What a Body! - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

Some years back I got to meet Giorgietto Giugiaro, the ultra-famous Italian car designer. "Gosh," I gushed, "you certainly are a visionary. Twenty years ago you said that the one-box design would become the dominant body style in the future. And you were right."

"No, you're wrong," he corrected me matter of factly, "I said that thirty years ago."

Giugiaro knew that getting the "mostest with the leastest" is the greatest challenge a designer faces. And he knew that a one-box design provides the greatest amount of interior room with the smallest exterior package. So, he openly declared that in the future more and more cars would adopt one-box designs.

A quick tutorial here for the uninitiated in designer lingo. A one-box design is just what it implies, a box on wheels, like a cargo van. A two-box design is like a station wagon, with one box for the passenger compartment and one for the engine compartment. A three-box design is like a traditional sedan with one box for the engine compartment, one for the passenger cabin, and one for the trunk.

For most of automotive history, automakers stuck with the three-box design. Traditionalists to the core, they never ventured too far from what was popular. But while the mass manufacturers stayed with the tried and true, others did dare to experiment.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to finish reading this week's editorial.

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One of the earliest examples was the 1921 Rumpler Wagon. Even though it wasn't a true one-box design, it came close, and still looks cool even by contemporary standards. Amazingly, it reportedly had a coefficient of drag of only 0.27, which is better than most of the cars on today's roads. It sort of looked like a tear-drop-shaped boat on wheels, and pointed the way for others to follow.

Buckminster Fuller, the great inventor and philosopher, never followed in anyone's footsteps except Mother Nature's. When his creative mind turned to the challenge of designing an automobile, Bucky looked to nature for inspiration. He settled on a tear-drop shape when he built his Dymaxion car in 1933 (B&W image above) because the tear drop is the most aerodynamic shape found in nature. He claimed this super-sleek car would seat 11 people, could hit a top speed of 120 mph and would deliver 30 mpg. I'm not sure if I believe all that, but I do believe the auto industry hasn't caught up to what Fuller came up with 75 years ago. His Dymaxion is the ultimate in one-box design, and still represents a style that no mass-manufacturer has yet explored.

Not much seemed to happened with one-box automotive design in the 1940s (I think it had something with that unpleasant episode called World War II). But late in the decade, Volkswagen was busy at work on a model that debuted in early 1950 as the Microbus, the most successful one-box design of all time.

In the 1960s, the Detroit automakers tried to copy the VW Microbus's success, but they never seemed to make it stick. Ford came out with the Econoline, Chevrolet introduced the Greenbrier and Dodge built the A100. Each of these minivans were built using platforms and component sets from compact cars. The Econoline was based on the Falcon, the Greenbrier was based on the Corvair and the A100 was based on the Dart. They were too small, had a pitchy ride and didn't offer much crash protection to the front seat passengers. All of them were abandoned after a few years. But if Detroit had stuck with these one-box designs and developed and refined them it probably would have pulled the whole minivan craze forward by two decades.

In the 1970s, the only one-box action was with full-size vans that were mainly used for commercial purposes. But in the 1980s, the Chrysler minivans and the Renault Espace had an enormous impact on the industry. They revived the idea that a box is the most space efficient package and can be made to look attractive, too.

Today the industry is struggling to figure out how to meet stringent fuel economy and CO2 and safety regulations, yet offer customers comfortable and affordable cars. Look at the small cars that are out there like the smart fortwo, the Tata Nano, or some of the concepts like the Toyota Fine-T or Chrysler ecoVoyager - all one-box designs.

I think Giugiaro got it right twenty, thirty, or however many years ago. The one-box design offers the most efficient design, and automakers that play around and explore what they can do with it are more likely to hit on the next big winner.


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