Home » This Was The Biggest Change In Car Styling And You Probably Never Think About It Now

This Was The Biggest Change In Car Styling And You Probably Never Think About It Now

Pontoon Top
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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:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Ponton1

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.

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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:

Vw Lineup

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.

Alllikethis

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.

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Pre Postwar

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.

Hanomag1

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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:

Bugattitank

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.

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niceladybadjeep
niceladybadjeep
1 year ago

In 1999 the Audi TT roadster was strikingly symmetrical and modern, yet here’s the Hanomag in 1925. Another great article.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

it was a nod to the Porsche 356, but with finicky turbo water cooled four cylinders and AWD because…Audi.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 year ago

Yup, that’s why I think the 1949 Ford is the greatest car in the world (even though it’s just a Ford). And it’s also in Tintin

Vee
Vee
1 year ago

Two others that are almost as big are integrated doors and the hood cowl lip. Integrated doors that curve up into the roof instead of being placed under the roof first started appearing in 1982 on Ford products. The hood cowl lip where the windshield washer jets, windshield wipers, and external defroster vents were hidden under first started in 1964 on Chrysler products. Trucks kept external wipers and jets until the 1990s when Dodge finally retired the old D-series body in 1993 and Ford designed a new cab for the F-series for 1996.

You don’t notice them until you do, and when you do you can never not notice them.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
1 year ago
Reply to  Vee

The word you’re looking for is roof gutter rails, and they never should have stopped making them because they’re just better.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 year ago

Truck bodies is where I noticed the transition, but not mentioned here? Why not?

Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
1 year ago

I wonder how much (if any) of the change in design to ponton-style cars was a result of all the work in aerodynamics that happened in aviation during the Second World War.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

The current trendy (is “current trendy” an oxymoron?) goofy emphasis on over styled wheel arches and ‘butch’ arch cladding seems to be trying to push the pendulum backwards…

Last edited 1 year ago by Andy Individual
Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
1 year ago

Fun aside: The DeltaWing people REALLY wanted to make a road car for a while…and Nissan hilariously had a similarly-styled concept car to THAT, too. Neither the DeltaWing GT or Nissan BladeGlider made it into production, though. (Making cars is hard!)

Last edited 1 year ago by Stef Schrader
Bobfish
Bobfish
1 year ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

I saw the DeltaWing run at the 12 Hours of Sebring back when, got a couple decent pictures. That was a fun year.

Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
1 year ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

I read that as “Nissan Blackadder” – that would have been a very cunning car.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek van Veen

Gosh, that would’ve been even better, haha.

Torque
Torque
1 year ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

I worked for a short period of time with Ben & the rest of the race engineers when he was at Ganassi. At the time it did surprise me that nearly all the race engineers (on an american Indycar & at the time grand am endurance series) were English. Nice guy.

Il_Roz
Il_Roz
1 year ago

One of the first production cars with a ponton body was the Soviet GAZ-M20 Pobeda, released in 1946. The first running prototype was tested at the end of 1944.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 year ago
Reply to  Il_Roz

Yes it was slab sided, but the front end was very 1941, and the mid body is narrower than the fenders, so not really a pontoon design.

Kenneth DeVries
Kenneth DeVries
1 year ago

Some credit for postwar auto styling changes must go to the design of military vehicles – specifically tanks, for which unibody construction was created. Body by Fisher, so to speak. Before the war, auto design was directly descended from carriage design – a wheeled platform with a box on top, often wood-framed. Roll it and die in an exploding mess of wood and sheet metal. After the war, autos became rigid cross-braced boxes with wheels attached, the direct result of tank design and construction.

Mitch Williams
Mitch Williams
1 year ago

Ok, ok, ok, blah blah “ponton” super neat. Fine work, Jason.

Can we talk about that Ford OSI 20M TS? Rawr. Want.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
1 year ago

Interesting! I never thought about this

Just Jeepin’
Just Jeepin’
1 year ago

Willys-Overland went from swoopy to boxy during WWII. I met someone who said that they lost (to Ford) their employees who knew how to work with curved metal, but I have no idea how accurate that is.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
1 year ago
Reply to  Just Jeepin’

The usual story is that they were dependent on contractors for stamping out body panels, and most of the automotive ones were sewn up by the Big 3. Hence the Jeep wagon and its’ pickup, van and Jeepster derivatives being designed so they could be stamped out in a refrigerator factory if necessary.

