1953 Cadillac Eldorado
Beth Twigg

Beth Twigg

Beth is our Content and Paid Media Specialist, tasked with creating great articles to keep you both entertained and informed. She has two years previous experience, but has been writing and scribbling for much longer.

Read time of 9 minutes.

Ever thought about how car design can change depending on the country or period?

Not all cars are built the same. When designing their latest models, manufacturers often tailor the car to the market it’s going to be launched in.

Some differences are obvious – left-hand drive cars aren’t going to be as popular here in the UK, and vice-versa in countries that drive on the right.

But other differences are more subtle.

Sometimes it comes down to climate: convertibles are always going to sell like hot cakes in a country where you can appreciate the benefits of having no roof (sun on your face, wind in your hair), and not so much in a country that stays frozen for most of the year.

Frostbite isn’t such a cool look.

Buyer taste also accounts for some differences: different countries favour different styles, whether that’s in their clothes, their home décor, or even their cars. This can be as simple as the colours offered, or something more akin to the UK’s Ford Aeroford (1920 – 1925), which was essentially a Ford Model T with a different bonnet and radiator grille to tempt us Brits.

And sometimes, the differences can be historical, with different trends floating in and out over the centuries.

Lexus LS Saloon

Lexus LS

Why is car design different between countries?

A lot of it boils down to the difference in roads, which means different driving styles and different priorities.

For example, a vehicle designed for tight European roads, cobbled streets, and high-speed German autobahns has to prioritise high-speed stability and careful handling, while in the US, the focus tends to be on big cars that can comfortably cruise at both high and low speeds. American roads are wider and straighter, and there’s often a lot of congestion in bigger cities.

But while local road conditions will influence the dynamics of the car, the overall style often pulls from the local culture.

Western and Eastern countries, speaking in the broadest sense, generally have different ideas about vehicle design.

Lexus LS interior

Lexus LS interior

Japanese manufacturer Lexus, for example, has been working on bringing elements of traditional Japanese craftsmanship into its products, with Japanese tea ceremonies, origami, and other traditional practices influencing the design and finish.

These touches aren’t cheap: the high-end Lexus LS saloon has the option to add a hand-pleated cloth door trim that takes three days to fold, while the ultra-exclusive Toyota Century uses traditional lacquering techniques to hand-paint and wet-sand the saloon.

And in China, the emphasis and money tend to be focused on the rear seats of the car, rather than the driver's seat, with many premium buyers preferring to sit behind the driver of the car.

But look across the pond, and premium American cars from manufacturers like Cadillac and Lincoln tend to err more on the flamboyant side, with brash and bold looks. Vehicles like the Escalade and the Navigator are good examples of the size, space, and technological luxury buyers in the US are looking for.

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle

Car design in the twentieth century

The twentieth century was a time of huge change for automotive design.

The iconic VW Beetle is one of the best examples of a car that adjusted its design during this time for different markets, rising and falling in popularity over a period of more than five decades.

Not only was the design of some Beetles different – the Brazilian Beetles kept the original European style (small side windows, classic headlights) until the late ’60s while those built for the Mexican market had larger windows and different mechanical parts – but it was also known by different names, depending on where you lived. In France, for example, it was called the Coccinelle, or ladybug.

Different countries have also been a driver of design. Italy was hugely influential in automotive design in Europe in the twentieth century – and still to this day – with designs coming out of the country beginning to gain global popularity in the late ‘50s.

1957 Fiat 500

1957 Fiat 500

By the late 1960s, almost all Italian coachbuilders had transformed into design studios catering to automakers around the world, with the trend continuing into the 1990s when Japanese and Korean manufacturers sourced designs from these styling studios.

Now iconic brands like Fiat and Alfa Romeo grew in popularity during this time, while the presence of Italian manufacturers in motorsports led to several sports’ car manufacturers coming out of the country, including Ferrari, Lancia, Lamborghini, and Maserati.

The Italian influence has been felt in other countries too – even those with their own design quirks.

German automotive design started gaining popularity in the 1980s, with Audi and Volkswagen helping to shape what a late twentieth-century German car looked like. But the Italians had some influence here too, with designers Giovanni Michelotti, Ercole Spada, Bruno Sacco, and Giorgetto Giugiaro all having a say.

Jaguar E-Type

Jaguar E-Type

The history of British car design

And across from the mainland, Britain has enjoyed a long, influential automotive design history.

It was Europe’s leading manufacturer of automobiles until the late 1960s, with more manufacturers based in Britain than in any other European country.

Not just in the luxury car world either – the Brits have enjoyed lasting success across the breadth of the market, from compact city cars through sporty saloons and right up to the premium end of the spectrum.

