Cars & Culture

Cars & Culture

In an article appearing in the 2013 issue of Automotive Design & Production1 former Chief Creative Officer of Ford Motor Company, J. Mays, neatly chronologized cars from the ‘60s to the 21stst century, demonstrating how the exterior design reflected directly the political and cultural environment of production. While postwar vehicles of the ‘60s sported an optimistic outlook towards the future materialized in curvilinear silhouettes and impossibly shiny exteriors, the perceived threat of sex, drugs and rock & roll predominant in next decade was recognized in its heavyweight muscle cars. Looking to the next era of automotive design, Mays was more ambiguous, citing “beauty”2 as the design factor that would distinguish cars from the international exchanges that inflected the appearance of the vehicles of the early 2000s. But from the beginning of Mays’ chronology to the present-day, another exterior aesthetic shift can be observed in vehicle design — one removed from the concept of beauty as it is traditionally understood.

Between the ‘60s and 2018, the fasciae (the grille, front bumper, and headlights — often recognized as the vehicle’s ‘face’) of popular entry-level vehicle models have evolved to appear more aggressive. This change can be consistently observed in the generation-to-generation design changes of the following popular models:

(Click model to Jump)

An examination of these models will reveal a similar progression of three main facial ‘types’: the earnest or serious face of the ‘60s and ‘70s (characterized by close-set and vertically narrow headlights, grilles and bumpers), the friendly face of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s (characterized by circular or round headlights and small to medium grilles, both lacking sharp angles), and the aggressive face of recent and current generations (characterized by headlights with concave edges and extreme angles sloping downwards towards the centre of the car, and large grilles). In all cases, the aggressive face is distinctly at odds with the vehicles’ intended market. Sales figures and public reception will be used to parse the why of this disconnect, and explore the cultural commentary it could articulate.

Innate Recognition


“Cars and car design are an outgrowth of the cultural mindset of the decade that they are in […]”


• J Mays •
Former Group Vice President, Global Design
Former Chief Creative Officer, Ford Motor Company


The concept of the car’s ‘face’ has and continues to be a source of interest for scientists and sociologists alike. While ‘anthropomorphism’ has been used by these researchers to describe our tendency to ascribe human traits to non-human organisms or objects (i.e. our recognition of eyes and mouth in the headlights and grilles of cars),3 the term ‘pareidolia’ has also been applied to this impulse.4 Pareidolia refers more specifically to the recognition of a non-existent pattern within a stimulus (i.e. a frontal image of a car).

Our ability and tendency to distinguish a face and the emotion it channels has also been proven to be pervasive and cross-cultural. In 2008, scientists found that similar emotions, facial expressions, and human traits are recognized in cars across groups with drastically varied exposure to cars, and to marketing and media anthropomorphizing vehicles (such as Disney-Pixar’s Cars), suggesting that our ability to recognize faces and related personality traits in cars is biological rather than sociological.5

The transformations of vehicle fasciae that will be examined below — and the fact that our ability to recognize the resulting expressions is innate — suggests a deliberate harnessing of this emotional potential by automotive manufacturers. The patterns we recognize in cars are not coincidental or arbitrary, but rather acutely intentional attempts to appeal to customers and drive sales.


“But the experience of staring down a menacing vehicular face is so pervasive among entry-level vehicles that the models appear more similar to one another than to other models in their own manufacturer family…”


Industry leaders are well aware of the potential of this innate emotional connection between a customer and their potential purchase. In a Globe & Mail article, a group of fifteen preeminent vehicle designers commented on the role of the face in car design, with near-mutual agreement “that exterior appearance holds tremendous weight in overall reason for purchase [and that] the front end arguably plays the most significant role in the overall design”.6

These designers also made recourse to the adjective ‘distinctive’7 to describe the force that drives their current and forward-looking design strategies. But the experience of staring down a menacing vehicular face is so pervasive among entry-level vehicles that the above models appear more similar to one another than to other models in their own manufacturer family, including the luxury models of which these budget models are often considered to be a more accessible incarnation. If designers seek to differentiate their brand’s most popular offerings from the competition, why has the ‘angry face’ become a 21st-century industry standard?

