"Google it,” recommended a feature on the website PistonHeads, referring to the Scenicruiser GX-2 coach. So I did. And, gosh, what a thing the Scenicruiser is: a vast, splitlevel cross-state American coach, built for cruising through vaster, big-screen US scenery, in a time when roads still wove through, rather than around, towns like Radiator Springs.
What a way to travel. It reminded me of an Oldsmobile Eighty-eight I saw on the M6 the other week, dominating the lane in which it sat, with O L D S M O B I L E written large across the rear because, well, with that amount of metallic real estate on offer, why wouldn’t you use it?
They’re both evocative designs, partly because they’re both bigger than they strictly needed to be, but more so because outwardly they’re so extravagant; the Scenicruiser with its shining, ribbed aluminium sides, and roof part-raised like a 40ft Land Rover Discovery; the Oldsmobile with its flares, italicised fonts and chrome measured out by the hundredweight.
In the 1950s and 1960s, this stuff was common. The designs of the day shrieked not primarily of excess, mind; at least, not in the gaudy, accepted sense of it. They were too well styled and, crucially, too well intentioned for that.
Yes, there was a lot of metal, and it was showy, but it was a show of tremendous boldness, not wealth. It reflected a marvellous kind of optimism. The reflective aluminium surfaces and big flared wings and curved glass areas gained their inspiration from the rapidly developing aerospace industry. It was progress, not money, that this kind of Americana represented.
Maybe that’s not surprising, given how hard the country had been hit in previous decades. After the Great Depression came the ravages of war and, once you find peace – of a sort – at last you find hope: people didn’t have loads of money but they had experienced phenomenal technological advances. Tomorrow, then, we go supersonic, and the day after that, we go to the moon.
Does product design reflect such extraneous external factors? I think so. This week, I spoke to a French car designer who put the French’s continuing predilection for de-badging expensive cars and love of battered small hatchbacks at the hands of the French Revolution. It doesn’t pay to stick your head too far above the parapet.
And if design reflects society, what do today’s designs say about us? Today, because most car makers build vehicles properly, design has never played such a big part in car buying. And yet so much of it is boring, bland, ‘meh’ and safe.
Now, I’m not big on nostalgia. The world’s a much better place now that we’re curing diseases, we don’t have to use a mangle and the imminent threat of a nuclear apocaly… well, anyway. I’m not sold on nostalgia.
But it seems to me there was a time when, for the first time in decades, the future looked brighter, not darker. When we looked to the horizons, the skies and the stars. Yet today, when cars do retro, they do the meagre bits: the Mini, the Fiat 500, the Beetle; cars born from pragmatism.
I think I’m yearning for a retro car design that rediscovers optimism. The Space Race. Supersonic flight. Rock and roll. Although I do fear I’ve just advocated the Chrysler PT Cruiser.