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Are LED lights and spindle grilles the new fins?

Robby DeGraff February 5, 2014 All Things Hoon 44 Comments


To put it bluntly, I think new cars look like crap. Apart from a select few contenders like the Mazda6, any Aston Martin, the gorgeous Lincoln MKZ [You may be alone there -KK] and Lexus’s almighty LFA supercar; just about everything else looks… boring. Let the comments section explode.

How much more generic can we get with styling these days? Have you flipped through the pages of a new car buyers guide or driven past dealer lots lately? Staring at row after row of plain-Jane looking automobiles just bores me. It’s almost as if it’s more exciting to go refrigerator shopping. Sure manufacturers, gaudy up your car with tacky trim levels that add big wheels, bits of chrome everywhere and special chintzy badges all over, but it still won’t excite me.

It’s just a shame that they (OEMs) don’t make cars look like the way they used to. Passover the 1990s with exception of the Acura NSX, don’t even look at anything built in the 1980s or late 70s, and gush at just about every vehicle that rolled off dealer lots from the 1920s up until the start of the disco era. Cars like the original Ford Thunderbird, legendary Hudson Hornet, old Cords, the Chevrolet Bel Air, any Duesenberg, the Nash Ambassador and all those swinging, ocean liner-sized Cadillacs. Those aren’t just four-wheeled heavy blocks of transportation- they’re gorgeous pieces of art.

Sure, not everybody buys a car based on looks but come on, at least buy something that looks interesting. Oh you just bought the best-selling family sedan in the country? Great, my dishwasher looks more attractive.  There are so many styling trends that are just goofy. Angry-eyed taillights that remind me of Angry Birds characters, ridiculous spoilers, butterfly doors, plastic insets below headlamps, etc. It just needs to stop.


Thankfully, some automakers have stepped up their game to introduce new exterior design cues that do occasionally catch the eye. From LEDs in headlights, kudos Audi, to obscure spindle front grilles, I’m looking at you Lexus. But these two styling elements, which are becoming more and more alarmingly common, I think, are just going to fall prey to the shiny toy syndrome. We’re wowed by shiny LED accent lights and spindle grilles now, but give it a few years and we’ll just ignore their existence. Then automakers will ditch these ideas and move onto the next  “big thing.”

This whole process will repeat again, again and again until the death of the automobile. Look at fins, which exploded in the 1950s, when Cadillacs, Mercedes, Chrysler, Studebakers, you name it; had them towering off the rear end of their cars. It looked badass and still does. But like spaceship/jet airplane-styled taillights, fins died off by the time the 1970s were alive and kicking. There hasn’t been a car since with any kind of prominent fins. 

LEDs are already overplayed, sorry Mercedes S-Class, that Nissan Sentra wearing a price tag almost one hundred grand less than yours also has LEDs in its headlamps. They’re (LEDs) are just too mainstream now, and while some cars wear them well, like the BMW i8, others on models like the Ford Escape make giggle at its chintzy-ness. Hell walk into any local auto parts store and find aisle after aisle of cheap, stick-on LED strips you can put all over your…bumper or side mirror or hood scoop…or license plate frame. Oh your 1995 Ford Explorer has five-rows of tape-on LEDs in your grille? That was cool… back when I was in high school. Come on folks; stop embarrassing yourselves and the rest of the automotive community. If you’re going to put any kind of after-market light on your car, buy brighter and safer headlight bulbs.


Spindle grilles looked cool when Lexus debuted the new IS sports-sedan, but now almost its entire line-up adopts that same hourglass look. Then Infiniti, Nissan followed with their own variation. Come on guys, make your vehicles stand out and look more unique. Your full-size SUV should not have an almost identical front-end as your luxury flagship sedan.  Cadillac and Acura obviously have a fancy for grilles that look like shields.

I thank you though Fiat, Jeep and Dodge, for selling cars that look very similar to their famed ancestors. Thank you for making the new Challenger look strikingly similar to the old Challenger. Thank you Jeep for still making your Wrangler hold true to its simple, “Amurican” off-road pedigree styling. Thank you Fiat for making the new 500 appear just like the old 500 just a bit more bigger and up-to-date. Bravo to you, bravo you styling Maestros.