Driver vs. predator

One would expect the answer to be found in a LiveScience article entitled, “People Love Angry-Faced Cars”.8 It described a study in which participants were asked not only to identify the human traits they recognized in car fasciae, but also to identify which of the cars they preferred. The results favoured the powerful, aggressive models. The features that originally contributed to this classification were “[…] angled headlights with a wider air intake [grille]”,9 positioned relatively low on the vehicle’s front. But armed with this data and knowledge of customer preferences, the question of ‘why’ still remains — especially when related studies have shown that more friendly faces could render the fully-automated vehicles of tomorrow more approachable and trustworthy in the estimation of the passengers who were once in the driver’s seat.

Kerry Gould, whose job involves forecasting transportation experiences of the future, acknowledges the happy/safe, angry/dangerous pairing which often predicts our own emotional response to the faces we recognize in cars. She states that the traits we give cars through their faces are “[…] the lens we measure risk by. ‘Is this thing/person going to kill me?’ It is literally the first response our brain has to encountering an unfamiliar thing, and quickly analyzing a face is the first bit of data we have to support that decision”.10


“Is this thing/person going to kill me?’ It is literally the first response our brain has to encountering an unfamiliar thing […]”


• Kerry Gould •
Senior Design Project Manager, Punchcut


Gould attributes the fact that we nonetheless favour angry cars to both toxic masculinity and near-gender uniformity that characterizes the profession of vehicle design, and the way we view the activity of driving. Though it looms ever closer on the horizon, automated driving has yet to become the norm, and endless commutes and cities congested with traffic have produced what Gould describes as “lone driver aggression”.11 An environment of increased competition for resources has made us view other drivers as enemies impeding our ability to get there first, and in order to have skin in the game, we need an equally mean car. The threat posed by such cars is compounded by the fact that the angled headlights that contribute to a vehicular scowl also create the impression of speed (as though the headlights are being pulled backward by the sheer velocity at which the car is moving forward) even when at a stand-still. In choosing an aggressive car apt for competition and speed, customers choose the attached facet of Gould’s face to risk assessment: danger. Danger goes hand-in-hand with instability and adventure, the opposite of the journeys that the models described below are likely to encounter.



Ford Focus


The face

While the Ford Focus is a relatively new vehicle, introduced at the cusp of the 21st century in 1998, a drastic change in its fasciae design can be seen between its three generations. 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 headlights that were only gently angled and fairly large. The convex top edge of these headlights gave the Focus a wide-eyed, curious, and almost cartoonish look. A small grille, also convex and level with these headlights, appeared more like a rounded puppy-dog nose than a hungry mouth. Adding to this demure impression, the first generation Focus sported a small bumper and the body of the car was predominantly round, with few harsh angles to be seen.

While the body of the Ford Focus’ second generation (2004-2011) appeared similarly round, the headlights underwent a massive transformation, dragged to a more intense angle, turned concave on their top and outside edges, and transforming an inquiring gaze into a frown. The blinkers, which were positioned below the headlights of the first generation Focus like rosy cheeks, were repositioned in the second generation to border the headlights themselves. This gave the Focus pupils that seemed to peer suspiciously over its shoulders. The grille was still narrow, but straight rather than concave and highly embellished with chrome, which renders the feature more predominant. A bumper that stretched further around the front of the car, extending nearly as far as the headlights, gave the second generation the ‘mouth’ that the first lacked. In the second generation the Focus’ cornering lamps no longer bordered the bumper but rather floated inside it, appearing as teeth.

In the current generation (2011-present) this effect was modified and intensified by a three-part bumper composed of a three-part lower grille, the smaller outer two sides of which are triangular shaped, changing the Focus’ mouth from toothy to fanged. In the third generation, the headlights became even more narrow and flat (rather than convex or concave), intensifying the car’s gaze.



