First, let me clarify where I was when the title question arose: at the 23rd Annual Radnor Hunt Concours d’Elegance, Pennsylvania’s preeminent Concours event. One hundred of the highest quality automotive and motorcycle examples make the pilgrimage to Chester County—just outside Philadelphia—for this special yearly event. With invite-only entries ranging from spotless award-winning restorations to unbelievably original time capsule-like vehicles, Radnor Hunt houses it all. For a little feel-good in there, too, the event’s proceeds benefit two local non-profit organizations. I attended this event a few years ago and have been itching to witness its choice participants again. I arrived very early on the day, and captured a bunch of different design elements that I felt could only be perceived properly when housed in a vintage scenario—or so I thought.
I Ask Again, Is Automotive Design Dead?
It’s a risky question to ask. Every single new car from a major automobile manufacturer that rolls through production has undergone thousands of hours of design development by dozens of different designers. I’m talking more about the unique ways vintage automobile designs remained distinct, rather than falling into the lookalike trap.
There’s a certain trait found on vintage cars that separates them from the present-day variety. It’s the difference between production cars and concept cars. It’s why most vehicles were lighter and smaller in past generations. Lastly, some car designs just effortlessly exude the intangible characteristic. What is this “it” I keep referring to? Through this article, I’ll discuss a few design elements I enjoyed at the Hunt and see if we end up in agreement about whether it has been missing lately.
Exhibit A: 1958 Ferrari 250 LWB “Tour de France” Competizione Berlinetta
This car has such a smooth, almost bubbly body shape. While the front end is fairly status quo for the era, it’s the rear of the car that has me obsessing over its details, especially the sharp angular fins that flow down into the tastefully bulbous expansion of the rear fender line. I love how these fins take shape immediately following the door and seamlessly house the taillights above the trunk line, leaving a perfectly rounded bottom section—which is tied into the quarter-panel, roof, and even the A-pillar. Look at how the asymmetrical trunk outline gives ample room to the car’s gas filler location. When, in the present day would an entire panel be designed around the gas filler location?
This particular car is one of only 77 long-wheelbase examples ever built; of those only 37 have the single-vent louvers on the rear pillar. And if the design elements implemented from Scaglietti and Ferrari more than 60 years ago aren’t enough for you, let’s discuss how perfectly this car represents them. With only a couple of separated panels across the entire body of the car, the bodywork on this particular example is flawless. Carrying such an orbed shape from side to side with no visual interruptions speaks volumes about the quality of the work performed to bring this Ferrari to its current condition. The interior color and materials would have been easy to overlook because they’ve done such a wonderful job pairing them with the dashing exterior. The captivating vent design implemented into the rear pillar interior along with the classy diamond-stitched leather beckoned my attention at first glimpse. This 250 was one of my favorites at the event and showed so many small touches that I feel are lost on current cars. I could have studied it for hours.
Exhibit B: 1950 Healey Silverstone Roadster
While the Ferrari I listed above made my list for the exquisite execution of so many vintage coachwork details, this Healey enters based on uniqueness. Let’s start with the front and work our way rearward. A single stretch of uninterrupted body panel forms the smoothed bumper area, reaches around the vehicle’s front grille to the inner fender, and finally ends beneath the door. It’s a beautiful design element, which unfortunately no longer exists today. I say inner fender because the actual fenders resemble that of a motorcycle—disconnected from the body and stretching just beyond the scope of the vehicle’s tires. I think it creates a svelte vision of the body, streamlined between the vehicle’s outstretched wheel and tire package.
Within the front end, a few details were more than outstanding for me. The hidden headlights are positioned beautifully behind the vehicle’s grille; this more than likely hinders the amount of light they emit, but who can argue with the stunning result? A front end free of bulging light bulbs messing with the visual flow is a recipe for success. This commentary is coming from someone who loves pop-up headlights, so take that as you will.
Moving astern, I couldn’t get over how much I enjoyed the architecture of the fenders. They appeared to be a humongous drop of red paint that formed its shape while the car pressed through Earth’s atmosphere at speed. In a striking similarity to the front, the entire rear portion of the car is one solitary panel. It’s a horrendous practice for panel replacement, and even worse for body shops to keep a flawless arch in the metal, but my goodness—what an incredible feature when viewed in this impeccable condition!
Finishing off this Healey is my favorite item on the car: the spare tire. Not only is it incredibly unique—and looks like a small child eating an entire Oreo cookie in one mouthful (that can’t be unseen)—but it also becomes the rearmost contact point of the car. A clever way to not only house the preparatory piece of kit, but to duplicate it as a rubber bumper that shields the body of the car. Remember when I was talking about that sweeping rear panel being a pain for the coachbuilder? Well, the spare should help with that.
Exhibit C-1: 1968 Porsche 911L Coupe
An astute reader will notice I split Exhibit C into multiple sections. This is because I want to discuss the 911, but there were two stunning examples on display—well, there were dozens of stunning examples on display. The shape of the 911 has been covered too many times to count, so I won’t bore you with my rendition, but I will talk about two examples from the Hunt, with particular features I loved. Did you know 1968 was the only year Porsche produced the 911L in the United States? The “L” denotes a luxury model, and what screams luxury more than stunning Gold Metallic paint? Stretched from front to back, I couldn’t get over how consuming this 1968 factory-spec color option was in the gleaming sun. The lack of distracting side elements like a rear-view-mirror made the opening for the windows a brilliant chrome-and-glass gateway to bliss. Perhaps not exactly design-related, but as a package, this 911L stood out as one of my highlights of the day. The liquescent golden paint appearing as though it was thawing in the sun combined with the aura of vintage opulence it emitted was just spectacular.