There needs to be more model differentiation and a styling revolution. Stat.

Images Copyright 2014 Redusernab/Robby DeGraff

  • Marto

    I've often thought similar and I agree! The thing that is missing these days is distinctive proportions. Very few cars would pass a silhouette test anymore.

    • Marto

      I should have clarified my point about proportion and silhouette: back in the day you didn't need to see the grille or badge to know what brand you were looking at. Mere shape and stance was enough.

      • Rod

        I, too, remember when car guys could recognise make, and model, from a significant distance. Say you were trying to describe a getaway car to a cop, today: Cop – "What kind of car was it?" Witness – "A blue one". And when a designer decides to put a unique grille on a vehicle, it is usually an assault on the eyes. WOOF!

  • Devin

    I think the only problem with modern design is this obsession with brand cues that spawns things like the Acura beak. I otherwise actually like what's on the lots now a fair bit, even if I'd like it more if there were fewer examples of the one sausage, three lengths philosophy.

    • nanoop

      Design cues were ok if headlamps were interchangeable among models, but unfortunately, the next model needs to have 50% more LEDs.

    • Maymar

      I…uhh..I like the Acura beak. It's better after they toned it down a bit, but it was suitably distinctive. I mean, it stood out more than the last generation Acuras (which were barely discernible from the Hondas upon which they were based).

      Then again, the TL is available with a six-speed and that really brown leather (burnt umber, I think they call it), and looks decent in matte gray (thank you Marvel, for that), so I might just be overlooking some really odd styling.

  • zsvdkhnorc

    Form is following function a little too closely. For the most part, cars today all look alike. Lincoln has some elgant design, but it doesn't stand out. Cadillac might have less sophisticated design, but at least they look different!

    My father, who studied industrial design under the designer of the '49 Ford, among others, mistook an Aston-Martin for a Honda. That's just unacceptable.

    • "For the most part, cars today all look alike."

      I think this has been true more than it hasn't. Take a look at pictures of the late 30s, lots of rounded sedans with minor differences in trim. In the late 60s and 70s everything was square, in the 90s everything was a bean. Only in the 50s were there some actual variety in shape.

      • zsvdkhnorc

        Everything was the same circa 1970? Compare a Continental, and Imperial, a Benz 280, and an Ambassador from that year, and tell me they all look alike.

        I think you set the bar a little high. The 50s was the high mark of distinctive cars. Styling, as we know it, developed in the interwar period, and only bloomed after WWII. Since then, it's been a downwards slide into the anonymity of functional forms.

        • I tend to think more in American cars than internationally, at least when looking back as I wasn't exposed to many foreign cars. If you look at the Continental and the Imperial sedans, they're pretty similar:

          <img src="; width="600/">

          <img src="; width="600/">

          Big, s box, straight lines, hidden lights. The differences are the detailing on the basic shape.

          My larger point is that folks tend to romaticize how different cars were "back in the day" versus now. I don't see that as the case. Case in point, take a look at the two couples revealed at NAIAS this year, in the same segment, the Lexus RC and the Cadillac ATS:

          <img src="; width="600/">

          <img src="; width="600/">

          Very different takes on a small luxury coupe. Lexus is overt and flamboyant, the Caddy conservative and reserved. I see at least as much difference there as I do in 1970.

          • Rod

            Continental and Imperial were pretty similar? Sorry, not to me. The Lincoln was much more squared off. Take another look at those big slab sides, compared to the rounded curves of the Chrysler. Not to mention totally different front ends, and tail lights. Unmistakable differences, in my opinion. P.S. I liked them both, so not claiming that one is better than the other. Ah, the good old days! When it was like driving your couch around.
            And, in my opinion, Lexus, you ugly! I would never consider buying a car with an overbite like that.

  • Scandinavian Flick ★

    "…gorgeous Lincoln MKZ"? Dude…

    • SSurfer321

      I like them. They look like F****G spaceships!

      • Rod

        Again, NOPE! To me it looks like a fat guy sat on the hood, before it had "set". Or someone squinting in the sun. I will say that everyone is entitled to their opinion, however. Which used to be the main reason for the wide range of body styles. Everyone seemed to prefer something different.