CuppaJoe
CuppaJoe
1 year ago

How about Jeep Wrangler? Still carrying the torch of the early slab style design with a narrow front, separating fenders, and running boards. Even the modern 4-door wrangler with a hardtop resembles a square version of Ford Taunus and similar pre-war cars.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 year ago

Good article, as an old sports car guy I think about the 1950s when the separate fender very pre-war looking MG TF was being sold at the same time as the must have looked like a spaceship Austin Healey 100. The 100 looks more like a modern Miata than the the MGs that were sold alongside it 50 years ago.

Second the other interesting thing is longer, lower wider. With all the complaints about modern vehicles heights it is interesting to note that cars used to be tall, then the got low in the late 50s and 60s. Look at the immediate postwar domestics, they look (in profile) more like a modern CUV than a 60s or 70s sedan or wagon.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
1 year ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

I strongly believe that at an even 50″ high the Ford Pinto was the lowest car ever marketed as a “sedan”. (Chevy Vega hatchbacks were also 50″ but sold as sporty coupes, Vega sedans as well as Pinto and Vega wagons were 52″ tall).

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago

Funny thing on every single one the older model looks better. I would bet after WWII they had to keep expenses low so no new miracles. But by the 50s elements of car building allowed bigger bodies to be one piece instead of all bolt on parts. So something new minimalist design. I bet the Bishop knows a lot more and could explain how design change based on new available stuff

Flinched
Flinched
1 year ago

The 1947 Cisitalia 202 is considered to be the first to use this design. Ford, The People’s Car and others copied the look.

Chris D
Chris D
1 year ago
Reply to  Flinched

The Cisitilia 202 is a stunningly beautiful car, and would have looked modern two decades later.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 year ago
Reply to  Flinched

It’s iconic for its execution and proportions, but off the top of my head Pininfarina and Touring were both building ponton bodies on Alfa and possibly also Lancia chassis just before the war.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

Well, til that I’ve been using ‘pontoon’ wrong. I like the narrow prow and separate fenders, and have always referred to them as ‘pontoon-fendered’. Which, I guess, is still acceptable-but I didn’t know that what I call a ‘shoebox Ford’ (1952 in mind) is actually called pontoon or ponton.
Always good to learn: thanks!

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 year ago

My college roommate had a Type 1 VW. I had a Type 3. He was amazed how much roomier my car was.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
1 year ago

The roofline of the Taunus Ed Luxe looks very modern crossover. Glad I kept reading.

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
1 year ago

I’d venture that the larger change was when they changed their chassis design and dropped the bodywork down between the axles instead of above them. That paved the way for the loss of pontoons or external fender structures, allowed far easier ingress/egress and paid off with better ride quality. If you go back and look at cars in the 20s and 30s, this change is what dramatically altered cars and allowed the styling and proportions we see today.

We might consider styling as the shape of the bodywork, but styling can also be dramatically affected by the chassis and engine configurations. Sloan saw this as a huge styling update for GM and it paved the way for the changes in bodywork you discuss above.

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 year ago

Ram pickup/Jeep Wrangler have entered the chat.

Actually trucks in general still have separate bed, cab on a frame,, and if you get the stepside/flareside there’s still some nice fender action going on there.

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 year ago
Reply to  Fuzzyweis

David was sleeping on the job!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  Fuzzyweis

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is effectively a 1920s touring car

kingRidiculous
kingRidiculous
1 year ago

Does the RX-8 have pontoons? I always thought it was aping the New Beetle.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago

One of the earliest with the look was Kaiser-Frazer, which went on sale in 1946 for the 1947 model year as the first all-new postwar models from a US automaker. They look somewhat plain and dumpy by modern standards, but were actually considered very modern for the time alongside the prewar pontoon fendered/2-box designs being sold by the Big Three. Helped to hide the fact that the drivetrain was pretty old fashioned

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
1 year ago

My first awareness of this change was – where else? – MG, with the 1955 change from MGTF to MGA. Almost the same mechanically, but worlds apart in body design. Also the product of a streamlined race car, by the way.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Hey Mark, made a similar comment along the same lines before I saw yours. TF was sold alongside the Healey 100, so far apart in form from the T series, and similar to the MGA. The MGA looks closer to a Miata than it does a TF.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
1 year ago

Technically with the explosion in popularity of widebody kits, the tuning scene has gone back to the old separate-fender days, and if you add side skirts as well, they even have something like running boards.

What’s old is new again…

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