British designers weren’t influenced by the same European art and design movements that were sweeping the continent, and as a result, we ended up with iconic British cars like the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Aston Martin DB series, Jaguar’s old line-up, and the quintessentially British Land Rover.

Ford Model T 1908

1908 Ford Model T

Car design in North America

Rounding up the pack is the USA.

You can’t talk about automotive design without invoking the name, with the cars that were popular in the states very different to those in Europe.

The Ford Model T (1908 - 1927) is still such an iconic vehicle, marking the first affordable car available to the mass market and making car travel accessible to middle-class Americans. The lower price was thanks to Ford's innovation in production, with the Ford Model T the first car to be produced on an assembly line rather than individually handcrafted. Until 1972, it was the most sold car in history, before being overtaken by the Beetle. 

Tracking design changes in America in the twentieth century throws up some interesting advancements. Chrysler began experimenting with aerodynamics in the ‘30s, launching the Chrysler Airflow in 1934.

It was much more streamlined than the big, boxy cars of the era, and would ultimately prove a failure, with Chrysler having to go back and redesign it. But this wasn’t the last time that American manufacturers would experiment with streamlined design.

The 1940s saw the influence of Henry Earl, who introduced aeronautical features like tailfins to the market, rise, while the American love for big boxes on four wheels continued through to the 1970s.

Nearly every car from this period featured hard, sharp edges and very few curves – the cars were essentially just three boxes welded together and given a great big engine.

But this love affair wouldn’t last.

Ford Taurus 1986

1986 Ford Taurus

Aerodynamic designs were becoming popular in Europe, where fuel was historically more expensive, and so manufacturers were concerned with the efficiency of the cars they were building, not just the looks.

Luxury manufacturers like Porsche, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes were some of the first to reintroduce the curved exterior to the European market. And because these were premium cars attracting a high-end buyer, the idea of this aerodynamic design being a marker of luxury took off, even in America.

The 1983 Ford Thunderbird design was heavily shaped by wind tunnel testing, prioritising sleek lines over the boxy, hard-edged shape of yore.

This look eventually filtered down to the mass market with the 1986 Ford Taurus, and it’s still with us today. Basic physics is to thank for the look sticking around: curved exteriors and steep windscreens make for less wind resistance, which means less fuel is burned to move the car the same distance at the same speed, making the car much more efficient.

The Taurus also launched at a time when manufacturers were still learning to deal with the corporate average fuel economy standards. This had started in 1978 and meant that the average fuel economy of each passenger car sold in the US had to meet higher and higher standards, before it finally plateaued in 1990 at 27.5 miles per gallon.

Though some progress in efficiency had been made in improving engines and other mechanical components, the curved aesthetic made it easier – and cheaper – to meet these targets. Within a few short years, nearly every car on the market looked like the Taurus.

If you look at cars today, they nearly all feature the same sort of design: curved, sweeping lines with angled mirrors and windows to allow for maximum efficiency.

Pretty cool, right?

Toyota Auris

2007 Toyota Auris

Same model, different name

It’s not always the design that changes.

Like with the VW Beetle, car manufacturers will sometimes change the name of a model instead of the design to appeal to consumers in a different market, or to update the image of a car that’s been on the roads for a long time.

The Toyota Corolla is a good example of this.

For a long time, it was one of the most popular small cars around – but it ended up at a point where people were beginning to see it as old fashioned.

In 2006, Toyota changed its name from the old-school Corolla to the new-school Toyota Auris to establish the car as modern and high-class in a bid to attract a new set of buyers. But interestingly, after 13 years of using the Auris name, the 2019 model reverted to the Corolla badge to give the car – a rival to the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus – a singular identity.

Name changes can happen for other reasons: the Renault Clio, for example, is sold in Japan under the name Lutecia, because Honda owns the Clio name in that market.

Even the iconic VW Golf hasn’t always been known as the Volkswagen Golf in some countries. In the US, the Golf Mk1 to the Golf Mk5 was marketed as the VW Rabbit, while the first Golf in Mexico was called the VW Caribe, and in South Africa it was named the Volkswagen Citi Golf until 2009.

And sometimes?

Well, words in different languages can have different meanings – which doesn’t always work out well for the manufacturer.

Tesla Model Y

Tesla Model Y

The automotive world is ever-changing.

In terms of the whole of human history, cars have only been around for a very small amount of time – and have gone through such massive changes in that time. Something like the Tesla Model Y with its electric motor and sleek looks would have been unfathomable to someone used to the very first Ford Model T’s, despite the similarities in name.

And car design is still ever evolving.

Though most cars have similar sleek lines – thanks to the need to be streamlined and aerodynamic – manufacturers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what that can look like, whether it’s the retro-chic Honda e, the uber-practical Vauxhall Mokka, or the futuristic Genesis GV60.

We’re excited to see what happens next. 

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