Attention: We Have Come Up With A Name For The Design Trend That Made Cars ‘Rounder’ In The 1990s

Image (88)

I have important news for everyone not just interested in cars or automotive design, but everyone with eyes, period: we at Autopian Linguistic Labs and Day Spa have come up with a term to describe the industry-wide automotive design shift that was happening around the late 1980s to the early 1990s: aerosion. Yes, yes, you’re welcome. Let’s describe aerosion in a bit more detail, so you can begin to employ this new term immediately.

Most likely the easiest way to convey the concept of aerosion is with some images, so here’s a few notable examples of the trend:


The shift from the Mk.1 to Mk.2 Golf is one of the clearest examples, as the fundamental vocabulary used in the design didn’t change, but the execution did. The basic proportions and details are all still essentially the same, but everything has been rounded and smoothed a bit, like a river stone,. worn smooth by decades of moving water. There’s also a slight inflation effect, as though the original angular car had been inflated like a beach ball.

The move from the Jeep XJ Cherokee to ZJ Grand Cherokee is another great example of this, and shows similar traits: smoothing, inflating, larger, rounder, and now featuring shaped plastic headlamps where previously sealed beams (in this case rectangular) resided.

[Editor’s Note: This isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’d like to point out that the transition to the ZJ also brought about a bizarre beltline “jog” when it hit the hood after it flowed smoothly from the rear along the bottoms of the windows. You’ll see that the XJ doesn’t have this jog; the hood is in line with the beltline — a design that looks better, I think. -DT] 

This aerosion period is when most cars (at least in U.S. markets) made the transition from off-the-shelf sealed beam headlamps to custom-for-the-model plastic, shaped units.

This phenomenon was global; Honda’s Civic went from its third/fourth generation and aeroded into the fifth, fully aerosion-compliant fifth generation, showing all the traits: shaped headlamps, rounded surfaces, plumping, and so on. A more sophisticated understanding of aerodynamics was the big factor here, and it’s remarkable to see how universally similar design changes happened all over the world.

The Ford Explorer is another great example, with its first generation in 1991 being an interesting partially-aeroded design, with custom headlamps that are still mostly rectangular and some smoothed corners, but it took until the second-gen in 1995 for the SUV to become fully aerosion-compliant, with much more rounding, plumping, and dramatically-shaped lighting.

Also note the transition into bumpers becoming much more integrated into the body, in shape and overall design.

Minivans, of course, weren’t aerosion-averse either, as the original 1984 Dodge Caravan design was completely aeroded by the 1991 shift to the second generation. Sealed beams were gone, there was body inflation, edges sanded into smoothness, bumpers integrated even more with body-colored covers.

The Aerosion Shift was an important one for automotive design, because not only did it set the look for almost every ’90s to early 2000s car, it established so many of the essential traits of modern automotive design, with its significant focus on aerodynamics, fully integrated bumpers, wild freedom in light shapes, and a general unity of form that hadn’t ever really been accomplished for mass-market cars before.

Cars since aerosion have become one smooth primary form, as opposed to a main form with a lot of things (bumpers, lights, trim) stuck on.

Aerosion is a big deal in automotive design, and I’m thankful that it finally has a name.

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit

70 Responses

    1. I ran into that a couple times so far. I would log in to comment and go back to comment and it would tell me to log in. When I clicked to do so I was already logged in. Had to refresh the page is what I have arrived at as the solution sometimes it takes a couple times? Haven’t figured out exactly what is going on yet

    1. Golf I is all creases and mostly planar surfaces in between (typical 1970’s Giugiaro). Golf II is significantly rounder and heavier, with filleted edges and gently convex surfaces. If you can’t see it we can’t help you. The aerosion from Golf II to III is definitely stronger, though.

    1. Agreed, but the downfall came when stylists started aerodding the trim pieces too.

      ’80s flat lines could be nicely broken up with chrome or plastic trim to give the design a feel of structure by separating/highlighting different areas, etc. but when that trim then got smoothed and blended in the ’90s, we ended up that shapeless jelly bean appearance that few people liked.

  1. In many cases, I think it was a good way to subtly modernize a design without putting in the work of a completely fresh shape or losing the cues that said “Cherokee” or “Civic.”

    Except in the case of the Taurus, the Funky Oval Riding Device, as I ended up dubbing it.

