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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    This was a great article I have thought this for awhile. Maybe a big factor in road rage? You look in the rear view and think “what’s up with this guy”!? Angry looking vehicles for sure. I agree to bring back happy cars!

    A couple or three years ago I actually read an Article in one of the Prominent Automagaznes where the Author explained that he ( and many others) working for one of the Big Threes actually spend Most of their time designing Pickup truck fronts so they would look Aggressive imitating and therefore Angry of Course some parts of our world are twisted

    I’ve noticed this too. My take is when we were actually tougher people, the depression, WWII, Vietnam, the cold War we were secure enough to not need tough looking cars. Now that we are soft and overfed we need our cars to be tough for us.

    I learned to drive on a ’48 Ford F6, with the heavy horizontal grille bars. Truck always looked like it was in a good mood about something. Most modern luxury cars look like you could shave with them.

    Excellent observation. I’m surprised that the grimacing Lotus and Toyota pictured above are yellow and red respectively (though muted shades). In my area, black is the new gray in which everything else is in 3 shades. My favorite cars are mid-50’s Big Three chromed pastel two-tones, which befit the optimism of the best time in America.

    Ha-ha – Another good story that brings a “I can relate” smile. This one brought immediately to mind the angry-face grilles people have been putting on Wranglers and Gladiators for the last few years. Every single time I see one, I crack up. Why? because they make me think of the faces on the Thomas the Tank Engine characters my son was so fond of when he was a kid 20 or so years ago…

    Hi Aaron!
    Nice article, and you hit the nail squarely.
    That said… My Mazda 3 appears to be happy, and my Westfield (Lotish) 11 puts a smile on my face every time I see it, which is every time I walk into the garage. Same for the Renault R5Turbo and the Morgan +8. Each has a face with character.
    But you are right. Today’s cars look angry, and they are getting a generic look (some are even faceless, like Teslas or just weird, like that Rivian truck/SUV thing. I guess that when you put a box in the wind tunnel, the most efficient shape that emerges will be the same all over. Add to that the pedestrian impact requirements and we get Audis and BMWs that look like Mr. Bill… OOOHH NOOOOOO!
    It’s a good thing that my impression of most cars has to do with the driving. This explains my infatuation with SAABs when I was in College. Finishing my design degree in Art School started me off on a couple of decades of Alfa Romeo ownership (and I am ready for another one Come to think of it, I really like the Giulia’s face). Thinking about those Alfa coupes, spiders and sedans puts a smile on my face.
    Only a few machines have managed to get my attention with their simple physicality. I always hope that it works out as most aircraft do; “If it looks right, it will fly right”.
    But now, there is a little optimism. We have some new Genesis sedans that look like a smiling South Park kid, some Mazdas, and of course, the Bug Eye Sprite. They make me smile, and that’s what really counts.

    I agree about the ugly, angry, aggressive styling on new cars. I am fond of the front of my 1941 Plymouth. The grill has been described “heart shaped” and sometimes smiling.

    For the last few years, the RAV4 looks like an anime character gone bad.
    There are aftermarket grilled for late model Jeeps that have the countenance of the Angry Birds characters. Really.
    (Why would a grown adult do that to a $50k off roader?).

    Come on people, look at how far society and technology have come in 50 years. More freedoms than ever, instant communications, and instant gratification in entertainment (there was a time you had to wait to hear your favorite songs on an AM car radio)…still we are angry…with each other: our government, employers, anyone who has more that we do or anyone who we automatically assume has slighted or disagrees with us.

    From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar….
    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
    Act I, Scene III,

    My 2010 Mazda 3 (as it was mentioned before) that I still have is indeed one of those smiling front face cars. We definitely need more in the way of that on our road ways. Great article and overdue topic for sure, totally agree with the mindset of taking things just a little less serious too.

    nice score on the Land Rover!! I really like the ol “cinder block” body styling!! Many miles of smiles with your new find!!

    I guess I am missing something. When I look at the Lotus SUV, the grill opening has a gentle up rising on each end. That is a smile!

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