      • Scandinavian Flick ★

        To me it looks like someone slapped the baleen whale Lincoln grill on a Hyundai Sonata, or any other generically shaped sedan.

        • SSurfer321

          I'll agree that the nose is the least attractive part of the car, but DAT ASS!

          <img src=";, width=500>

  • Van_Sarockin

    No, I think that lights are the new lights. Manufacturers have always tried too be distinctive with different shapes, sizes location and functions of their lights. Sequential tail lights, etc. LEDs are new and permit a great deal more design inventiveness, so the limits are being tested, and lots of poor solutions are going into production. It'll settle down in a few years, just in time for OLEDs to become production ready. OLEDs will permit any surface to become a light. Neon underbody lights have nothing on those.

  • Scandinavian Flick ★

    I think there are a couple main reasons why you don't see the artistry in automotive design such as pre-70s fins, chrome, and swooping beautiful lines.

    First is massively increased safety standards that dictate what shape and material a car can be made of. No more chrome bumpers with protruding spikes, since a driver sending the all important text to their friend ("lol nothn imprtnt jst drivin lol") might take out grandma's kneecaps while she crosses the intersection. Better make the bumpers out of plastic that costs $5000 from a 10mph impact. Also the super high window lines that look less attractive than a baboon's ass as needed to pass side impact standards.

    Second is mass consumer appeal. Styling really just needs to be non-offensive to sell. The average driver doesn't give a shit anymore. They need an appliance, and frankly would rather not be involved in the driving process at all if they could. That's why Toyota is so successful. Bland cars for bland people.

    Btw, regarding the LEDs… I remember reading somewhere early on that some country started requiring them. That's why every car and their cousin has them now. Now I can't find any info on that at all. Can anyone confirm?

    • Rover1

      Daytime Running Lights. They don't have to be LEDs but they have very little electrical load and they don't burn out. Also in the quantities that manufacturers buy them, they might even be cheaper than bulbs now ?

      • Scandinavian Flick ★

        I did know the DRL rules, but I could have sworn I read something about LEDs in particular being required… What you say makes sense though. Your mention of electrical load also reminded me that I also read that LEDs actually save on fuel and emissions. It's a small amount, but across all cars with them, that can definitely add up. …

  • mac350

    Bring back fins and round headlights – please!

  • Neen85

    Teardrop headlights on "fast" cars.


  • They're all overplayed and, in my mind, far too bright.

    Anything that allows a car to be seen more readily is fine in my book, but from being a safety feature LED daytime running lights have become a status symbol. I've seen loads of Merc C-Class owners complaining that their LED strips don't light up at night, and they get all butthurt when they're told that a) they're daytime running lights and therefore wouldn't be on at night anyway, and b) to make them light up at all times you have to spend more cash money and pony up for the Xenon headlamp upgrade.

    They then start sulking because they've bought a car which is less show-offy than the Xenon-equipped one down the road, and will probably go straight home and murder someone to release their repressed rage.

    Soooo many kids on my lawn right now.

    • Scandinavian Flick ★

      <img src="; width="350">

    • zsvdkhnorc

      Poorly-retrofitted HIDs in non-HID housings are a bane of my existance. I reply with high beams for mutually-assured-blindness.

    • Elliott

      I met a spankin' new Cadillac CTS headon yesterday, and was nearly blinded by the DRL/LED combo. It was a cloudy day, and about 9:20 in the morning! 🙂

  • mr smee

    The designers have lost the sense of proportion and subtlety. Look at cars form the 1960s stunning proportion and so much energy articlulated with so little. For example, wheel arches or flares, today they are all the same, drawn with a protractor and out-of-scale. Now look at wheel arches on a 1971 Camaro, a 1967 Fairlane, a 1969 Charger – gorgeous. Without proportion todays designers fall back into overwrought details like todays headlamps, grilles, taillamps. It all starts with proportion, if you nail that, the details get small.

    • Rover1

      The curse of the Audi wheelarch, even struck Citroen, swearing across Citroen's own design language.
      <img src=";
      <img src=";
      <img src=";

  • wunno sev

    two words

    fender vents

    • JayP2112

      Yea- when a Focus has fender vents, that's a sign it is played out.

