Not all that long ago I had the chance to personally meet Giorgietto Giugiaro, the ultra-famous Italian car designer. “Gosh,” I gushed, “you certainly had a vision of where body styles would be headed in the future. Twenty years ago you said that the one-box design would become the dominant body style in the future.”
“No,” he said matter of factly, “you're wrong. I said that 30 years ago.”
Giugiaro knew that space efficiency and packaging are some of the greatest challenges a designer faces. And he knew that a one-box design provides the easiest solution to that challenge, meaning it was clear to him that we'd see more examples of this in the future.
A quick tutorial here for the uninitiated in designer lingo. A one-box design is just what it implies, a box on wheels, like a van. A two-box design is like an SUV, with one box for the passenger compartment and one for the engine compartment. A three-box design has boxes for the engine and passenger compartments, and one for the trunk.
For the vast amount of automotive history, auto makers stuck with three-box designs for their passenger vehicles. Traditionalists to the bone, they never ventured too far from what was popular. But while they stayed with the tried and true, others dared to experiment with new looks.
One of the earliest examples of someone breaking the mold was Edmund Rumpler, who in 1921 built the Rumpler Wagon that reportedly boasted a coefficient of drag of only 0.27, which is amazing even by today's standards. It sort of looked like a teardrop-shaped boat on wheels, and even though it wasn't a true one-box design, it came close. It pointed the way for others to follow.
Buckminster Fuller never followed anyone, but he was the next to eschew tradition and use a one-box design to its fullest advantage. Bucky always looked to nature for design solutions and he settled on a teardrop shape when he built his Dymaxion car in 1933, since the teardrop is the most aerodynamic form found in nature. He claimed it would seat 11 people, had a top speed of 120 mph (192 km/h) and would get 30 mpg (7.8L/100 km). I'm not sure if I believe all that, but I still think car design has not caught up to what Fuller came up with 70 years ago. His Dymaxion is the ultimate in one-box design, and still represents a style that no mass-manufacturer has explored.
Not much seems to have happened with one-box design in the 1940s (I think it had something with that unpleasant episode called the Second World War). But late in the decade Volkswagen was busy at work on a model that debuted in early 1950 as the Microbus, the most successful one-box design of all time.
Others tried to emulate its success, but they never seemed to make it stick. In the 1960s Ford came out with the Econoline, Chevrolet introduced the Greenbrier and Dodge built the A100. Each of these minivans were built using platforms and component sets from compact cars. The Econoline was based on the Falcon, the Greenbrier was based on the Corvair and the A100 was based on the Dart. They were too small, had a pitchy ride and didn't offer much crash protection to the front-seat passengers. All of them were abandoned after a few years. But if Detroit had stuck with these one-box designs and developed and refined them, it probably would have pulled the whole minivan craze forward by two decades.
In the 1970s the only one-box action was with fullsize vans that were mainly used for commercial purposes. But then came the 1980s. The Chrysler minivans and the Renault Espace had enormous impact on the industry. They revived the idea that a box is the most space-efficient package and can be made to look attractive, too. The 1990s saw the industry embrace the two-box design, as SUVs became the craze, not just in North America, but in Europe and Japan, where they're known as Multi-Purpose Vehicles (MPVs) and Recreational Vehicles (RVs), respectively.
Today, of course, the industry is groping about, trying to discern what the next hot body style is going to be. Station wagons are making something of a revival, especially in the luxury segment. And hatchbacks are trying a comeback in the American market.
The trend right now is for auto makers to come up with some sort of combination that mixes SUVs and wagons and minivans and cars. The Chrysler Pacifica and Mercedes GST are good examples of this. They're not really wagons, not really SUVs, not really minivans. But no one is really sure if the market wants these so-called crossovers.
European automakers now are using modified one-box designs in the passenger car segment with models like the Citroen Xsara Picasso and Renault Megane Scenic. Not surprisingly these cars are selling very well. Customers love cars that give them great room and packaging efficiency.
I think Giugiaro got it right 30 years ago. The one-box design offers the most efficient design, and auto makers that play around and explore what they can do with it are more likely to hit on the next big winner.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.