Image: Cadillac CTS vent
Cadillac
The Cadillac CTS’s vent is real.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/2/2008 5:54:18 PM ET 2008-01-02T22:54:18

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same,” said style icon Coco Chanel, and now one popular bit of automotive ornamentation seems likely to fade, despite roots that extend nearly to the earliest cars.

It’s the frill festooning the front fender of an increasing number of newly introduced cars — a fender vent, or gill slot. It has been used for years in high-performance cars to cool off the engine, but in today’s ubiquitous application it’s typically a bit of tacked-on chrome plastic meant to evoke such a vent, but serving little or no such purpose.

“It has become a design cliché for this millennium,” commented John Manoogian, director of design at General Motors for Cadillac exteriors.

It’s a bitter conclusion for Manoogian, who included fender vents in the Cadillac CTS’s curriculum vitae, and also in its cousins, adding fender portholes on the Buick Lucerne full-size sedan.

But those cars have a history of fender perforation, and the new models’ fenders are actually punctured so there is a real vent, he points out.

“There are holes in [these cars’ fenders] and they are functional,” said Manoogian. “But it has become so ubiquitous now, everyone is using them in all manner and it is getting out of hand,” he added. “It has gotten so they are decorative pieces that are just tacked on the car.”

A vent’s legitimacy hinges on two things, according to Manoogian — historical use by the manufacturer and actual functionality. BMW claims that its history gives it license to glue fake plastic vents to its pumped up M3 sport sedan. The company used them on its classic 507 roadster and, more recently, on its Z3 sports car, so fake ones on the M3 are fine, insists spokesman Oleg Satanovsky.

But fakery by pretenders is beyond the pale.

“I’ve seen [added-on] M3 vents on Honda Civics,” Satanovsky groaned.

Non-functional vents have no legitimacy, declares senior statesman Peter Brock, who designed the universally acclaimed Shelby Daytona Coupe racing car in the 1960s. That car employed, yes, fender vents, to cool its engine. Among modern vents, the worst “are those that have no function,” Brock railed. “I don’t think any really good examples will make it to modern production cars.”

Part of the drive toward the use of vents on many new cars is the current preference for vehicles that have the wheels pushed far to the corners, both for aesthetic reasons and for the practical benefit of added space in the cabin.

A result of moving the front wheels forward is a lot of blank space between the wheels and the doors, notes Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director for design for the Americas.

“A vent helps eat up a lot of space in what can be an empty area now that the front wheels are so far forward,” he said, although he admits the use of the vent is primarily for fashion purposes.

“Part of car design is fashion,” he explained. “We have to expect to use [a device like vents] and do away with it as fashion dictates.”

Automotive styling follows clear trends — and maybe a few fads — that allow cars of nearly any age to be identified by some common defining characteristics.

Classics from the 1950s? Everyone knows they have tail fins. Awful 1970s abominations? They have cheesy vinyl roofs and fake wire wheel hub caps. The 1990s? The era of clichéd gray plastic cladding on the lower part of a car’s body.

These silly styling statements sometimes cite practical origins, although that wasn’t the case with tail fins, which were simply meant to ape the appearance of jet fighter planes. The fad became so pervasive that even stodgy Mercedes-Benz jumped aboard, just as tail fins were about to collapse under the absurdity of their excess.

Vinyl roofs copied the faux convertible top appearance of exclusive limousines, intended to infuse even the most pedantic Pinto with class and style.

The vinyl roof wheezed and sputtered its last sometime around 1990 after a two-decade run, but it is most strongly identified with the 1970s. Now vinyl tops are only seen as aftermarket add-ons for a Sunshine State retiree’s Grand Marquis.

Around the time vinyl tops were becoming ubiquitous, Mercedes-Benz began shielding the lower side of its cars with a dull gray plastic material. It was meant to protect the car from stone chips, but it also provided a two-tone color effect that emphasized the car’s length.

Twenty years later the collective association of plastic cladding with prestigious luxury sedans, combined with the exploding fascination with similarly-armored SUVs, made plastic cladding the must-have accessory for the well-dressed car.

Ultimately, Pontiac cornered the market on plastic cladding, practically forcing customers to take sheets of the stuff home in the trunk of new cars. Finally, the fad reached its zenith in the hideous, over-clad Pontiac Aztec, leaving the field clear for fender vents to arise as the new device to be overused by the dedicated followers of automotive fashion.

“They will become the vinyl tops of the new millennium,” predicted Manoogian. “Twenty or thirty years from now, people will look back and say, ‘That car must have come from between 2004 and whenever’ because of the vents.”

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