Once upon a time, my recollection is that it was in the early 1990s, we did a story at AutoWeek magazine about what we called cookie-cutter cars.
We, the all-knowing editorial team, were displeased that seemingly every late-model four-door sedan looked like pretty much like every other four-door sedan rolling out of assembly plants at home and abroad. Recall that, at the time, the four-door sedan was still very popular, though by 2020, in a world dominated by pickup trucks and crossovers, you’ve probably forgotten that once upon a time, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in America, and later that honor went to the Toyota Camry.
Oh, there were exceptions to the cookie-cutter clutter. Well, at least a couple, such as the stunning 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora, still to some of us the last great American car design, and the 1996 Ford Taurus with its jellybean curves and a strikingly ovoid rear window. However, for the most part, four-door sedans looked so much alike that our magazine ran silhouettes of something like 15 or 20 of the most popular, foreign and domestic, and challenged readers to identify any of them.
This flight of memory is offered as background to my laughter recently at seeing “spy photos” of prototype vehicles wearing camouflage designed to hide both its overall shapes and any sort of details from the eye and from the camera.
Spy photos used to be a booming business with magazines such as ours bidding among photographers who made their livings in automotive espionage so we could be the first to publish photos of camouflaged vehicles of interest, especially the covered-up prototypes of the next generation of such sporty vehicles as Mustangs and Corvettes, Porsches and Ferraris.
What triggered my recent laughter was that, while there is still interest in such vehicles — consider the speculation before the debut of the mid-engine C8 Corvette — the vehicle spy photographs I’ve seen recently were not exotics nor even sporty cars but crossovers and SUVs, vehicles which, if you presented the most popular of them in silhouette, I doubt very many people could tell one from another.
So if they all look alike, what’s the point of hiding yours beneath camouflage while you put it through its various validation and testing drives?
The point, I think, is that the automakers want us to believe there is something special and unique about their next cookie-cutter crossover so they hide it beneath polka dots or stripes or zig-zags or other patterns hoping we’ll be excited when the cover finally comes off.
Problem is, when the cover does come off, the typical reaction is a yawn, at least by those (aka the social media influencers and a few carryover automotive writers) who were not invited to the unveiling and were wined and dined and put up in expensive hotel rooms by the automakers and who gush over the uncovered vehicle even if it looks and drives just like every other vehicle in the genre.
Ah, for those good ol’ days when testing truly was done in private, on the automakers’ test tracks, and late each September the windows of the local dealerships were covered in paper while the new-model-year cars were unloaded, and we were eager to go to see the brand-new car designs, from grilles to tail fins, to peek under the hood at the newest powerplant, and to dream of what it might be like to drive such wonderful and unique machines on the open road.
Those cars were inspirational works of art and craft, compared with today’s anonymous and semi-autonomous crossovers.