The Characteristics of Timeless Design (As Told by Cars)

In an earlier post titled Quality as a Means to Sustainability I touched on the topic of design being either art or fashion, essentially stating that fashion is more of a current fad whereas art is enduring and timeless.  But is art also current?  And how do you create something that’s timeless?

So from this question I began to delve into what makes a timeless design, whether it be the design of buildings or the design of anything else.  I was recently checking out my son’s Hot Wheel collection, and I noticed how some of the cars are considered classics (such as the ’61 Jaguar E-Type and the ’64 Mustang) while others were not very classic at all (’98 Ford F-150 and ’06 Volvo Wagon).  But besides the good classic cars that most anyone would love to have parked in his or her garage there are also the bad classics such as the AMC Pacer and Ford Pinto.  So I began to realize that classic is not defined by being good and appreciated, but rather, like a punchline to a joke, a classic entails a universal understanding that everyone agrees to be the truth.  I seriously doubt that anyone would consider the Ford Pinto as the epitome of automotive technology.  No, the Ford Pinto is more often used as the butt of any joke involving a vehicle exploding.

But something else I noticed about these classic cars (both good and bad) is that they were indeed dated, meaning that these cars were designed with current trends in mind.  You can look at most of these classic cars and know almost exactly what year the cars were built.  Every era in automotive design has design trends that make it unique from other eras, and there are a handful of signature vehicles (again, both good and bad) that typify those eras.  The original American muscle cars were the signature cars of the late 1960’s while the 50’s will be remembered for cars with tail fins.  When most people see a ’57 Chevy they don’t confuse it with something built in the early 1990’s.

I’m realizing that art and fashion are both born from current trends, but the major difference is originality.  The early 80’s Volkswagen Rabbit was a squarish car that became popular due to people becoming more conscience about fuel economy.  It was the original boxy hatchback, and for that it retains a place in automotive history.  But the same honor would not be bestowed upon the cars like the Plymouth Horizon that were created for the purpose of chasing a trend and essentially not adding to the evolutionary process of creating something better.

The goal of creating something that’s timeless is the wrong strategy for creating something that’s timeless.  Originality, whether it be revolutionary or evolutionary, seems to be the trait that creates timelessness.  But originality is created from a reaction to what is currently going on, be it an improvement to something that currently works or a change in direction for something that currently doesn’t work.  We can only change our current condition – the past has already happened, and the future is a byproduct of our present.  No one knows what the future holds for us, so how would we know what people in the future will appreciate and admire?

Be truthful to the present and be original.  Let the future decide if your horse is more like a Mustang or a Pinto.


4 thoughts on “The Characteristics of Timeless Design (As Told by Cars)

  1. Lulu Brown

    Another part of style and timelessness is a certain originality and truthfulness when compared to the purpose of the object or the design. You mention the Plymouth Horizon, which is a good example. I think another good example would be the Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler. Its goal was to hearken back to the old-school roadsters of the 30s-early 50s, but it ended up being an expensive anachronism that never sold more than 12,000 total units in its five-year existence (according to Wikipedia). While it looked novel and cool and interesting, it was still ultimately unoriginal. We already had that look in a car. This isn’t timeless design, it’s nostalgia. What is timeless about a Studebaker is that it has certain proportions to its curves and lines that please the eye and speaks of its actual time. The Prowler looks like what Doc was working on for his time travel machine before he found the DeLorean. Chrysler banked on a culture of the Doric-columns-applied-to-the-front-of-a-McMansion’s desire to have new things that look as cool as they did back in the day, and they came up short.


    The possibility that water cars has spoken to practically invented since the invention of automobiles itself.Hydrogen cars are cool. Hydrogen cars are our future, baby! hydrogen cars are currently the state of technology have been few. fuel efficiency is related to the mileage per unit of fuel used.


    please suggest me a good book which can tell me about what is “TIMELESS ARCHITECTURE”.

    1. Eric Post author

      Let me think about that one. I’m still in the process of fully formulating the definition of timeless. I feel like it has to have the following attributes:

      1) Originality, either in a revolutionary or evolutionary manner.

      2) Popular, either in a positive manner (’64 Ford Mustang) or in a negative manner (any Ford Pinto)

      3) I’m still working on 3)


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