Why Tesla’s Cybertruck defies truck design stereotypes—and just might succeed

Not since Speed Racer confronted the mysterious Mammoth Car in 1967 has a utility vehicle generated as much controversy as the Tesla Cybertruck. Unveiled in late November, this electric pickup truck looks like nothing else roving the earth. Its provocative design has left many jaws on the floor… but not in admiration.

For many, the Cybertruck suggests a 1975 Lotus Esprit mated with a WWII DUKW (“duck boat”) in a booze-fueled soiree (an opinion which, perhaps, contains some truth). Kinder views suggest that the stainless-steel-clad machine started as a SpaceX concept and reflects Musk’s vision for vehicles that may roam Mars in the near future.

Others aren’t simply scornful or even tolerant. Some people love it. A quarter-million of them sent $100 deposits through cyberspace to reserve a Cybertruck, which won’t be in production for a couple of years. (Regardless of whether those transactions constitute real orders, remember that the same level of hyperactivity preceded the Tesla Model 3’s success.)

The Cybertruck needs a wind-cheating form to foster battery range, and Tesla does claim the Cybertruck can reach up to 500 miles on a single charge. Yet many just can’t get past those looks. The Cybertruck seems like an affront to the time-proven American pickup-truck form.

Is the Cybertruck simply a case of form-follows-function design, or is Tesla founder Elon Musk trying to rattle the establishment again? It’s probably a little of both. Provocative design is only provocative when new, however; when it succeeds, it sets the trend, steers progress, and becomes the norm. When it fails, we get the AMC Pacer and Pontiac Aztec. 

Behind the glass curtain

Tesla Cybertruck

The track record for successful design disruptors, across many disciplines, suggests a long gestation period for trend leaders. Consider architecture. In 1918, architect Willis Polk’s Hallidie Building in San Francisco brought then-radical “glass curtain wall” design to an American city. Although lauded by architects, the building did not immediately start a trend.

The first curtain-wall skyscraper in New York City, the United Nations Secretariat Building, was not built until 1952. In the same year, more than 30 years after Polk’s initial design, another “glass box” building, Lever House in Manhattan, was also completed. Both the Lever House and the UN building followed design principles espoused by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His Seagram Building in New York, completed four decades after the Hallidie Building opened, was a significant milestone in the trend that ended concrete cathedral-style design. 

Gone with the wind resistance

Tesla Cybertruck

Aerodynamic principles would become the automotive world’s glass curtain wall. While the transition to envelope-type car bodies was inevitable as manufacturing techniques evolved, designs that reduced wind resistance faced a bumpy ride.

In the 1930s, Czechoslovakian carmaker Tatra licensed the pioneering automotive streamlining techniques of Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray, who would win cases against Chrysler and Pierce-Arrow for impinging on his work. Chrysler’s Airflow ultimately failed in the market, and its streamlined design was blamed as a major factor. Pierce-Arrow folded in 1938, mostly due to not having a lower-priced car during the Great Depression.

American carmakers described their 1940s and ’50s models as “sleek,” but that term applied mainly to the eye, not the wind. The 1953 Studebaker Starliner coupe was a step in the right direction, and as many Bonneville racers would attest, its shape was functional. Studebaker soon succumbed to market demands, however, and these clean shapes sprouted tall grilles, tailfins, and other gimmicks a few years later. 

Slowly getting more slippery

Tesla Cybertruck

In 1955, France’s Citroën shocked the system with the slippery DS. American carmakers, meanwhile, began touting pseudo-aerodynamic benefits of tailfins. Tailfins were gone a few years later, but the DS proved a hit in Europe and stayed in production for 20 years. In 2009, a panel of renowned car designers—including Ian Callum, Gordon Murray, Peter Stevens, and Giorgetto Giugiaro—voted the DS the most beautiful car of all time. 

Most of the car world kept to its boxy ways. Later, Ford stepped out of its Fairmont-shaped crate with the rounded 1983 Tempo compact, a warm-up act for the more radical, midsize 1986 Taurus. Audi’s 100 (later renamed 5000 in America) showed a similar theme, and all three owed at least a small debt to the 1967 NSU Ro80.

By this time, the change to slippery bodies was essentially mandatory; carmakers had to meet federal fuel economy standards, and reducing wind resistance was like gaining free miles per gallon. The designers’ challenge was making a low coefficient of drag look appealing to consumers. The Taurus and its Mercury Sable cousin accomplished that, but the rise of the SUV not long afterward was due, at least in part, to backlash against “jellybean” car designs.

Make no mistake: all carmakers pursue aerodynamic efficiency for their vehicles, even including SUVs. They have learned, however, to avoid polarizing designs. 

Small objects, big impacts

Tesla Cybertruck

Sometimes, a small object can spark a global trend. Again, the progress of that trend may be slow. The 1959 BMC Mini is often called an iconic design, but it wasn’t until 1968 that Honda adopted the tiny Brit’s two-box design with front-wheel drive/transverse engine layout. The floodgates opened soon after with the more mainstream Fiat 127 (1971), Honda Civic (1972), and Volkswagen Golf (1974). The format is still going strong on today’s compact crossovers.

A look toward the computer world also shows how provocative design can take time to become mainstream. The 1998 iMac began Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ mission to ban the “beige boxes” that dominated the personal computer landscape. The fruit-colored original iMac design stuck around just long enough to get comatose Apple on firmer footing. Only then did the company begin pushing the all-in-one machine in a more sophisticated design direction, and others beginning following in its footsteps. 

Emotional rescue

Tesla Cybertruck

Perhaps the reaction to the Tesla Cybertruck is a reflexive emotional response to an interloper tampering with America’s classic pickup-truck form. Like Harley-Davison motorcycles, today’s pickups rely on a particular look deeply rooted in tradition. Ford tried to buck the program with its aero F-150 in the late 1990s; the jellybean design, while functional, was not a winner with customers, and Ford began shifting back to a boxy look a few years later.

Today’s big pickups push the air with some of the tallest and angriest-looking chrome-trimmed facades ever seen in the category. To be sure, these trucks have been put through the wind tunnel, and there are some well-hidden wind-cheating features, such as air suspension that can lower the vehicle a bit at highway speeds. It’s the brutish look that sells trucks, however. GM, Ford, and Ram collectively moved nearly 600,000 full-size pickups in the third quarter of 2019. These are America’s best-selling vehicles and likely the most profitable.

Who’s going to mess with that? Tesla is giving it a try. Neither box nor jellybean, the Cybertruck takes wedge and straight-edge design to new extremes, and the resulting design conveys its own kind of industrial brutishness.

It looks severe enough to scare Speed Racer, but in 20 years, who knows? You might love it.

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