What happened to happy-looking cars?

Land Rover Aaron Robinson port parking lot
A man and his 1973 Land Rover. Aaron Robinson

In late October, an old Land Rover Series III station wagon that I bought in the U.K. sailed into a California port on a vehicle carrier after three weeks at sea. It was parked in the sun and salt air of the dock to wait out what I believed would be, based on five previous imports, a couple of days of Customs clearance. A week went by. Then another, with barely any information despite repeated inquiries. My temperature began rising. I went around telling people that Customs adopted a new motto: E Screwitus Younum.

So perhaps I wasn’t in the best mood when pics of the new Lotus Eletre SUV dropped in my inbox. I like Lotus and I’m not opposed to luxury SUVs, but the styling did strike me as just another angry face in the crowd. The Eletre has pinched headlights and a scowling grille, and one imagines that Lotus’s designers were evoking a fearsome cobra. Or a warrior chief in the throes of doing his taxes. Or 5-year-old me tasting gefilte fish for the first time.

Thanks to relentless copying and the auto industry’s deep fascination with fads, cars today are almost universally unhappy. They fret, they glare, they scowl, they stew with festering grudges. They are at risk of developing deep and permanent worry lines. For decades, the Toyota Crown has been the upright and understated flagship of Japan’s taxi fleet as well as legions of sensible salarymen. Toyota just released pictures of the new Crown: slit headlights, a jutting chin accentuating an acute underbite, and a wall-to-wall grimace for a grille. Toyota has become enamored with inking its creations with random blackout panels, and the Crown is so thusly tatted that it looks like a gangbanger out on an assuredly brief parole. The new Crown is not here to provide safe, reliable transport—it’s here to swipe your watch and wallet.

2023 Toyota Crown Platinum
2023 Toyota Crown Platinum Toyota

Cars seem to reflect our mood. Columnist David Brooks wrote in The New York Times recently that “the negativity in the culture reflects the negativity in real life,” noting that researchers who analyzed 150,000 pop songs released over 50 years determined that the word “love” appeared half as often in later years, while the word “hate” had an uptick. From the endless downbeat headlines to the repeated surveys that say more and more people rate their lives as terrible, the world is in a funk, and it apparently wants its cars to be sad and angry, too.

This wasn’t a problem when most of our classics were built. They were given regal, technical, and forward-to-the-future faces. It helped that industry standard from the 1930s to the 1980s was a 7-inch round headlight (followed by a 5.5-incher), because round lenses backed by semi-hemispherical reflectors did a good job of concentrating light, especially from 6-volt bulbs. Darkness, both literal and figurative, was thus banished to the shadows. The ultimate happy car, the bug-eyed Austin-Healey Sprite, was born into a Britain mired in empire collapse, currency drift, nuclear threat, and increasing social disorder. Yet it keeps smiling (and making smiles) to this day, reminding us all to stop clenching and maybe lighten the hell up.

Austin-Healey Sprite Beverly Hills Tour
Sprite is happy to see you. Brandan Gillogly

I waited out Customs with scant information, which sent me to black, enraging places where uncaring bureaucrats lounge through long coffee breaks and slow-walk approvals out of unwarranted spite. Finally, I talked to someone in the know and learned that old Land Rovers get extra scrutiny because theft and import fraud has become so rampant among them. The thin blue line was merely doing its job, and two weeks was actually pretty good—some Rovers have taken six months to clear.

And there it was on the dock, filthy, spotted with seagull crap, but still bright-eyed and chipper. Old Land Rovers have a simple face—just a cube, really, yet a welcoming and competent one. It’s a face that says, “Keep calm and carry on.” And, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Apparently, from all the thefts, it’s a face loved the world over, perhaps proving that we’re ready for some happier cars to take us to happier days.

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    Excellent story. I have been waiting for someone to say this about today’s car styling. Aggresive and threatening. They should convert the horns to sound like gun shots. Cars have always had faces and todays faces are not happy, they are angry. Author hit the nail on the head. I had to chuckle.

    Some time ago, I received a video of a car that was equipped with “gunshots”. The car was the target of some carjacking punks who when the car was opened, the whole scene opened with the sound of gunfire like a war zone. The punks ran off as fast as their legs could carry them. I imagine that some needed clean underwear as well.

    I couldn’t agree more and am reminded of a tory that was published about Bob Lutz’ initial impression of the current GM concept cars when he moved to GM- he called them “angry kitchen appliances.”

    Mr. Stokes, I’m with Aaron. I’d be happy if you’d now run away somewhere and sit on a distant lonely sandhill. And play with your English language there.

    Hey Charles, that’s a brilliant idea! As a car guy and a gun guy, I’m going to work on a horn that sounds like a shotgun or my S&W 500. Now that will get stupid left lane slow drivers’ attention for sure. Thanks

    Designs on cars today seem too “busy” to me.Too many slashes,curves,dips,swooshes all over the place.
    Seems like each maker wants to out do everyone else.

    A couple things: One, yes cars are way too aggressive looking (Even the Miata lost its smile with the ND). Two, has anyone ever seen a Bug-Eyed Sprite up close? I’ve only seen one and they are unbelievably tiny in person. And last, I just want to say I want that blue Trans-Am in picture three. What a beauty!

