Cars & Culture

Bro, what’s with the face?

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Cars, clothes, houses, and hair styles. Everything in our society is up for grabs when it comes to change. Change is what we humans do. We may not always admit it, but we like change. We like to make change and we like it when things around us change.

Change is particularly evident in the car industry. The former Chief Creative guy at Ford, is convinced that the changes, and they were many, in the car industry were related to the political and cultural environment of the times. He claims vehicles of the ‘60s sported an optimistic outlook to the future. Really? A decade later, the optimism was replaced with the rebellious attitude evident in the muscle car of the ’70’s. From optimism to rebellion in ten short years. Was it the times or just the designer that prompted the change? We think it may have been something altogether different.

Between the ‘60s and 2019, the face – the grille, front bumper, and headlights of popular entry-level vehicle models evolved from friendly, hug me look, to an aggressive take no crap look. Often looking as angry as all get out. This change can be consistently observed in the design changes of the following popular models: Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf.

(Click model to Jump)

The concept of the car’s ‘face’ continues to be a source of interest for scientists and sociologists alike. Many people ascribe human traits to nonhuman objects. Often giving non-human objects like their car a gender and personality. In 2008, scientists found that facial expressions, and human traits are apparent in cars. Did it happen when some scientist was stuck in traffic one day and was staring off into a sea of cars, when he suddenly noticed car faces staring back? Did he suddenly think, “Dang, that car looks pretty cheesed-off.” Of course the real question is, ‘Why did it take those brilliant minds this long to notice?

We’re going to take a look at the transformations, and variations in vehicle faces and try and figure out if it was intentional, simply design or something else.


Ford Focus


The face

The Focus is pretty new to the Ford product line up. Introduced in 1998, there has been substantial change in its face design. Not only did the face of the Focus undergo geometric alterations that impacted its expression, but it also grew larger. The first generation 1998 to 2005, featured slightly angled, fairly large headlights giving the car a wide eyed, curious look. The small grille, appeared more like a rounded puppy-dog nose. The headlights on the second generation Ford Focus 2004-2011 underwent a massive transformation. A more intense angle, transforming an inquiring gaze into a frown. The blinkers, once positioned below the headlights giving the Focus a sort of rosy cheeks look, were repositioned to border the headlights giving Focus suspicious looking pupils. The grille was still narrow, but straight rather than concave with lots of chrome making the appearance more prominent. A bumper that stretched around the front of the car, giving the look of a ‘mouth’. The cornering lamps no longer bordered the bumper but rather floated inside it, appearing as teeth.

In the current generation 2011-present the modifications have included a change in the lower grille, the smaller outer two sides of which are triangular shaped, changing the Focus’ mouth from toothy to fanged.


While the Ford Focus’ face changed drastically, the traits shared by its target market did not. Originally the Focus was intended to attract new drivers. But what was reflected in its face was another story entirely. The intended ‘new’ customers included older drivers and very young drivers. While they exist at opposite ends of the age spectrum, they share something in common: a sense of apprehension surrounding driving due to either limited experience or limited mobility. This apprehension would suggest that such customers gravitate towards a car whose face did not trigger fear or a sense of threat. Of course this assumption is not correct. It’s clear young and old alike prefer a toothy sneer over a friendly grin.


Nissan Sentra


The face

Since its introduction in 1982 the Nissan Sentra has remained an incredibly popular vehicle. For several years the design changed modestly. From 1982-1986 and 1985-1990 — bore the most similarity to one another of all the generations that would follow. Both cars were rectangular and flat, in both body and face. While they both lacked the jovial roundness of the early Ford Focus, the smoothness makes it impossible for these vehicles to appear menacing. The protruding bumper, sandwiched by the grille and headlights, made the Sentra look kind of comical.

The 1990-1994 and 1995-1999 grew slightly more rounded, changing the Sentra’s expression from earnest to almost friendly.

The Sentra’s most dramatic external change occurred from 2007-2012. The headlights became vertically narrow and convex along the outer edge. The grille grew larger and space was put between the grille and the headlights. Its edges tapered inwards making the grille beak-like and kind of predatory. All of these changed features were intensified from 2013-present. The headlights were given an arrow-shaped indentation along the outer edge, giving the impression of movement without moving. Sort of like a run on a treadmill.


