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Why Automobiles Look The Way They Do

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An Oldsmobile Fiesta station wagon, with passengers, on exhibit in 1956 at the Los Angeles International Auto Show. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Posted weekly, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: Various, including: Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301. Includes the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)
Year: 1967
Jurisdiction: Federal

All week, over at the Convention Center, the annual LA Auto Show is happening.

Then again, here in L.A., every day of the year is an auto show. Forget other streets, forget about highways, just on the block where I reside I've noticed of late the likes of a brand new Mustang, a classic El Camino, a Maserati (!), a Chevy Nova with a purple paint job, a Mitsubishi tuner, a cluster of motorcycles, a 1980s van, a boat trailer and an RV.

Past Laws That Shaped L.A. columns have highlighted laws such as this , this and this that helped bring the city to its contemporary car-centric condition.

But it's not just the creation of interstates, the application of fuel taxes and tolls and the prohibition of jitneys that helped -- or hurt, depending on your perspective -- Los Angeles become Los Angeles.

International, federal and state legislation also determines to a significant, if indirect, extent the design of the very vehicles that jam our highways, streets, garages, lots and driveways. The term, "street legal," doesn't just come out of thin air.

Geoff Wardle is a designer and the director of advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design. "Cars are very carefully designed to make sure they meet a lot of legislation," Wardle says. "The rules are quite complex. Car designers and car engineers have to be very aware of all these rules and regulations and design accordingly."

So government does play a huge role in the designing of vehicles, right?

"Not in the sense that there are governments which say that cars must look like this, or headlamp shades have to be this way," Wardle says. "But more generally through the legislation that's set up and the policy that's made in order to influence the control of the impact that automobiles have on ourselves and on our environment."

Leslie Kendall, chief curator of the Petersen Automobile Museum shares a similar view. "To my knowledge, no government agency has ever said, 'You have to have a drag coefficient of X, you have to have an interior safety factor of Y," Kendall says. "But by enacting restricting legislation that means automakers must change the appearance of their cars in order to adhere, they all imply those things."

Take, for example, the silhouette -- or profile view -- of a vehicle. Both Wardle and Kendall note that in general today's cars are much more aerodynamic than vehicles from previous eras.

Some of this can be traced to changes in everything from the global economy to foreign and domestic energy policy to the public's ever-changing taste to marketing campaigns to style choices made by individual designers or the schools that train them.

But much of the new aerodynamic look stems from a conscious effort to reduce wind drag and increase the number of miles per gallon a given vehicle earns. And this is done to comply with the recently increased federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards.

"The CAFE standards are going to be much, much harder to meet in future years," Wardle says. "That means to meet those standards, car manufactures are going to have to make their cars much lighter and more aerodynamically efficient."

Designing, building and selling automobiles is a global industry. California carries the twin distinctions of being both a top market for car ownership as well as a leader in setting clean air standards that are crafted to place a greater responsibility on automakers to created cleaner-running rides.

This combination of market strength and ecological concern has of late caused federal legislators to legislate, and automobile designers to design, with the greener L.A.-area market in mind. Other states and the federal government then follow and then the feedback loop extends abroad.

Motorcycle and drill team performs in 1981 at the 200 Years of Transportation on Parade on Spring Street. Photo by Dean Musgrove from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Motorcycle and drill team performs in 1981 at the 200 Years of Transportation on Parade on Spring Street. Photo by Dean Musgrove from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Other times, such as with pedestrian safety features we'll return to in a moment, the innovations start elsewhere and trickle down here. The same happens often with features that begin as options on higher-end luxury vehicles and wind up standard on lower-priced models.

Many of the U.S. car-and-truck regulations have been collected and enacted thanks to Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301. This section of the Code and its related Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) became law in 1967.

This was, not coincidentally, two years following the publication of Ralph Nader's seminal consumer safety book, "Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile."

Vehicle interiors have radically changed since the book and FMVSS debuted. Rollover bars, steel beams, seat belts and air bags are among the notable interior safety upgrades from earlier vehicle. Stronger glass, mandated visibility, softer dashboards, safer steering columns and wheels -- the list, as available here, goes on and on.

Back now to exteriors. By law, bumpers must be at a certain height from the ground -- and that's whether they are clad on an SUV or sedan. "Incorporating bumpers to the law is one of the biggest visual challenges to designers," Wardle says. Biggest, but necessary, since bumpers can't bump into each other if one is three feet off the road and the other, two feet.

Also these days, vehicle front ends are higher and more squared off, in the style of a tank, or bulbous, as opposed to featuring a wedge shape. This is in part to help save the lives of car-struck pedestrians. Kendall and Wardle and the Laws That Shaped LA's East Coast Automotive Research Bureau each cites recent European Union regulations that give walkers more of a fighting chance to survive a collision with vehicles.

"If you got hit with a 1958 Buick, hood ornament or no hood ornament, you are going to get smooshed," Kendall says. (Hood ornaments and prior to that, radiator "mascots" have long since been banned.) "But it you got hit today, God forbid," Kendall continues, "then you are more likely to go over the hood and maybe even over the entire car if there are no sharp points."

As Kendall further explains: "Not only does the air flow over the car, but so do the people."

And as Wardle notes, these same pedestrian regulations require more "fresh air clearance between the exterior surface of the hood and anything hard that might be lurking underneath" the hood - such as the top of the engine.

"Should some poor pedestrian's head make violent contact with the hood of the car, the hood will distort," Wardle says. "But the pedestrian won't slam his head into something hard underneath."

Future Laws columns will address more car and truck and roadway shape and safety specifics. For now, though, we'll close with a vintage "before" automotive example.

Representing the earlier, less legislated days of cars and trucks: A 1923 Mercedes 28/95 Roadster from the Petersen's collection. (See photo,second from top.) While it may be museum-worthy, Kendall says the Roadster "embodies almost all of the unsafe characteristics I mentioned previously plus a few more."

That list of more than twenty items that have long since been designed and legislated against includes "narrow tires," "exposed exhaust pipes," "exposed fuel tank," and "no impact-absorbing crumple zones."

"Inside, there is absolutely no consideration for safety," Kendall says. "The steering wheel would hurt your torso very greatly if you were to run into anything. And forget about it if you are sitting in the rumble seat - it would be over."

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via @LosJeremy on Twitter, or by emailing: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

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