By Darrel Burnett, Executive Director – The Automobile Gallery & Event Center
Since this is grilling season, it seems the appropriate time to dust off the old grille. What was once a pragmatic way of getting more cool air to the engine, evolved into the most identifiable element of the automobile. From bejeweled to blasphemous, the grille speaks volumes about the personality of an automobile without ever uttering as much as a single syllable. That’s power in its purest form! A designer’s innocent effort can swing the pendulum from serene to sinister in an instant and leave us suspended between cars that made history and those that remain a mystery.
The Roaring 20s may not have given birth to self-expression, but they certainly kicked open the door to Gatsby and glamour. Grilles were literally front and center in that movement as personal transportation reflected the flamboyant art deco period in America. Pierce Arrow, Packard, Lincoln, and Cadillac finessed grilles that looked like they were lifted from the front window at Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue in Mid-town Manhattan.
We all have our personal favorites. My inner Michelangelo surfaces any time I see the majestic trident on 1950s Mazeratis, the swooping and sophisticated nose of a 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster or the “cheese grater” peeking out the front of a 1971 Plymouth ‘Cuda. The most beautiful face of an automobile ever? For me, the first time my eyes came to rest on a 1949 Delahaye Saoutchik I marveled at how a cold piece of steel could be hammered into something so magnificent.
If you’ve ever laid eyes on a 1987 Yugo GV or mid-60s Checker Marathon (think of every ugly cab you’ve ever ridden in) then you are well aware that this topic has an underbelly the size of Utah. You can retire the trophy when it comes to the most egregious grille. Ridiculed from the moment it left the factory, the Edsel began serving its life sentence the day it was born September 4th, 1957. Charitably described as a horse collar, the Edsel’s grille looked more like daily dress for an ox. Ford spent $250 million to develop the Edsel and lost another $200 million trying to make America like it…or at least tolerate it. The Edsel was gone in three short years but, to be fair, has built a loyal following that takes issue with Time Magazine’s acid-laced review of the Edsel by blurting out that it looked like, “an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon.”
What I have never been able to come to terms with is how the Edsel’s infamous grille could be the creation of Roy Abbott Brown, Jr. Mr. Brown was a gifted artisan whose prior project was the Cary Grant of grilles in my estimation…..the gorgeous and glitzy 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car which became the inspiration for one of the most iconic cars in history — the original Batmobile.
The Edsel wasn’t alone on the trek through the forest of malfunction. The 1950 “Bucktooth Buick” arrived with an overbite in drastic need of a trip to the automotive orthodontist. Obviously, Studebaker wasn’t paying attention because 5 years later the Studebaker Commander set out to buck the trend and ended up with immense buckteeth of its own.
Examples abound of good intentions gone awry. History tends to grade on a curve, but in the beginning the growling grille on a 1961 Plymouth Fury and the angry expression on a 1959 Buick damaged the sales of both. Just imagine if those two brands and others had the good fortune to adorn the graceful and glamourous grille of a 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Call me nostalgic, but I miss the beauty and innovation of yesteryear. Where is the next “coffin-nose” Cord, groundbreaking grille of a 1955 Chevy, or galloping Mustang jumping off the front of an Iacocca original? What was once dressed in chrome is now often shrouded in dullness as styles and tastes have changed. Electric vehicles don’t even need a grille anymore. Regardless, manufacturers continue to labor away in their labs to put just the right face on their latest and greatest Pickups, SUVs and EVs. I keep hearing that facial recognition is the future. Let’s hope the automobile industry is paying attention!
Special thanks to my friend and automotive historian Tony Hossain for his contributions to this article. His historical perspective and knowledge are without peer.