The Sentra’s MO was always the practicality of low fuel consumption coupled with vehicle safety. While the importance of economy and safety are still its selling points, the Sentra has evolved. It’s look emphasizes speed and aggression. This evolution defies the family-friendly, budget car in name and on paper. It is a classic case of need vs aspiration. Was the design team at Sentra that savvy. Have they used aspirational psychographics as a way of appealing to a wider audience of potential customers?


Honda Civic


The face

The Civic began in 1972 with a rounded type body, circular headlights and blushing blinkers. The effect was a wholesome and cartoon-like vintage British Morris Minor type face. The Civic’s international design borrowings may have contributed to its early popularity. Matching circular rear-view mirrors were unusually mounted closer to the headlights as opposed to the passenger, giving the Civic teddy bear-like ears.

From 1979 to 1999 Sentras had flat rectangular headlights, grilles and bumpers, and conventional rear-view mirrors. In 2001-2005 headlights became more angled and aggressive, its bumper’s lower grille strongly resembled a smile.

Along came 2005-2011, the smiling bumper was gone and more extreme headlights were added. The bumper’s lower grille was divided into three parts, with the middle one narrow and the outer borders wider, making it appear as though the Civic was gritting its teeth. Hey, what happened to the teddy bear ears?


The Honda Civics’ enduring popularity was built on practicality, namely its fuel economy and reliability. The continued demand for these features and the Civics’ ability to deliver them has kept the Honda Civic popular and relevant. The Honda Civic was Canada’s third best-selling vehicle in 2017. Goes to show, the teeth baring face of the Honda Civic seems to suggest that danger sells.


Toyota Corolla


The face

The Corolla has been around since 1966. The Toyota Corolla has exhibited all of the personas identified thus far in this blog — the insect-like circular-headlighted vehicle, the earnest all-rectangular, and finally the aggressive speed-machine — while also offering unique combinations of all three.

1979 to 1983 the Corolla’s headlights became rectangular. By 1987-1991 headlights were curved convexly along the outer edge, but the bottom edge remained straight, giving the Corolla a serious but not threatening expression. That all changed and by 1995-2000 the face of the Corolla was a recognizable threat, resembling a shark.

The 2000-2007 vehicle face became slightly friendlier, owing to a three-part lower grille whose corners arched upwards in a ‘sort of’ smile. From 2012-present the Corolla, with its deeply angled headlights, and a grille that was dramatically transformed from a narrow smile to a face nearly as aggressive as that of the Honda Civic.


The Toyota figured out that people living in the suburbs needed a family car to get around. They also wanted a car that was both practical and aspirational. Today the Corolla is one of the top-selling cars in the world, and given both its ranking and age can be recognized as precedent setting, demonstrating clearly the purpose vs. appearance paradox.


Volkswagen Golf


The face

The Volkswagen Golf was first introduced in 1974. From 1974-1983 it was a boxy car, with circular headlights enclosed in an entirely rectangular grille. In 1983-1991, an additional, smaller pair of headlights were added, giving the Golf’s face a slightly cross-eyed expression. The addition of a narrow grille on the bumper gave the Golf a slightly open mouth. The result was a sort of friendly, blushing face.
From 1991-1997, the Golf began to show hints of a frown. The blinkers rejoined the main headlights, which were angled down towards the centre of the vehicle along the top edge.

Starting in 2003 -2008 the frowning angles of the headlights grew more pronounced and menacing and the lower grille widened, rendering the mouth more threatening, certainly not the cross-eyed vehicle it used to be.


The Golf has achieved global popularity, being named World Car of the Year in 2009. The vehicle is perceived as a safe and dependable vehicle choice. Its association with practicality and family travel is very strong. The frowning, rather threatening face of the Golf seems to have had no impact on its family popularity.


Wrapping up

Reality and Aspiration

So here’s the thing, we’ve seen friendly, blushing smiley cars change into aggressive surly vehicles with big attitude. Aggressive and surly isn’t what you would expect when purchasing a family car. A family car is sensible, good on gas, and well-appointed without being flashy. Shouldn’t the car look sensible well-appointed and decidedly unflashy? Just a question. The fact is, reality does not trump aspiration. It’s not who you are, it’s who you want to be, even if the latter is only expressed in a car face and not reality. The changes in car faces aren’t societal, nor are they simply design. They’re something completely different, they’re aspirational.


The Author

Pierre Monké
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