have been planning ahead for the next generation in the eighties; 'nuff said!
Of course there always were ugly cars about but they usually sank without trace and even if not everyone thinks the Morris Minor or VW Beetle are cute, or a '59 Cadillac individual, at least they each had their own recognisable style, and were designed as a whole.
The future does not look good if we are all supposed to be buying cars like white goods, how many of us even have any brand loyalty when it comes time to buy a new microwave? Hence we will see more of the type of cosmetic tarting up of the same basic shapes to try to get our attention.
Chris M.



Modern design classics (as opposed to whether the vehicle is dynamically superior or superbly built) are around. It is probably harder now than it has ever been for designers given the constraints referred to above.

Coupes, supercars and cabriolets should be ignored for this argument because there is always more scope for flair and drama if the vehicle doesn't have to satisfy bread and butter motoring requirements such as 4 or 5 doors, proper boot space, minimal footprint for urban driving and parking etc.

Current or recent examples of saloons/hatchbacks/estates that spring immediately to mind are:

Chrysler 300C - Car & Driver's headline when it first appeared - "Al Capone, your car has arrived". The standard alloys are exactly right but the optional "Bentley" grille is a must. It looks good in any colour and its proportions are spot on. The facelifted version in the US dropped the ball.

Alfa Romeo: Any of its recent saloons and estate cars, 156, 159, 166 still look great and you can't tell the date of the vehicle except for the registration plate which can occasionally give you a surprise.

Audi A8: The first iteration (well I would say that, I've got one)

Jaguar XF: Ubiquity may be causing invisibility, though.

Jaguar XJ-L: Around Park Lane on any day of the week there are hundreds of Black Long Wheelbase versions of the Germans chauffering the wealthy from the Dorchester to the Hilton etc; BMW 730dL, Audi A8L, Mercedes S-Class. The most dramatically expensive looking by far is the Jaguar. It really does stand out. It is, alas, very colour sensitive. I saw one in white the other day and it looked somewhat cheap.

Lexus IS; Neater, better proportioned and detailed than rival BMW 3 Series. It still looks fresher than the instantly dated BMW.

Mercedes CLS: The first iteration - yes I know it's technically a coupe in the original sense of the term but it does have 4 full doors. The facelifted version is apparently much improved but they've added in the S-Class haunches and robbed it of its styling raison d'etre - the dramatic swoop from nose to tail that gave it its menacing aura (what Al Capone would have traded up to from the Chrysler, if you will).

Nuno Granja


From my point of view most of modern cars are really good cars and they offer a lot in almost every point. Few ones are very well designed (again from my point of view) too as BMW Z3 Coupe/Z4 and S3 Coupe, Mercedes (4 Door coupes) CLS, Alfa 156, 166, 159, Citroen C6; Audi R8 and A5; Jaguar XK8; Aston Martin DB9, Range Rovers.

Simply they are to expensive and most of them have the same fats food "flavour" due to the same bits pulling from one engine bay to another.

With all the electronic on board to help this and control that, they loose all of the fun and charatcter, but for the common commuter, thats excellent.

Fiat 500 and new Beetles are cartoons or fashion items, I absolutely d'ont like them , but they make a lot of sense for the people who buy them, so let them live happy.

But some how I prefer my older cars, for those who understand no explanation needed, the other other ones no explanation possible... even if we could for chat hours about that

I d'ont know the reality in other countries, but in portuguese web forums, this subject came very often, and the great majority of the people who say that moderns are bad cars with a lot of terrible issues, drive them everyday, i never understand that.

nuno granja

Chris Martin

"But some how I prefer my older cars, for those who understand no explanation needed, the other other ones no explanation possible... even if we could for chat hours about that"
Well said Nuno - that just about sums it all up.
By the way, I don't think Russell was saying that new cars are not better for commuters, his point was just that they are "ugly", which I took as meaning the designs were not pleasing to look at irrespective of the mechanical capability.
Chris M.



The Merc was a poor example to lead your argument with Russell. It's slab sided simplicity was the kind of shape we all came up with at the age of five or six, and the photographer has done a good job of disguising the monster 'pram hood' in front of a dark background. The modern Merc bristles with imagination in comparison.

I'd take a Miura Jota over an Aventador though. (If anyone is offering!).

Russell Campbell

I was probably being a wee bit harsh. There are new cars that I like, but for the reasons Chris highlighted earlier - ie aerodynamics, passenger/ pedestrian safety and MPGs (or, as he rightly says, 'green' lunacy!) - it seems that manufacturers have too many excuses not to be creative. And i do think they're excuses. I suppose a lot is also down to the demise of the coachbuilders, too, you only have to read C&SC and then compare it to a modern magazine, to see how little variety there is nowadays.


To me, it seems you have no interest and/or understanding in modern cars & their design and therefore your argument is biased from the beginning. But let me just point you in the direction of six cars I think will help you change your mind.

Fast Cars
Mercedes Benz CLS 63 AMG
Pagani Huayra
Aston Martin Virage

Everyday Cars
Peugeot 208
Volkswagen Up!
Citroen DS5

(The Future: Kia GT Concept, Alfa Romeo Disco Volante Touring Concept, BMW i8 Concept. Personally, if us designers are going to be allowed to put things like this into production I don't think the future of vehicle styling is going to be that bad!)

Speedbird, Transport Design student

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