    I blame George Lucas for all those scowling grills nowadays. He’s the guy who brought us Darth Vader, which is what I think of when I see most of the newer car “faces”. 🤬
    And, yes, MJ, I have seen a real bug-eye up close – many of them – and in fact, I had one (a ’57) decades ago and I was 6’3″ and about 220 lbs. back then. Amazingly more room inside one that it appears from outside. Once, that is, you actually got in. The challenge was maneuvering through the door opening and past the steering wheel. Once in, it wasn’t as if you’d be able to stretch out and take a nap, but it wasn’t bad. The little Sprite not only had its happy face out there, but it generally put a grin on my face and the faces of everyone around me! 🤡

    I had an MG Midget (same platform) when I was of similar size 6’4 / 240 lbs. It took some twisting to get into, but one I was there it was surprisingly comfortable. I had a license plate that read “SNUGFIT”.

    I too have a Bugeye, and being somewhat shorter than you (but I’ll bet older) entry and exit are easier for me. But my Bugeye is only the third-smallest car in my garage–my two Fiat Topolinos are nearly a foot shorter–and one is a four seater station wagon. While they’re narrow (shoulders rub in the front seats) both headroom and leg room are amazing for such a small car (126″ vs 137″ for a Sprite). And my 4CVs are only 5″ longer than a Sprite and are four seat, four door cars…Clever packaging can stuff a lotta interior in a small exterior–witness the original 120″ long Mini…

    Tiny??? Try microscopic. During my Army days stationed in Hawaii, I car-pooled with a fellow GI as we both lived off-post as we had “access to extra income” (we married well). My car was a ’68 “Book-em Dano” Mercury Park Lane rag top, but his was the damn Bugeye. We both were 6’2″. I hated it when it was his turn to drive. Getting in was not so much a problem, but getting out was. It involved turning sideways and crawling out on all fours. Not dignified for a career soldier of my rank.

    We have owned our 1960 Bugeye for about 20 years now. I’m 6-2 and 210 lbs and my wife is 5-11. Getting in and out 20 years ago was much easier. Driven about 14 miles last year to get new brakes and rear axle seals installed. Hip replacement will do that! Kids today want all the fancy stuff like side curtains and a top for when its raining. No sense of adventure.

    Long ago I had a Bugeye Sprite – and yes, it’s a tiny car. My 6’5″ tall bf of that era couldn’t fit into it.
    But talk about a happy faced car! Everyone loved it, especially kids.

    No kidding, I spotted that beast, too. Will always love the 1969 – 1973 Trans am – but then, I’m biased because I own one.

    I am so envious of anyone that has a 1973 Trans am. I had a buddy in high school whose parents just had too much money. They bought him a brand new 1973 Trans am, 455 SD, Bucaneer Red. First car I ever rode in that pinned my head against the head rest when he tromped it. You’ve got a nice ride. Not sure if the car was “happy-looking”, but I definitely was whenever I rode in it.

    Don’t know where you’re from but I’ve seen dozens of Sprites over the years. Hit ANY vintage event or British car show and there’ll be several there.

    Your same picture 3 with the Lucerne TA has a Frog-eye next to a Mini which shows how small they are.

    Good article and I agree that so many newish vehicles look angry…another vehicle that looks happy to me is the 1973-1978 GMC Motorhome…they have (in my opinion anyway) a nice non threatening front end and people always comment about them in a favorable way…at least what happens when I drive mine…

    Cars look angry because people are angry. Just look at the level of discourse online, and in Congress. Back in the 50s, people were happier. Look at Ike, who ran on the slogan, “I Like Ike”, and the general euphoria following WW II.

    Totally agree, Mr Robinson. But what I really want to know is whether you’ll still be smiling in months to come now you’ve taken on a knackered old Land Rover…

    I’ve had the same thought for awhile now. I had a NA Miata and it looked so happy, especially with the lights popped up. I was also happy when I drove it.
    Also rock and rap artists… Why are they scowling in their photos?

    Compare your ‘10 to my wife’s 2020 Mazda3. I like her car, drives great (esp once we found and disabled off most of the many stuff), but it definitely has a sinister look about it – from all angles.

    I got a 2018 Ford Fiesta S, 5 speed stick, crank windows. It’s a happy car! Was looking for a Karman Ghia when I came on to this. Great little auto crosser too!

    Re the Mazda’s around 2008-2014?, Yes that big happy smiling grille. I always though someone should have marketed some plastic goofy oversized teeth for those, sort of like the big eyelashes spotted on some young teens girls cars.

    The shift from pleasing (happy, cute) to sinister has been going on for some time. I suspect it’s due to computer modeling – no soul. The older stuff was modeled by hand and maybe some still are but then it goes into a CAD file and something gets lost

    Aaron, this is absolutely excellent writing on an excellent subject. I’ve owned several Bugeye Sprites – about 6 or 8, off the top of my head – and currently own two. You just can’t be unhappy driving one, and they put a smile on the face of everyone who sees one. In 50+ years with a driver’s license and about an equal number of cars in that time, I’ve never given my cars names, with one exception. I had a pale yellow Bugeye I called “Chuckles.” Thanks again for such a well-written essay. A+

    “Sprite is happy to see you” and it is butt ugly! (I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder..). And it is NOT aerodynamic….of course you don’t need worry about aerodynamics as it won’t go fast enough to worry about that….

    Aggressive car faces are the later version of oversize rodeo belt buckles. That, and excessively bright and mis-aimed headlights.

    Are you factoring in the reality that civil servants actually have no desire or incentive to accomplish anything.
    Checking a VIN for legitimacy is only a mouseclick away.
    The market or the marketers don’t want cute and happy, they want tough and aggressive like hellcat or ramcharger for those trying to compensate for something.

    “ Checking a VIN for legitimacy is only a mouseclick away.”

    As someone who identifies stolen vehicles for a living I will just say you could not be more mistaken.

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