Designed to Sell

“In auto sales, appearance is everything….”

Herbert Brean, Life magazine 1954

Fanciful fins, gleaming chrome, and the allure of color called consumers to change old models for new. Manufacturers relied on styling to increase sales of cars and major appliances. General Motors created the annual model change in the 1920s and introduced the idea of design obsolescence as a business strategy.  Industrial designers played an important role, updating styling and improving functionality.

Tail light assembly, 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

Tail light assembly, 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

Harley Earl, about 1951

Harley Earl, about 1951

An industrial designer at General Motors, Earl made autos longer, lower, and more flamboyant.

Courtesy of GM Media Archive

Brooks Stevens, industrial designer, about 1962

Brooks Stevens, industrial designer, about 1962

Courtesy of Milwaukee Art Museum

Walter Dorwin Teague, industrial designer, 1940s

Walter Dorwin Teague, industrial designer, 1940s

Courtesy of Syracuse University Library

Dealers’ models

Dealers displayed these small models in their salesrooms and gave them to potential buyers as an incentive. This row of Cadillac models illustrates the growth of tailfins from modest appendages in 1950 to jet-age wings by 1959.

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In the 1960s, Americans debated design obsolescence. The auto industry contended that model changes appealed to consumers’ desire for status and innovation. Journalist Vance Packard criticized them as wasteful. Cost-conscious consumers began to question the necessity of chrome flourishes and big cars, especially as fuel prices rose in the 1970s.

Volkswagen ad, 1963

Volkswagen ad, 1963

Adman Bill Bernbach played off a growing discontent with planned obsolescence by advertising the VW Beetle as cool in its anti-style; the models never changed.

Courtesy of Volkswagen AG

The Rotarian, 1960

The Rotarian, 1960

“Is annual model change fair to consumers?” asked The Rotarian. “Yes,” said Brooks Stevens. “No,” said Walter Dorwin Teague, arguing that obsolescence favored corporations, not consumers.

Toy Volkswagen Beetle, TONKA, 1960s

Toy Volkswagen Beetle, TONKA, 1960s