The facts

While the Ford Focus’ face and the emotion ascribed to it changed drastically, the traits shared by its target market did not. Originally the Focus was intended to attract new drivers.12 By the time the third generation reached the design stage, this demographic had increased to include its apparent opposite. The design journey of the Focus included designers donning a “Third Age Suit”,13 which allowed them to experience and later accommodate the physical limitation of an elderly driver. While they exist at opposite ends of the age spectrum, these two groups ostensibly share something in common: a reasonable sense of apprehension surrounding driving due to either limited experience (young drivers) or limited mobility (elderly drivers). This apprehension would suggest that such customers gravitate towards a car whose face did not trigger our fear or a sense of threat as explained by Gould.

That the Ford Focus grew large and aggressive, while its internal features and price point remained trained on demographics associated with a cautionary approach to driving, suggests that Ford’s design strategy incorporated both realism (what we need as customer and drivers) in cars’ internal features and aspiration (how we would like to be perceived) in cars’ external appearance, and the emotions this appearance elicits. This gestures towards a clear divide between cultural realities and cultural aspirations in North America. As Ford produced the Focus with the goal of establishing global uniformity within the market segment for compact vehicles,14 this dual concentration and the level of aesthetic escapism at the entry-level can be seen as a trend rather than an anomaly.


Nissan Sentra


The face

Since its introduction in 1982 the Nissan Sentra has remained an incredibly popular vehicle, with seven generations in which a series of incremental fasciae changes can be observed. The first two generations — the B11 (1982-1986) and B12 (1985-1990) — bore the most similarity to one another of all the generations that would follow. Both cars were extremely rectangular and flat, in both body and face. While the B11 and B12 lacked the jovial roundness of the early Ford Focus, the lack of extreme angles makes it impossible for these 20th-century vehicles to appear menacing. The protruding bumper, sandwiched closely by the basic grille and headlights, render these early Sentra a car that tried to look serious but came off as comical in the attempt.

The B13 (1990-1994) and B14 (1995-1999) grew slightly more rounded, changing the Sentra’s expression from earnest to near-friendly. While the bumper, grille, and headlights remained essentially rectangular in their proportions, their corners — and those of the body of the car — were softened. The size of the grille shrunk in the B14 and B15 (2000-2006), adding to this impression.

The Sentra underwent its most dramatic external change with the B16 (2007-2012). The headlights of the vehicle became vertically narrow and convex along the outer edge, and began to be pulled back towards the windshield, signaling the first time that noticeable angles were present in the Sentra. The grille grew and space was put between it and the headlights. Its edges, which taper inwards rendered the grille beak-like, and the car began to approach a predatory, avian look. All of these changed features were intensified in the B17 (2013-present). The headlights were given an arrow-shaped indentation along the outer edge, which lends the Sentra a focused expression while increasing the oxymoronic impression of stationary speed. Like the Ford Focus, the Nissan Sentra also became larger, and in 2000 its classification shifted from subcompact to compact.



The facts

The Sentra’s initial success was due to its practicality, as manifested in its low fuel consumption and later the fact that parts could be substituted between different generations, making repairs simpler and more economical. The Sentra also emphasized practicality in the sense of safety. Its name was derived from the term ‘sentry’, which describes a guard offering protection by controlling access, which bears connotations of safety and security. The name has remained consistent across generations in North America, although it was sold originally as the Sunny and later the Sylphy in Japan.

While a sense of safety is evidently still a selling point for the Sentra, it has evolved to offer an external design that emphasizes speed and aggression. In this way, the B17 model of the Sentra seems to defy even itself as a family-friendly budget card in name and on paper, and an adventurous car in appearance, highlighting the deep chasm between cultural norms and cultural aspirations. That the marketing and design of the Sentra in North America specifically seems intent upon balancing these two extremes indicates that this paradox is pronounced in the West.


Honda Civic


The face

Since its introduction in 1972 nine subsequent generations of the Honda Civic have been released, with the tenth generation unrecognizable when compared to models from those as late as the fourth and fifth. In addition to the Honda Civic offering the most drastic before and after comparison of the entry-level vehicles discussed, its current iteration presents the most terrifying face. Based on Gould’s description of our evaluation of faces, the Civic leaves one convinced of their own mortal peril after a single glance. The Civic started in a very different place, with the first generation (1972-1979) marked by a rounded rectangular body, completely circular headlights and blushing blinkers below. The effect was a wholesome and cartoon-like vintage face, recalling British automotive designs of the fifties, particularly the Morris Minor. The Civic’s international design borrowings may have contributed to its early popularity as a rebadged export. Matching circular rear-view mirrors were unusually mounted closer to the headlights as opposed to the passenger, giving the original Civic what could be recognized as insect antennae, or teddy bear ears.

