The styling and design of American cars have improved dramatically over the last 20 years, and these junkyard subjects remind how far they’ve come.
The 1960s were probably the most carefree era in US car styling, and most car enthusiasts have their favorites from then. My list, which is always subject to change, would include the 1965 Cadillac Coupe deVille, the 1963 Lincoln Continental and the 1968 Imperial LeBaron.
The recent Cadillac Escala concept debut reminds us that the current US cars we have, and the ones to come, can be world-class.
But ’80s and ’90s upscale cars had a tough row to hoe; they didn’t have the luxuries of massive exterior sizes and 440-cubic-inch V8 engines to express themselves, and profit margins were squeezed by aggressive competition from Japan and Germany.
Ford had persisted with the XL-sized, rear-wheel drive Panther platform, so the pictured above Lincoln Town Car and its Ford and Mercury mates still had some square feet to sling around. Cadillac, on the other hand, shrank their biggies into a body that was about as long as that of a Nova from less than a decade prior.
So it was up to the surface detailing to get the message across, and that meant rigidly squared-off lines and finely detailed trim. The aftermarket stone protectors for the headlights are a neat touch on this one, they keep the theme going.
Chrome strip, elegant pull handle, embossed quarter window, the delicate sweep from the bottom of the window to the top – this Cadillac Fleetwood d’Elegance designers did a lot with a little here.
Wire wheel covers were the epitome of the stick-on prestige that compensated in part for the cars’ smaller sizes. They were pricey options at the time, and it’s funny how silly they seem now.
In adjusted-for-2016 dollars, wire wheel covers would be an option costing $350-450. Here we see one on an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that’s missing its logo, and it’s been sprayed with orange, likely to note that it’s missing the key to unlock it from the rim. So this Cutlass’s shiny flourish will probably join its host in the crusher.
Probably a lot of serviceable tires have met their ends because of an lost wheel key blocking their release.
Gotta admire Olds’s boldness in sticking that “Ciera” badge in there to stand on its own.
Ciera! No explanation necessary.
This blue Oldsmobile Ninety Eight Regency is based on the same platform as the earlier shrunken Cadillac, and its blue velour door panel has the same density of detailing. Lots of places for your eyes to go.
This thick padding on this junkyard Chrysler Cordoba shows that the 1970s still have some volume to sculpt…
…but this ’90s Buick Regal shows that much of what came later depended on the details to carry the day. You really notice it when one of those details turns the color of an itchy rash.
Ah, that’s better – here’s what those itchy swirls were supposed to look like. Still, this traditional swirly wood spoils the modern look around it. This is a dash with a long pod floating in front of a shrouded and full-length black panel – neat effect, eh?
So why in the name all that is tasteful would you inflict this most fake of fake woods onto its facade? One imagines the instrument panel designer wanting a stiff drink after seeing the clock-radio-like finish that corporate had been approved for this shape.
The Chevrolet Lumina, the downscale cousin on the Regal’s W-body platform, had designers that did a better job with its wood trim. The fact that this piece has its grain spread across a three-dimensional form – a nice complement to the multi-plane fabric plate to which it connects – and gives it the appearance of something real, and it has a low-sheen surface.
Close the doors, and that piece would approximately line up with the beam that ran the length of the dash. Minimalist and tasteful in theory, and it probably looked great on the CAD screen.
But the quality of this overall panel was horrific. It was trumpeted in ads as an engineering advance, because it could be installed the car in one assembled piece – but it was hung with big gaps on both sides.
The extreme warping we see here didn’t take long to begin; a few years after purchasing a Lumina, all those clean straight lines soon went their own ways.
That’s partly why most cars of the ’80s and ’90s lack the unbridled spirit of the cars of the ’60s; the later ones had a lot more to factor into their designs. And it’s why few people will be restoring Luminas, or other of its contemporaries.
After all, when you see a pile of compromises fall apart, it occurs that maybe that’s actually a good thing.