Exhibit C-2: 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS Touring
Nowadays, auto enthusiasts just associate the RS (or Rennsport) Porsche models with stripped-down performance models. However, the RS Touring models were equipped with the deluxe interior spec of the 911S and weighed significantly more. It makes this aggressive, sporty vehicle more tolerable on long drives—exactly what someone would want in a Touring model vehicle. This particular model had to be included in my discussion because I enjoy so many different aspects of the 2.7 RS, but I specifically love the bürzel (or ducktail). The way it aptly transitions the illustrious sloping rear end of the 911 to point skyward is worth the mention alone, but factor in the gentle flat section in the middle of the wing and it becomes a precisely undulant addition to the famed vehicle’s design.
Exhibit D: 1956 AC Ace Bristol Roadster
In 1953, AC unleashed the Ace on the world. If the lines of this vehicle look familiar to you, that’s because soon after the Ace’s inception, it was used as the basis for the now-famous Shelby Cobra. An inline six-cylinder Bristol engine used in pre-war BMWs powers this AC Ace example, rather than a big honking American V8.
One single look at this car, and you’ll know why it made the list. Talk to any owner of a black-painted vehicle and they’ll tell you, “I will never own a black car again.” On a similar note, talk to anyone with a white interior in their car and the answer will mimic that of the black paint. The two shades are just impossible to keep clean given what happens when cars are driven and used. However, when vehicles with both features are spotless, the result is breathtaking.
Here is a splendid representation of why the pair works so well. The flawless bodywork on this car is all the evidence needed for admiration. The mirror-like gloss finish on the panels is astounding. The deep twilight of the black paint gives the illusion that I could dive right into the uninterrupted panels of the car. If you’re wondering how it stayed so pristine throughout the day, well, the owner carefully maintained its glimmer. He wiped the entire car numerous times throughout the day to keep the darkness ripe and free of contaminants. The combination of the hygienic white interior, the rich black exterior, and the vibrant reflective chrome trim immediately made it a favorite of mine.
Moving past the physical paint on the car, I couldn’t help but enjoy the lines of this car more than its renowned counterpart, the Cobra. In a beautifully desolate fashion, it lacks door handles, vents, mirrors, and other exterior adornments. The continuously flat side of the AC Ace screams refinement. The swooping circular area surrounding the Ace’s grille exudes a certain elegance that isn’t found on the American iteration. The shape of the car itself may not have the muscular contours found on the Cobra, but when combined with two ornate vertical posts of chrome serving as bumpers, it radiates class.
Exhibit E: 2019 Ferrari 488 Pista / 2020 Ferrari F8 Tributo
As promised, I’ll close my analysis with a couple of present-day examples of how design isn’t dead after all. I won’t lie—while I was writing this, I started to feel a little discouraged at the state of today’s vehicle design. Every production vehicle is crammed to the brim with safety devices, multi-functional tools, redundant amenities, and more trinkets than ever before.
In the case of these new Ferraris, which gracefully repress these burdens out of sight, it is not unmanageable but is encroaching. Amidst the assisted-this, and automatic-that, these sports cars haven’t subsided to the glum world of regulations just yet. Companies like Ferrari do what they can to produce wild architecture that houses bulks of regulatory boredom with tenacity. There are hundreds of tiny elements located across the body of both cars, but I am enamored with the drastically swooping S-duct on the Pista.
The hood’s bodywork dive-bombs into an unknown abyss, while the strategically placed stripes accentuate this descent. The stripe-laden opening in the front bumper not only feeds this duct but also provides visual cues that connect the dots where the duct begins. I love everything about it; the performance advantage, the clever use of bodywork, and the visual representation of the atmosphere’s route across the body.
The Ferraris may be a bit busy at first glance, but more than a cursory look at any car being produced today shows that they’re all similar in that respect. There are many panel gaps designed to make any replacement less expensive. There are concealed devices planted within the confines of these panels. Finally, there are so many amenities in vehicles now, that I think we as a culture are starting to lose sight of what the primary purpose is for the automobile. Catering to the masses with every interest in mind will result in a future full of mind-numbing vehicles fit for comfortable and boring transport. Most classes of vehicles already look similar, and I’m afraid it’s not changing.
There is hope, though. As with most other facets of our lives, vehicle design is cyclical and companies are taking cues from these older design studies. They’re incorporating what was deemed futuristic technology before and making it commonplace. Super- and hypercars are incorporating some of the most attractive depths to their body design, and it’s all available for our immediate view via the internet. It’s an amazing time to be an automotive enthusiast, and while there are aspects of vehicle design we may never get back, the memory of what remains will drive the lust for these vintage automobiles for years to come. So I guess the answer is no, automotive design is not dead, it’s just different now. I’m almost thankful that some aspects of this era can no longer be replicated. These idyllic creations will simply remain classic.