The second (1979-1983), third (1983-1987) and fourth (1987-1999) generations closely resembled the Nissan Sentras of the same eras, with flat rectangular headlights, grilles and bumpers, and now-conventional rear-view mirrors. The fifth generation (1992-1995) exhibited friendly eyes with a concave top edge, an impression which becomes stronger in the sixth (1996-2000). While the seventh generation’s (2001-2005) headlights became more angled and aggressive, its bumper’s lower grille — with a flat top edge and concave bottom edge — strongly resembled a smile. This neutralized the vehicle’s expression.

The eighth generation (2005-2011) abandoned the smiling bumper and added more extreme headlights. A combination of a parallelogram (inner corner) and an oblong (outer corner), both intensely angled, gives the Civic a seemingly double-pupiled glare of incredible intensity. Convex headlights, which came to a sharp point at the outer corner, defined the ninth generation (2011-2016). 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. This gritting is intensified in the tenth and current generation (2016-present). This generation’s already aggressive headlights are given eyebrows by means of chrome, which wraps the grille and extends along the top edge of the headlight.



The facts

The early foundation of what would become the Honda Civic’s enduring popularity was built on practicality, namely its fuel economy and reliability. Like the Sentry, this practicality is reflected in the Civic’s own moniker, suggesting it as the everyman’s vehicle. The demand for these features and the Civic’s ability to meet them rendered it Honda’s saving grace, as the low sales of its previous, more niche offerings had nearly convinced the company’s stakeholders to abandon the production of vehicles altogether. The Honda Civic was Canada’s third best-selling vehicle in 2017, the first in the USA, with 377,28615 units moved in the latter. While the Civic has been a consistently strong seller, this figure as well as 2016’s (366,927)16 are the highest of the model’s history, and encompass the two years during which the highly aggressive tenth generation incarnation of the Civic has been available, suggesting that danger sells.

Despite the external changes that run parallel to its increased popularity, the Civic’s essential perception as a reliable family vehicle remains. It was selected as a platonic ideal of a rinse-and-repeat suburban life In a 2018 episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, which explored the ways through which the state of marriage has changed across history to arrive at the structures we recognize today. In describing the problems brought about by the transformation of marriage from a merger of wealth and resources to a joining of shared values and responsibility, host Shankar Vedantam asked the seemingly impossible: “How do you make equality erotic? Where’s the sizzle in consensus and compromise, in childcare pickups and doctor’s appointments, in a lifestyle symbolized by a Honda Civic rather than a flashy Ferrari?”17 Honda has answered Vedantam’s question by making the Civic appear as though it is destined for less quotidian activities, regardless of what its practical applications will be — and is this not the union of opposites whose loss Vedantam described as detrimental to our contemporary relationships?


BMW 3-Series


The face

Unlike the other vehicles examined here, the BMW 3-Series is billed and marketed as a budget-luxury vehicle; an accessible point of entry into the famed brand. Since 1975, the 3-series has seen the development of six generations, which have followed an evolution remarkably similar to that of the Honda Civic, starting as a boxy, earnest vehicle with round headlights and growing more angled and intense as the generations progressed. The BMW 3-Series’ blinkers remained for all but one generation at the outer edges of the headlights, giving the vehicle a worried rather than blushing expression.

This expression then became aggressive as the headlights were elongated in the third (1990-2000) and fourth generations (1998-2006), and rapaciously angled in the fifth (2004-2013) and sixth (2011-present). Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the 3-series’ face was (and is) its split grille, which creates the appearance of two nostrils between the headlights. In generations one and two, these ‘nostrils’ were extremely narrow and close together, putting significant distance between them and the inner edge of the headlights. As a result the vehicle sported a button or pig-like nose, more commonly associated with cuteness than danger.