  • I_Borgward

    Years ago, I'd picked up a '67 Buick Wildcat with a damaged grille and missing headlight trim, with only two out of four of the factory headlight buckets still intact. A trip to the bone yard for replacements yielded four more buckets off another GM product, two off of an old Valiant.

    I had a plan… a vision.

    Some metal fabrication, careful aiming and a few headlight relays later, my Wildcat had EIGHT headlights! Two on low beam, and the whole array on high beam. It gave the car kind of a sinister look, and the extra light was great on backroads.

    And boy, did I get loads of unsolicited advice on the legality of my handiwork: you can't have more than four headlights, you can only have so many white lights on the front, that's not how it came from the factory, etc. Boot-licking authoritarian types were especially emphatic on these points and would drain me dangerously low on plasma as they attempted to lecture me… ugh. Go away, little man.

    Now, just about any new car you can find can be ordered with factory fog lights, glaring xenons and dozens of LEDs, all lit up like a Christmas tree. If you added a few more, no one would even notice. And do you think anyone badgers their owners about having too many lights? This both mildly irritates me and amuses me in turn.

    Like fender vents and clear taillight housings, the glittering multi-LED decorative thing was interesting for about five minutes. They're a fad, along needlessly busy and complicated alien-bug-eye headlight assemblies. Let's not even get into that hideous spindle grille thing.

  • dukeisduke

    LED running lights have been done to death. Enough already!

  • R Henry

    Sure, new cars are fairly homogenous, but when was that not the case? Remember how the Olds Cutless, Chevy Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Buick Regal or Something or Other all had the same shape in the 70's?

    The outliers usually failed miserably. See AMC, Pacer or Matador.

    • NotJustDucky

      I don't know it your example is such a good one considering that the whole reason that those cars all had the same shape is because they were simply different versions of the same car:

      • OA5599

        My dad is absolutely convinced that Honda sheetmetal (primarily doors) interchanges with Nissan and Mazda. I don't think he even considers the size of the car to be relevant.

  • Marto

    <img src="; width="600">

  • Marto

    What was the last car made/designed with fins as a non-retro thing? Was it the Mk 1 Chaika, which was in pЯoduction until 1981. Or so says the USSR.

    <img src="; width="600">

    Not to confuse it with the Mk 2 of course, that looks like a Lincoln met an S-Class in a ski chalet, roaring fire place, a few glasses of pure Iranian crude…

    “You know, Linc,” burbled Essie, all 17 feet of ruler-straight German steel of her, “The first thing I noticed about you was your doors.” Essie fluttered her headlight wipers seductively.
    “They're suicide,” Linc replied, idling idly.
    “I know,” Essie replied, switching only to her parking lights.
    “Don't worry babe, suicide is the farthest thing from my mind right now,” he purred. “I'm thinking of something much more … automotive.”
    Linc popped his hood, subtly, his engine revving slightly faster. The firelight danced along all 37-feet of his slab-sided bulk.
    “Oh Linc, but you know how many dictators I've had inside me,” Essie fretted, as her sunroof rolled back.
    “I don't care, I once had a president lose his head inside me,” replied Linc, taking the joke too far.

    Aaaaanyway, here's the Mk 2:

    <img src="; width="600">

  • Just this morning! I was riding my bicycle and got passed by a latter day Mercury Montego and thought, "There's something you don't see everyday…" When it got 20 or so yards away from me I was thinking, "That could be a Mercedes or a Hyundai right now and I wouldn't know the difference."
    Just for reinforcement, the guy stopped to get a newspaper out of the box on the corner (That's something you really don't see everyday!) and I passed him; and then he passed me again and I still wasn't able to tell you, for sure, if it was the same car.
    Like, if the guy had leaned out the window and shot a bystander and the cops interviewed me I couldn't positively say that it was the Mercury Montego that I had just seen twice!

  • d4rksabre

    I stopped reading at "gorgeous Lincoln MKZ".

    I'm sorry, but that car might as well be a Chevy Lumina. Yawwwwnnnnnnnnn

  • Kelly

    I just hope I'm not dead before we finally get past the inescapable trapezoid grille. Once round & rectangle were no longer required for headlights, is the only other shape in the universe that one where the lower inside tapers to a point?

    • These are sort of trapezoidal…

      <img src="; width="600">



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