I've been curious to notice over the years the shifts from utility to style in many of the products we buy, especially in motor-powered vehicles and equipment and in electronics. Often when a product first comes out new the emphasis is on utility, not appearance. But as time goes on there is likely to be a shift in the direction of making the product more stylish. Along with this shift comes a change of emphasis in the sales pitches used to promote sales to those of us who make up the buying public. When the emphasis is on utility, the sales pitches focus on things such as economy, efficiency, longevity, and so on, whereas as the emphasis moves more to style, the sales pitches turn to things like impressive looks, excitement of appearance and performance, the prestige factor, and so on.
I noticed this first in automobiles and pickup trucks. The first motor powered vehicles retained much of the appearances of the buggies, carriages, carts, hacks and wagons from the horse-drawn era of transportation. Then, in the years from about 1908 to 1930, they took on a distinctive classic style, but were still pretty utilitarian in design. That included the Model-T Fords on the low-priced end, on up to the magnificent, powerful and expensive Dusenberg and Marmon cars of the 1920s. Most of them retained the traditional black color, utilitarian bumpers, fenders, and headlights, flat radiators with little adornment in front, straight and flat panes of glass, and maybe even wood-spoke wheels. Many of these are still quite attractive to those of us who go for those classic designs. Many of us still like the looks of the old Model A Fords and the old 1927 Chevrolet sedans and coupes.
In the 1930s, we began to see most new automobiles coming out with new streamlined, sleek contours, varied available colors, attractive metal wheel designs, lights molded into the metalwork and with stylized grills covering the radiator and other engine components. Part of the move to streamlined bodies came from the fact that road speeds were increasing, vehicles were being equipped with smooth-running, powerful multi-cylinder engines capable of speeds of 60 MPH and above. The older squarish classical designs were hindrances to the new age of speed.
Although at times even the move for style has resorted back to the more squarish designs, such as in the mid-1950s, most of our newer automobiles are very smooth, very streamlined, designed to minimize wind resistance and wind noise, all the while presenting an attractive appearance.
We have seen a somewhat similar trend with televisions. The first televisions were not intended to be fashionable, they were just intended to work, to present a picture. The earlier screen size was about 5 inches, even when the screen was set in a much larger cabinet. The advance to 12-inch and 13-inch screens was a real advance in the 1950s.
Of course in those days the picture was always black and white. It is said of Henry Ford, in the early years of Ford Motor Co., that you could have your car in any color you wanted, so long as it was black. This was the case with early televisions, the only colors available were black and white, nothing else. Interestingly, televisions in the 1950s, black and white as they were, were often installed in very attractive wood cabinets. You don't see those so much today, with the current emphasis on screen size and high-resolution pictures. Our family actually stayed with black and white television much longer than most.
We got our first color television in the late 1980s. We had bought a new black and white television in about 1973 in Alma, Ark., and it just kept going, and going, and going. Finally, in about 1989, in Jonesboro, Ark., we bought our first color TV from the Sears Store. Even farm tractors have gone from utility to style through the years.
The first steam-powered and motor-powered tractors were very spare units, with most of the operating parts exposed, and sporting few or no adornments. Even in the 1930s, when tractors had begun to take on the standard appearances to which we are accustomed, the power plants were usually still in full view, and the cooling system and radiator sat out in front of everything, while the belt-driven fan operated right behind it. But, by the 1940s, even tractors were coming out with sleek designs, engine covers, decorative grills hiding the radiator and related parts, and with attractive paint designs and trademark patches.
But I'm thinking that the change of emphasis from utility to style has never been more pronounced than with pickup trucks. I'm thinking of the half-ton, three quarter ton, and ton trucks. We used to think of these as farm trucks. Early on they were never intended to have particularly attractive looks. They were for hauling stuff, and you didn't need style to haul stuff. As the years have gone by, however, pickup trucks are no longer just for hauling stuff. They are for looking great, with impressive performance, and for making impressions on one's peers.
Comfort, performance and style are important in a pickup truck, just as much as towing power, load hauling, durability, fuel mileage and maintenance of value. Pickups need to have rich, burly sound and to look and feel manly, even when the girls will drive them. Style has become a big thing, even for pickup trucks.
Editor's note: This column was originally published Feb. 20, 2008. Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge, is an award-winning columnist, a retired Methodist minister with a passion for history. He is vice president of the Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] centurytel.net , or call 621-1621.