In the third to sixth generations, the nostrils were stretched, increasing their size, decreasing the distance between them and the headlights, and rendering them horizontally narrow and reminiscent of a creature tracking its prey. While the current generation does not approach the ferocity of the Honda Civic, the gradual change undergone by the grille — paired with that of the headlights — significantly changes the types of emotions channelled by the face of the 3-Series.



The facts

Diverging once again from the Honda Civic, the introduction of the BMW 3-series’ more relatively aggressive-looking generations cannot be correlated with an increase in sales. In fact, sales of the 3-series have faltered of late. Between 2011 and 2017, the former of which marks the introduction of the sixth generation, BMW sold an average of 97,165 3-series in the US. The most recent years of 2016 and 2017 (during which the Honda Civic experienced growth) saw the 3-series fall significantly below this average, with 70,458 and 59,449 (the lowest number since 2002) units sold respectively.18 Between 2002 and 2010, this average was 111,986 units.19

This decline suggests a decreased customer demand for luxury, counter to the growing demand for a sense of danger and rebellion. Consider the cultural associations of these polarizing concepts. Luxury entails capital, which ensures security — an oft-held prerequisite of family life and stability. Budget cars share some of these abstract facets, in that they are practical and marketed as reliable. But their price point has functioned — in combination with the evolution of their fasciae — to pivot their emotional association from the mundane to the adventurous, perhaps accounting for the discrepancy between the sales of the Honda Civic and those of the luxury BMW 3-Series.


Toyota Corolla


The face

Since its introduction in 1966, eleven generations of the model have been released. Given its age, the Toyota Corolla has exhibited within one model all of the personas identified thus far — the insect-like circular-headlighted vehicle, the earnest all-rectangular, and finally the aggressive speed-machine — while also offering unique combinations of all three. These generations moved from a gently-curved subcompact with round headlights in its first (1966-1970) and second (1970-1974) generations to a vehicle with boxy, straight edges.

As the fourth generation (1979-1983) arrived the Corolla’s headlights became rectangular. By the sixth generation (1987-1991), these headlights were curved convexly along the outer edge, but the bottom edge remained straight, giving the Corolla a serious but not threatening expression. Throughout these generations the grille remained rectangular and straight, and largely level with the headlights in width. With the advent of the seventh generation (1991-1995), the Corolla’s headlights began to wrap around the face of the car and narrow towards the outer bottom corner, showing hints of a glare. The bumpers’ lower grille widened, giving the car a slightly open-mouthed appearance. While this lower grille once again shrank with the eighth generation (1995-2000), the result — when combined with the car’s extremely narrow but smooth hood and sharply-cornered headlights — was a recognizable threat, resembling a shark rather than an aggregate auto-monster.

The ninth generation (2000-2007) became slightly friendlier, owing to a three-part lower grille whose corners arched upwards in a smile. Finally with its tenth (2006-2013) and eleventh (2012-present) generations, the Corolla came to closely resemble the contemporary models of other entry-level vehicles, with deeply angled headlights. With the final generation, the vehicle’s grille was dramatically transformed from a narrow smile to a gaping and tapered void with sharp upper corners, creating a face nearly as aggressive as that of the Honda Civic.



The facts

Though Japanese-produced, the Toyota Corolla responds to the achievement of the American dream. Toyota realized that with “People […] living in nuclear families out in the suburbs […] they’ll need family cars to get around”.20 Today it 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 that now dominates the entry-level market.


Volkswagen Golf


The face

The Volkswagen Golf is one of the few popular entry-level vehicles whose body remained essentially rounded throughout its seven generations, the first of which was introduced in 1974. The first generation (1974-1983) was slightly boxier, with circular headlights enclosed in an entirely rectangular grille, bordered along the bottom edge by a narrow protruding bumper.

In the second generation (1983-1991), an additional, smaller pair of headlights were added, giving the Golf’s face a slightly cross-eyed expression. The second pair of headlights and blinkers moved below the main set, which became rounded rectangles. A narrow three-part grille on the bumper lent the Golf a slightly open mouth. The result was a tentatively friendly, blushing face.

