See also Conference Table Dance

Copyright 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies) Detail of photo by Robert Frank (copyright Robert Frank)




Not long ago I started detecting what seemed like facial expressions while looking at cars and I thought I was going nuts. G.L.-C (see below, E-Commentary)

Consumer product. 1. A nose- or mouth-shaped grating of metal or vinyl, used as a decoration at the front of an automobile, truck, or bus. 2. The "face" of a motor vehicle, unwittingly designed to show attitude.

Usage: The modern grille expresses a vehicle's personality by mimicking features of the face, esp. the lips, nose, and teeth. (Note: windshields and headlights may participate as illusory "eyes.") Grilles suggest a variety of facial mood signs--from the friendly smile to the emotional tense-mouth--as they beckon for deference, demeanor, and respect on the road.

Evolution. Through a process of consumer product selection, automobile front-ends today resemble faces. Originally, in the Ford family, e.g., the 1903 Model A had neither a grille nor a vertical front-end, but from 1908-1927, the Model T had a vertical front end with a framed radiator as a "proto-grille." In 1928, the Model A had a shapely, contoured radiator, like that of the early Lincoln, which suggested a vertically ascending nose. In 1932, the high-brow Lincoln's V-type radiator was clearly nose-like from the frontal view.

Recent history. In the 1940s, grille design shifted from noses to mouths. A case in point is Mercury's aggressive, tooth-showing grille of 1946, which resembled an angry bulldog poised to bite. After 1946, mouth motifs predominated, and subsequent nose shapes inadvertently damaged sales of less expensive cars. Edsel's ill-fated "horse-collar" grille of 1958, e.g. (modeled after Packard's vertical center grille), doomed it to extinction. (And yet, nasal illusions helped sales of "aristocratic" vehicles, such as the

Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, which "looked down their noses" at lesser automobiles (see HEAD-TILT-BACK). In 1955, the Mercury Montclair featured a redesigned bumper grille housing what looked like free-standing teeth, and thick, horizontal projections that resembled tusks. From 1955-57, the Ford Thunderbird featured "tusks," as well, and a mouth-like grille poised, seemingly, to shout, "Hey!" In 1963, the Mercury Breezeway added tusk-like dual headlights to its grille configuration. In 1966, the Mercury Comet Cyclone's tense-mouth grille appeared toothless and without tusks, but non-functional hood scoops compensated for its defanged look by adding "muscle" (i.e., engine power) to the car. In the same year, the Mercury Cougar's front end featured a bumper that curled up on the outer extremities, and an insouciant grille resembling the silent-bared teeth face of monkeys and apes (Van Hooff 1967).

E-Commentary "I saw your website and the first thing that caught my attention was the topic of car grille faces, because not long ago I started detecting what seemed like facial expressions while looking at cars and I thought I was going nuts. I'm so glad to know that someone has information regarding this topic, and it's for real." --G.L.-C., (3/15/00 8:50:48 AM Pacific Standard Time)

Student observations. In a class measurement project for my spring 2001 communication research methods course at Gonzaga University, students contributed the following comments on vehicular-grille shapes:

1. Hello Dr. David. Here's the assignment on the smile ratio for the grille. I have noticed that, to me, the vehicles look more interesting as the angular edges were smoothed out. The newer vehicles all share smooth, curvilinear contours instead of the harshness of the edges. Brings a softness to the rough steel confines of the automobile.

2. The grille on the Taurus was very hard to measure, because it was a perfectly oval shape. So, at any point of the circle I could have measured, it would not have accurately reflected the shape of the grille. The shape really does not make me feel really one way or another about it. It is, honestly, a little bland. Some might say it

reminds them of an "oh" surprised look--but, to me, it is much more mild, and really doesn't show a lot of personality. It's not quite as boring as some might say a full-on rectangle is, because it doesn't have any blunt angles or edges. It is rather smooth--possibly calming--and yet still doesn't evoke really strong emotions.

3. The Toyota Four Runner's grille is straight-up a rectangle. It's much like the nondescript style of Chevrolets given as an example in class. This is an older model of the Four Runner, so I would be interested in how the grille has changed--because even with the nondescript grille on this car, I know it was fairly popular for that year's model. The style of this car is very nice--but I do agree that the grille is somewhat boring--and it's sort of a let-down to see all the work that was put into making such a nice car--yet not much imagination was put into the grille.

4. The Nissan Maxima gives the shape of the smile that is becoming more and more apparent on cars these days. However, it is not a round, smooth smile, but rather choppy with a lot of angles. Almost like a robotic smile, so it doesn't feel quite as warm or genuine as some of the newer cars that have worked the lines to be smoother. Although it does possess more attitude than the Toyota Four Runner (however, in my opinion, not much more), I don't know that, if I were shopping, that it has enough of a "smile" to subconsciously influence me.

5. The 1999-2000 Ford Ranger XLT gives a big, warm, hearty smile. It's not a huge grin that would light up the face of a child, but something big and boisterous you might possibly see from the driver of such a vehicle. It is not outright a smile, but there is some angle to it similar to the Nissan Maxima. Yet, because it's a bigger car than the Maxima, it gives a different illusion to the grille. I think this car can pull it off and still look fairly attractive, because it's very wide-open, a sort of grin where you would see all of the person's teeth--so it seems very genuine, almost innocent, in a sense.

6. The 1989 Honda CRX is very different from the Honda Accord. But, of course, it's a few years more recent. The stern, narrow grille is gone--but is replaced by another of the nondescript, no-emotion type grilles. For a smaller car, this does not work well, in my opinion. Possibly on a truck it would work okay, because the owner might want to look like "I don't care" or give that illusion through a grille that shows no feeling or mood. However, with a smaller car, where the mere structure of the vehicle doesn't hold that power, the grille doesn't work, and this makes the front more boring than need be.

7. The Mercury Topaz GS has a very interesting grille. It's reminiscent of the Ford Taurus in its oval shape, yet it's also very oblong. Also, the middle strip of metal that passes through the grille gives it a very interesting shape. I am unsure how to classify this, or how to describe the feelings it gives me. The easiest way would be to say that this grille reminds me of clown lips. A clown's lips are really big and poofy, and overdone. It doesn't mean people don't like this grille. People like clowns because they're different, look a little funny, and make you laugh. I think this car seems a little more humorous to me, as well, and conveys a relaxed feeling--kind of like "it's okay to take a cruise for the heck of it with no destination." That's the best way to describe this grille.

8.The 1999 Isuzu Trooper has a smaller, angular smiley face. It has more of a cute demeanor than the other smiley faces, because the grille shows a little more softness around it's edges, and the angles are not so harsh. I believe this has more to do with a mirroring of the new aerodynamic shapes of most vehicles lately. It gives a very friendly, happy appearance to the car. Out of all the cars, this looks most like the grille you'd actually want to hug.

Neuro-notes. 1. Links between biting, chewing, showing fangs, genital erections, anger, and fear have been found in the anterior hypothalamus "in a region of converging nerve fibres involved in angry and defensive behaviour" (MacLean 1973:16). 2. Like faces, grilles are decoded in the anterior inferotemporal cortex, while their familiarity registers in the superior temporalpolysensory area (Young and Yamane

1992:1327). 3. The emotional impact of grilles registers in the amygdala.

See also MESSAGING FEATURE, To see the ultimately cute automobile face, click on Toyota Prius.

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)

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