The Gremlin in the Machine

I recently came upon the 1972 American Motors catalog. My first thought was, "how many typographic widows can one publication have?" Then I saw the page with the Javelin interior and thought, "how do I get an eight-track player and that cool handle for the gear shift?" Granted this catalog paints a picture of an alien world or alternate dimension where auto buyers don't all demand bland interiors and equally dull silhouettes. But what an amazing world. 

Your car was like your living room. You could fit 20 people on the front seat. There was plush upholstery with bizarre patterns, exterior colors that said, "I'm wacky, but wild," and shapes that stopped people on the street. 

I had a friend whose family owned an Ambassador wagon in avocado green (not the Bradys). They never put the seats up, but left them down creating a flat dance floor environment. It wasn't uncommon to pile 10 kids in the back and let us slam back and forth with no seat-belts. Fun times.

And what about that Gremlin? WTF? It must be the ugliest car ever designed. What was the thinking? Why name it after a mythical creature responsible for the sabotage and subsequent crash of World War II airplanes? That's an odd naming choice that appears to have occurred after a three martini lunch. But it's the caption, "Gremlin 'X' in Wild Plum metallic" that is an incredible string of words that contradict each other.

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

When Little Things Hurt

The Smart Car is surprisingly large on the inside, but terrifyingly small outside. I’ve heard that it is safe because it will behave like a ping-pong ball in an accident. That doesn’t sound safe to me. Noreen enjoys it, but I suspect she likes being morally superior to me.  I drive a giant car. Yes, I know, I’m bad. I’m evil. I’m going to hell. Got it.

If the Smart Car is like a ping-pong ball, the BMW Isetta was a death bubble. It’s cute as all get out, but that front door that opened forward is scary. You have a minor rear end collision with the car in front of you. The door won’t open out and the car blows up. You drive into a lake. It’s impossible to get leverage to open the front door. You drown. A Volkswagen beetle gently bumps into you. You slam into a wall. There are no airbags or seatbelts. Bad.

Nevertheless, the BMW Isetta looks wonderful. In 1955, BMW needed a profitable car. The BMW 502 was three times the standard wage in Germany, so not a big seller.

The Italian scooter manufacturer Iso was producing the Isetta (literally, "little Iso"). It looked like a tiny mobile egg. The entire front end of the car hinged outwards to open. Oddly, the driver and passenger were expected to escape through the canvas sunroof in the midst of an accident. It wasn’t too speedy. The Isetta took over 30 seconds to reach 30mph. BMW took over the manufacturing rights and launched the Isetta in 1955. The Isetta fit a tight post-war European economy. It got 60 mpg, and BMW increased the top speed to 50 mph. It was small and could fit on Europe’s smaller streets.

In 1964, BMW ceased production. Europe’s economy had recovered, and there was a need for larger cars. Now that everyone has a hankering for small electric cars, perhaps it’s time to bring it back. This time without the opening in front of the passenger, and a giant steering wheel death column.

Coats and Cars

Unlike many men, I am able to think about more than one thing at a time. Well, not really at the same time, but one thought quickly follows another. Unfortunately, my dual thinking ability frequently puts the wrong things together. For example, I was explaining Sonia Delauney’s work recently, and I immediately jumped to Madeline Kahn’s car in High Anxiety. If you haven’t seen High Anxiety, Madeline Kahn’s Cadillac matches her Louis Vuitton jumpsuit. The car is covered in the same Louis Vuitton pattern. Of course it’s a sight gag. But why was Sonia Delauney’s matching coat and Citroen not funny? I know it’s not supposed to be funny because I was asked to stop laughing in Modern Art when I saw the Delauney Citroen at school.

Perhaps Delauney planned her matching coat and car as a sight gag, also. She expected great outbursts of laughter and applause, but was met with serious contemplation and intellectual deconstruction. We all need to feel the sorrow and tragedy of Delauney’s failed career as a comedian.

Secret Love

1963 Cadillac

My family never had a Cadillac. My grandparents always had a beige or brown Mercedes, and the Wagoneer, "Old Blue," at the ranch. My father stuck with the Mercedes thing except for a detour in the late 1960s and the requisite VW bus. Other friends' families had Cadillacs. I coveted them and was deeply jealous. The Mercedes was nice and staid, and said, "Please. We're not flashy." But a yellow Cadillac said, "What the hell, let's have drinks and get into trouble." When you're 13, this sounds far better. Now the unfortunate part of this is that by the time I could buy a Cadillac they were, forgive me, ugly. For awhile I considered buying a vintage one and researched every year and make. Like most of us, I've been conditioned too well. It sounds like a swell plan, but when the time came to head to the vintage car auction, I thought, "well, they really are kind of flashy."

For me, 1964 was the pinnacle year. The fins were still in place, but had lost the trashy factor of the 1959 model. The profile is clean and almost a perfect rectangle. It's sleek and clean. It's probably a good thing that I'm not the CEO at GM. If I were, I'd be retooling and pumping out 1964 Cadillac Eldorados. If they worked like a new car and had all the features we now want, like seat belts, who wouldn't want one? And if they were all over the road, I wouldn't feel too flashy in mine.

1964 Cadillac Eldorado

1962 Cadillac Eldorado

1960 Cadillac Eldorado

1959 Cadillac, too flashy