In the third generation (1991-1997), the Golf showed hints of a frown: the blinkers rejoined the main headlights, which were angled down towards the centre of the vehicle along the top edge. Lesser change can be observed between the fifth and current generation (2003-2008). The frowning angles of the headlights grew more pronounced and menacing and the bumper’s lower grille widened both vertically and horizontally, rendering the mouth more threatening.



The facts

Named for the Gulf Stream,21 the spirit of adventure seems more present in the Volkswagen Golf from its very inception, unlike the Nissan Sentry and the Honda CIvic. But its association with practicality and family travel is so strong that “Compact cars or small family cars are often referred to as the ‘golf class’.22 It wasn’t until the vehicle’s second generation that the name ‘Golf’ was shared with North American models, which were previously known by a more cuddly moniker, the Volkswagen Rabbit.

The Golf has achieved global popularity, with the model being named World Car of the Year in 2009,23 during which the sixth generation was most current. Advertising chronologically aligned with the Golf’s fifth and sixth generations take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the vehicle’s popularity as a safe and dependable option. A Dutch commercial from 2011 shows a father and his young son closely examining a third generation Golf offered for resale by an elderly woman. They are impressed with the pristine shape the car is in, while the audience learns through cut scenes that its seemingly unassuming owner has been driving it like a true speed demon, screaming into parking spots and flying over bridges. The advertisement closes with the warning: “Not every old woman is equally reliable, happily every Golf is”. In its European advertising, Volkswagen has leveraged the disconnect between newer models’ race-car appearance and its reputation humorously, while showcasing the Golf’s ability to be both reliable and adventurous as a selling point.

American ads more subtly integrate family values with adventure, showing a father and daughter mutually jamming to Lenny Kravitz after school. That the Golf’s past as an earnest, boxy-vehicle and its popularity with the demographics associated with limited driving ability and caution is glibly promoted rather than distanced in its international marketing (and to a lesser but significant degree in the North American) demonstrate that the Volkswagen and their European entry-level market is not as fixated upon escapism as the North American.


Cultural norms, cultural aspirations

Danger, inherently associated with adventure, is not a quality one would expect customers to find attractive in these entry-level vehicles, given their popularity with families, new drivers, and budget customers. The identified similarities between the six intra-manufacturer models over their own brand’s high-end offerings then represent a shared consumer desire for something other than or beyond luxury and its connotations of security. Adventure linked to speed and danger can be understood as a cultural aspiration, held even by those seeking a commuter vehicle or family car. In this sense, contemporary vehicles are still a manifestation and reflection of the culture in which they are produced, as J Mays suggested in his chronology. But this reflection is less direct.

Rather than reflecting our culture through its societal norms, the aggressive faces of cars today reflect our culture through its aspirational escapism: adventure in a world that is increasingly gridlocked, and increasingly automated. Through these cars and the popularity of their current generations, a culture that aspires to defy rather than emulate societal norms can be observed. Such an observation serves to indicate an underlying sense discontent surrounding the family and career-oriented trajectories for which these models were created.


1. Retrofuturism: J Mays Talks About Automotive Design
2. Ibid.
3. People don’t trust driverless cars. Researchers are trying to change that
4. Ibid.
5. “Cars have their own faces”: cross-cultural ratings of car shapes in biological (stereotypical) terms
6. In photos: What auto makers convey with car faces
7. Ibid.
8. People Love Angry-Faced Cars
9. Ibid.
10. Self-Driving Car ‘Faces’ Need to Look Friendly If We Want People to Use Them
11. Ibid.
12. As buyers shun SUVs, expect to pay more for that small car
13. Ford uses ‘Third Age Suit’ to develop elderly friendly cars
14. AFord Focus: Uncommon compact car
15. Honda bucks trend with a sales gain for 2017, led by a new best-selling model
16. Ford Focus: Uncommon compact car
17. Hidden Brain: When Did Marriage Become So Hard?
18. BMW 3-Series Sales Figures
19. Ibid.
20. Predicting the Motorization Boom
21. Volkswagen Model Names and Their Meanings
22. Ibid.
23. 2009 World Car of the Year VW Golf

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