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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    If you see a Sprite and are not happy at seeing it’s smiling face, you have issues!

    The Lotus looks like a Lambo Urus ripoff on the front. Either way it’s about as much a Lotus as I am a NASA astronaut.

    Todays cookie cutter cars all look like a mechanical large mouth bass, with its lower jaw hanging open !

    The days of style and individuality are sadly
    Long gone

    Robert Prechter offers causal reasoning for this apparent societal manifestation explained by the Socionomic theory.

    Anything that looks cute, happy or pleasant is condemned as a “girls car”. Look at the Miata and the first generation Jeep Liberty. They do not look unpleasant enough to attract the rough, tough he-men. Perhaps men have gotten so insecure of their masculinity they require nasty looking vehicles to reassure themselves.

    Well said, sir. Well said. That would explain the never ending convoys of bro-dozers I see on the roads where I live.

    The worst is those overlays is they put on the front of a jeep wrangler that the owner thinks makes the jeep look aggressive, but they make it look like a spoiled child getting ready to throw a tantrum.

    Excellent article. What happened is government intervention. Everything now has to meet a fuel mileage standard, a glass standard, an air-bag standard, other safety standards, etc.. Car companies have to build cars within these standards or get penalized or put out of business. It’s a wonder all cars today aren’t communist block gray. Wait a minute….they are…..basically all of the vehicles today or black, white or gray (a combination of black and white). Prior to the 70’s vehicles were art….tri-five Chevys, Thunderbird, Road Runner, Jag and the bug-eyed Sprite. Just like art you may not like them all but they each have their distinct beauty. The Sprite has actually grown on me. I don’t think a 2004 Mazda SUV will ever grow on me, whatever it looks like. Today you can take an entire line of black, white and gray SUVs parked in the parking garage, change the brand emblems around and not know who makes what, except from the front for the butt-ugly Lexus. A family member must have designed that and I’m a Lexus fan. I’ve owned several great Lexus’s except for the newer ones. My daily driver is a ’99 LS400; classic S Class design (borrowed from Mercedes) with better performance and reliability that I bought 10 years ago. It’s gold like 75% of them were in ’99.

    It would be a stretch to call those in automotive world assigned the privilege of creating the new looks “Stylists”. Maybe “Copycats” would be a better identifier.

    It appears to me that more thought is put into creating a rolling Disney Light Show than actually creating something appealing to view. There are a few exceptions but they are very few and very far between,

    My first “Bug Eye” was in 1964 it lasted a total of 14 minutes in the hands of an exuberant Mario Andretti wanna be.

    I waited nearly 50 years for my second one.

    What joy it has begotten.

    Never take it anywhere where I don’t see smiles, hand waves, honked horns (all be it from being slow in the fast lane), and innumerable questions.

    It truly makes one smile.


    I couldn’t agree more. And for the record, we have a ’57 Morris Minor. I can’t tell you the number of times she has made grown people cry with tears of joy. One woman with an English accent outside our local Jewel grocery store actually thanked my daughter and I for driving her to get groceries and went on to say we had made her week.

    This might be surprising to you, however, a little Bugeye Sprite was one of three cars in the studio at Chrysler Pacifica back in 1985 that served as inspiration for the covert design work on the Dodge Viper. I know because I was one of the there designers there. The other two cars were a Jaguar E-type roadster and Carroll Shelby’s personal 427 Cobra. This is fact, not the fiction you might have read.

    I’ve shown many pictures of my Sprite to unknowing “car guys” who guess “Is it a Viper” or “Oh my that’s a Cobra”

    I just smile!!!!

    …right-on Aaron! Not only are the “faces” of most vehicles mean, menacing, or just plain ugly (e.g. the yawing fishmouth of the Lexus brand, or the kidneys on steroids and out of control of the BMW brand) – but most of today’s vehicles are also behemoths of the road…so add BIG, mean and ugly to the equation! When I take my MGB/GT, or Austin Healey MKIII 3000 (which is much bigger than a Bugeye Sprite) out for a drive on a major road, I feel like I’m in a canyon – surrounded by huge SUV’s, pickup trucks, and crossovers – I’m looking up at the door handles of these things! What happened to sensible sized, and happy vehicles? Not only is society today grim, but we’re also “biggie-sized” compared to preceding generations – a sad state of affairs, indeed!

    Bug-Eye (Frog-Eye) … happiest car ever!
    That said …wish I could post a picture here.
    Have had this conversation with my wife a few times. We have several Mitsubishi 3000 GT’s and the differance is striking between “Boris” (my 1996 Spyder) and “Rage” (her 1997) Happy face to sad face in one year. And the 1999 (last year for the 3000) looks like a bottom dwelling “Mud Shark”. LOL

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