Spannerhead Dot

Are Cars Objectively
or Relatively Beautiful?

June 15, 2012 by Matt

Aston Martin DB9 DB-9

Would a Neanderthal drool over your pristine ’79 El Camino?

In other words, do cars hold an intrinsic aesthetic appeal, or are they simply good-looking compared to other cars?

Imagine you’re a denizen of, say, the mid-1800s. You’ve obviously never seen a car before, and via the wonders of time travel, the Aston Martin DB9 pictured above appears in front of you. After overcoming your initial shock and awe, you pause for a moment to contemplate its aesthetic merit. Knowing nothing about its modus operandi, would you consider it an attractive shape? Or does an otherwise pleasing form like the DB9’s require a sort of “automotive context” in order to be deemed beautiful?

See, I believe humans are hard-wired with certain aesthetic predispositions. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but within a limited range. After all, almost everyone considers a vibrant sunset, a sleek and stately race horse, the starry night sky or a balletic hummingbird beautiful. And within the confines of our respective genders (with some exceptions), men are drawn to an attractive female shape, and vice versa. Those predispositions transcend personality; even someone with absolutely no visual taste in any other arena can recognize basic beauty when they see it.

Technology can be beautiful. Consider the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal or Concorde: Someone calling any one of those unattractive would be far and away the exception rather than the rule, no matter their preferences in other areas or cultural biases.

But cars? A common thread between the examples of beautiful technology listed above is that their method of working informs their shape. When considering a car, though, there’s no innate indication as to what makes it go; from where it derives its motivation. Put another way, when looking at one, it’s distressingly easy to suppress learned knowledge of what propels it and simply see it as a metal box with four wheels. A visitor from an earlier time, without having lived in modern society and having no prejudices or prior knowledge of cars, would behold one exactly that way—something impossible for the other examples of beautiful technology listed above. To our transplant from the 1800s, the form of the Golden Gate Bridge dovetails perfectly with its function, the Taj Mahal communicates majesty in and of itself, and Concorde positively radiates “fast, winged flight.” They don’t require a context; they stand alone.

So as much as it pains me to postulate it, I believe automotive aesthetic appeal falls into the relative category. The shapes we admire so much, like the DB9’s, aren’t timeless, as much as they stand out from their peers in the present and immediate future.

Filed under: Aesthetics


  1. K Fox says:

    Hmmm…an interesting question. I will ponder on this for a while, but in the meantime I will throw this out for consideration. Several cars out there now, including the above mentioned DB9 have quite…organic lines, if that fits. I personally love the way the Jaguar XJ’s look, especially the late 90’s cars – they are beautiful in an animalistic way. And the Jag XK coupe is also gorgeous in it’s feline grace – so I believe that someone with no prior knowledge or experience with something automotive would still be able to appreciate the innate beauty of a well proportioned car just like one would appreciate the deadly beauty of a Big Cat. Leopards are stunning to see, and I’m sure everyone who gets to see one in person can appreciate their beauty, and so it is with some cars I believe. It’s all in the lines and the emotions they inspire.


    • Matt says:

      I think integrating more organic lines would help clue in the uninitiated as to what the vehicle’s function is, but I still think, fundamentally, cars are an acquired taste. Even something that exudes raw sensuality like a Series 1 E-Type, I can just step back mentally, as it were, and “turn off” my knowledge of what this object is that I’m looking at, and it just becomes a jellybean on four wheels. I have to have some knowledge of what makes it go and how it compares visually to its peers in order to appreciate it.

  2. John D says:

    You consider the Concorde intrinsically beautiful? Interesting. I think that must be your inner engineer and prior knowledge talking. I would be skeptical that anyone who first lays eyes on that plane (whether or not they know anything about it) would describe it as ‘beautiful’. As for me, I always thought it was a gangly looking thing, the epitome of 80’s design. It was only much later and after learning how unique it was that I began to have any appreciation for it. So there. ;)

    • Matt says:

      I do. It’s modern technological art. Even on the ground, I don’t think it looks gangly so much as light on its feet and poised for high-speed flight.

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