Earlier today, I was doing my parole-officer mandated directed meditation exercises, which, for me, involve staring a large charts of cars. Today I selected this chart showing all of the models built by Ford of Germany from 1926 to 1993. There’s a lot of cars upon which one could focus their energies, but today two of them grabbed my gaze by the gaze-genitals and squeezed. The two cars were the 1951 Ford Taunus de Luxe and the 1952 Ford 12M. The chart was in chronological order, so you could glance at it and see how the design of the cars evolved. These two early ’50s Fords caught my eye because the change in look and design was, I think, by far the most drastic and dramatic of any pair of cars on that chart. I realized that the reason for this was because this marked the transition of Ford to what is known as ponton styling, and that made me realize, holy crap, that was a big deal. In fact, I don’t think there has been as dramatic and sudden a shift in car design ever since. So let’s take a look at this.
First, here’s those two cars that got me thinking:
These cars are a year apart, but what happened between 1951 and 1952 for Ford was nothing less than the death of archaic auto design and the birth of modern auto design. What happened in that year was car design went from a body made up of a number of discrete elements into something that was one, homogenous form, and this mono-form design is still, for the vast majority of cars, what is used today.
The one-form, full-width approach to auto design is sometimes called “envelope styling” because the body “envelopes” – as in en-VEL-up to surround, like an amoeba eating lunch, as opposed to en-veh-LOPE, the paper pocket you slide your mash notes into, perfumed – the chassis. It’s also called “ponton” or “pontoon” styling, because early slab-sided approaches to the style had fenders that resembled pontoons, like on a boat.
Where earlier cars had bodywork that had a narrower hood, separate fenders that often connected via a running board, and bodywork that was generally narrower than the car’s chassis or frame, the ponton style enclosed the entire width of the car in a single, connected volume, making something that provided more efficient packaging in the same footprint. A great example –and likely the most familiar – of the differences between ponton styling and what came before can be found in Volkswagen’s lineup of models from the very early 1960s to the late 1970s and further, because VW was one of the very, very few companies that still built pre-ponton-designed cars alongside cars with full width bodies. Just look at the VW lineup here:
The Beetle, a 1938 design, had separate fenders, running boards, a narrow hood, bodywork that expanded in the middle and got narrower at each end, longitudinally. Pretty much every subsequent vehicle made by VW after the Beetle abandoned this method (the Type 181/Thing may be an exception, and maybe the New Beetle/modern Beetle, but those just sort of mimic the old style rather than being technically part of it) and instead used ponton or other later full-width body designs.
The idea of the full-width body that is essentially one that is so ubiquitous, and has been for so very long, that we simply don’t even think about it anymore. I think my whole point in talking to you about this right now, though, is that it’s worth noting just how much of a change this was, and how it all happened relatively quickly. Essentially, the dividing line could be thought of as WWII; before the war, we had separate fenders and a vertical orientation to many design elements on the front of the car; after the war, everything was melded into one unit, and the emphasis was on width of design elements like grilles.
The changes show above there are huge. We entered WWII and cars looked one way, and came out of it (well, and for most carmakers, took a few years to shift gears back to civilian production) and then all of a sudden the fundamental shape of cars changed. They looked different, they used their interior space differently, they’d feel different when you washed them, body repairs were different– this was a seismic shift, the likes of which I don’t think we can really fathom today.
Sure, cars look a lot different than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, but that process of change was gradual, as more was learned about aerodynamics and new methods of construction and technologies were introduced. The shift from separate fenders to ponton was pretty sudden, punctuated with a whole global war.
The origins of the full-envelope body go back further, though; in fact, the first car to be produced in real quantities with a full-width envelope body dates from 1925: the Hanomag 2/10, also called the Hanomag Kommissbrot, a nickname from a type of loaf of bread fed to the German army, because that’s what the full-width body of the Hanomag resembled: a loaf of bread.
The Hanomag was a cheap little rear-engined proto-peoples’ car, an ancestor of the VW Beetle and Renault 4CV and Mini and other similar sorts of cars. But when it came out, it looked downright weird to people: no running boards, fenders (mostly) integrated into the overall body, and from above the thing was pretty much a rectangle that enclosed all of the wheels. They made about 15,000 of these, and it’s easy to just see it as a funny little weirdo without remembering that it was genuinely radical. I mean, before the Hanomag 2/10, the closest car in design to this was an experimental racing car, the 1923 Bugatti Type 32 Tank:
Think about that: what if Nissan brought back a cheap car like the Versa, but this time it was based on the Nissan DeltaWing race car and looked like nothing else on the road. That’s the closest analogy I can think of.
An, even more incredibly, though it took a couple decades, this weird little Hanomag’s design proved not to be the dead end that almost everyone in the 1930s would have assumed, but rather predicted the way that all cars would be designed and built for the latter half of the century and beyond.
So, the next time you see someone going on and on about how radical a change something like a Rivian or the Tesla Cybertruck is, just take a moment and remember that they don’t have shit, styling revolution-wise, on a mostly-forgotten little cheap car shaped like a loaf of bread.