    1. You mean the third gen Taurus, right? Even the existence of an SHO variant couldn’t save that thing.

      Hard to tell which was worse, the nostril-ed front end or the droopy rear (made even worse when equipped with the spoiler).

  2. I always think of it as Taurosion.

    A case could be made that it was the styling of the first-gen Ford Taurus that really jumpstarted the trend.

    I know Tempo had elements first (JohnTaurus will be all over this if I don’t mention that!), but the Taurus was what really got it noticed as a package.

    1. I got a shotout!!

      Yes, the Aerofication (I like mine bette was in full affect at Ford before it hit elsewhere, but the whole world was already headed there.

      The Taurus definitely had the bigger impact, the Tempo was a precursor and therefore accommodated sealed-beam headlights. Taurus took it further with more flush-fitting glass (although the Tempo was better than previous cars in this respect) and door handles (that Tempo inherited for ’88).

      But Aerofication goes beyond flush grilles and headlights, notice how doors on the ’83 Thunderbird, ’84 Tempo and ’86 Taurus are seamlessly integrated with the roof? Eliminating drip rails and hiding them under the wrapover doors made a subtle, but substantial difference.

      Overall, people complain that it’s a “jellybean” shape. But to me, Aerofication results in a cleaner, nicer design that just flows better. Some wore it better than others, but that’s true with anything.

      1. “Overall, people complain that it’s a “jellybean” shape. But to me, Aerofication results in a cleaner, nicer design that just flows better. Some wore it better than others, but that’s true with anything.”

        Well… “cleaner,” sure. “Nicer”? Eh. Yes, it “flows better.” That’s what all the wind tunnel testing brought us to. And just like NASCAR’s COF tried to bring us to an idealized place where aerodynamics, and thus speed and handling, were maximized while still barely trying to look something like a “stock” car, so have modern car designs been enslaved to performance and economy standards at the expense, I believe, of visual interest. Which is fine, if you just want to get from here to there as safely, speedily, efficiently, and cheaply as possible. But aerodynamic perfection is more science than art, and there will be a definite mathematical ideal which all the manufacturers will, to varying degrees, attempt to approach. And so we won’t see very many chunks of inefficient eye candy like, say, the Cord 812, or the ’56 F100, or the VW Thing toodling down the roads anymore, but rather a whole bunch of ovoid pods that exit the consciousness as soon as their slippery surface slides out of view. Even that 1994 Ram, certainly as Aeroded as anything else of its era, still possessed a memorably striking presence that recent Rams have lost.

        It’s just a subjective aesthetic taste thing. I don’t necessarily prefer things that “flow better.” My optic nerve is not my windpipe.

        1. for all their Modernity (with a capital M), the big Citroens were always cars of their time. The DS and CX still largely have separate bumpers and the CX got very angular towards the end of its lifetime. Both certainly had a larger focus on aero than other manufacturers, but this effect of ‘aerosion’ didn’t really hit until the ’89 XM, and even then I’d say that’s pretty early since it is still such an angular car. True ‘aerosion’ at Citroen would probably be the ZX or Xantia, to speak nothing of the egg-shaped disaster that would become the Xsara and Picasso.

          1. Citroën, true to their norms, resisted aerosion and made the XM a jagged spearhead kind of car. Later they made up for this, as pointed out already.

            Aerosion also happens with my little one’s wooden toy cars. Sweaty, clumsy palms coupled with sandboxes does the trick.

    2. Ford design in the early ’80s was trying to prepare people for the Taurus really. The Tempo and the ninth-gen Thunderbird were definitely clear indications of where Ford was going.

      1. You could just about do it in a mk1 as well-but i ran out of courage trying it with the steel 13s and 12yo skinny tires. An otherwise stock ‘82 4-door would >absolutely< do the peeing dog with 14” snowflakes shod with anything modern-Khumos, iirc

  3. A similar thing happened to the Starship Enterprise. The “Next Generation” version was way more curvy and liquid-looking than the original one.

    And since I turned 7 in 1990, I was just the right age to be 100% on board with this trend when it happened. I still remember how hopelessly dowdy and boring all the old boxy ’80s cars looked to me as soon as the blobby ’90s ones appeared. My mom traded in her Tercel wagon for a Previa, and bam! We were living in the future!!!

