Fin de Siècle

Cadillac Coup de Ville.

Great design seems to leap across the decades. This is certainly true of many built things to have lasted, particularly courthouses, churches, and various types of vehicles.

Car culture of the 1950s, a boomer legacy not, as in some other instances, still worth celebrating, is a kind of belle époque that survives today mainly in magazines, movies, and weekend clubs.

Cars of this earlier era were for many people, perhaps unwittingly, their first exposure to the concepts of freedom, style, and even beauty.

Revheads were into art, only they may not have known it.

Harley Earl at General Motors did much to promote the idea of the passenger car as an all-purpose polymorphous object of desire, to borrow from Dave Hickey, when he introduced the Cadillac tailfin, itself based on the tail assembly of the P-38 fighter plane.

Sleek and muscular, these cars were liquid colour, folds of steel and lacquer imbued with the visual language of the Baroque. The lowrider was in the opinion of El Paso artist Luis Jiménez, the ultimate synthesis of sculpture and painting — a bridge between the past and future.

As an icon, the Ford Mustang very much exists as a product of this continuum. But by 1978, as Christopher Caldwell has pointed out, magazine ads for Ford and Cadillac depicted their new models against a dim backdrop of historic ones, “as if to console themselves that, if their products were third-rate, they had at least once made better ones.”

Truck exteriors, for the moment, have evolved, at least aesthetically, largely in counterpoint of this trend. The SuperTruck II program, for one, offers a glimpse as to why.

To avoid radical changes to the structure of Freightliner’s SuperTruck II, Daimler Truck North America’s demonstrator Class 8 heavy vehicle, a design goal was established early on.

Both engineering and design departments, working in close collaboration together, agreed upon modifications that were accordant with the existing shape of the Cascadia.

The pursuit to maximise aerodynamic efficiency would be achieved through what was described as advanced design language.

This is where, dear reader, it gets interesting.

Designers imagined the surfaces of the truck being carved away by the wind. After all, in nature, perfect sculptural shapes are created from light materials such as sand and snow.

DTNA Chief Designer Jeff Cotner and his team, bearing this in mind, undertook the task of melding the strange bedfellows of excitement and freight efficiency.

“Sometimes what the eye sees is not what the air sees,” said Cotner. “We let the areas most critical to aero performance design themselves and integrated the more expressive lines in the places where the drag is neutral.”

With a stated goal of gaining as much freight efficiency as possible, the Daimler team were also mindful of creating a beautiful truck.

A redesigned hood, bumper and chassis fairing attuned to existing cab structure allowed air to flow undisturbed around the truck.

The grille, air intakes and doors were all redesigned to be as clean as possible. No sharp edges were to compromise the aerodynamics or beauty of the truck. In other words, the aspiration here was something more than just functional.

Sculptor Fen de Villiers, who chisels heroic figures of strength and motion from appreciable blocks of stone and bronze, takes up this theme of a glory-bound primal force moving forward at speed in a spirit of adventure, mostly absent in contemporary art and modern-day passenger cars.

Timeless design is like an ambassador for the norm of which it noticeably diverges.

In other words that which is at once physically functional and aesthetically desirable, must differ, essentially, from the repeated practice that it was born from. In short it dissents from the very environment that gave rise to it.

Beauty, oft said, is fleeting. Moving freight might not be pretty but it’s nice to have reminders that it embodies a higher calling.

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