    (And speaking of Star Trek, I could not help but notice how much the interior of the Previa reminded me of the bridge of Picard’s ship — especially since ours was tan inside. Actually, there’s probably a lot of great commonalities between trends in Hollywood sci-fi set design and automotive design.)

  4. I think you’re neglecting one of the major contributors to this change – improvements to computing (both mainframe and personal computers) and the rise of Computer Aided Design. While many of the basic tenants of creating an aerodynamic vehicle shape were understood, CAD allowed the effects of very specific features to be investigated – flush windows, door handles, smoothed lines and transitions (especially from the roofline to the rear glass to the trunk lid on a sedan), and reduced grill opening sizes were all trends that really could be traced back to CAD. Plus, the improved ability of computers of the 80s and early 90s to handle complex curves and surfaces allowed these to be incorporated into designs more quickly & easily with the effects better understood, compared without making clay bucks for all of them, and then these communicated to management.

  5. I think a lot of this design theme had as much to do with sleeker designs of the era as it did with the ability to mass produce vehicles with these shapes. A lot of vehicle production design falls back on what can be produced in mass.

  6. I would also throw in the C3 to C4 Corvette into this mix, although I have dubbed it Soapification. From Webster’s Underground Dictionary and Chilidog Recipe Compendium:

    Soapification: (Noun): When you used a shaped soap to the point that all the lines and character have been removed. See Also: Bondo Bubble Bath.

  7. You can really see this in the Gen 3 to 4, and 4-5 Celicas. I think the 4th gen still looked good, but then it went fully melted by Gen 5.


  8. Ha! Good one
    I have to confess i liked the nineties style.The eighties were interesting but ultimately too crude.The nineties smoothed the awkward corners making most cars look far better.
    But dont most of them look dull now ????

  9. I think the Camry aeroded the quickest from the 91 to 92 model years.
    I remember complaining about this phenomenon when I was a new driver.
    Goodby sight lines, suddenly I couldn’t tell where the corners of the car where without some guesswork.
    I always wanted to borrow my brothers 89 Camry over My Moms 93 because I hated driving “the bubble car”.

    1. By modern standards, a third- or fourth-generation Camry offers pretty good visibility, but when I first drove a ’98 I felt like I was going to back over something since my car at the time was an ’89 Volvo 240 sedan.

      (Not excusing Volvo, mind – they turned the 740/760 into the 940/960, and that comparison would’ve been similar.)

      Not having the front corners wasn’t much of a detriment, but I can see how early Camry Dents™ were formed – by folks used to cars with lower decklids/rear windows and/or sturdier bumpers.

  10. I submit as the highest and most academically rigorous example of the Aerosionist Movement: The Toyota Previa. Form before function to a layperson. What design were they working from, a solid rectangular cuboid?

  11. In the coming days, can you think of a name for the design trend in the that made so many American cars (cue Buffalo accent) “cleeyassy” in the early 1970s? You know, like the automotive equivalent of a rolling Olde San Francisco-themed casino, wild west bordello, New Jersey banquet hall, or Staten Island house?

      1. Oh yeah. That, and (excuse me for my lack of knowledge of car styling terms) chrome, crests, huge pointy grills, prominent ridgelines on the sides of the cowl and deck, pillars and taillights shaped like the drawer fronts of an Ethan Allen bureau, wheel covers, excessive character lines — the full Deluxe d’Elegance Custom II treatment.

        I like rocokeoed. There’s also “d’eleganced”, “cleeyased up”, and “feeyanceed up”.

  12. So my day job is industrial design and surfacing so I’m pretty observant to form, but I am not picking up whatever you’re laying down on this one. Some of the lines are more linear, but … there’s barely any change in most of them. Slightly bigger radii but still pretty linear designs. Should have used the next gens of most of them if you really wanted to talk about jellybeans.

  13. Man, I can’t believe you guys didn’t show the best example of this. The 8th, 9th, and 10th generation F-150s.

    Pinnacle of Aerosion, especially if you look at the flare side versions.

    1. I would add that even before the aerosion of the F-150, Ford had textbook examples in the Lincoln MKVI to MKVII and its platform-mates ’82 to ’83 T-birds and Cougars. It really is hard to find a more extreme example of going from straight-edge design to bar-of-soap design than these three.

Leave a Reply