100 Years of American Car Design

by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls


This 100-year history explains why cars looked, and look, the way they do, who designed what, and why. The original hardcover book was voted “must have” by major enthusiast magazines in the U.S. and Europe. The book also won the Society of Automotive Historians’ prestigious Cugnot Award.

The book is now out of print, but you can enjoy the DVD as one of the world’s best automotive reads and then keep it in your library for handy long term reference. The DVD contains the original book in its entirety: 308 pages, more than 900 photos, complete text, captions, sidebars and index. Nothing’s left out. The disc is fully searchable and very easy to use. The DVD remains the “book” of choice for everyone interested or involved in the history of car design.

To order a copy of the DVD, contact Michael Lamm.


Excerpt from the book.

This short selection from the beginning of the book defines the origins of a few of the body design terms studios use in creating surfaces.

It all goes back to shipbuilding

It’s no big secret that a lot of early motorcars took their body design from carriages. But it’s less obvious that carriage design evolved from shipbuilding. As with so many other arts and crafts, it all began with the Greeks.

In the 19th century, archeologists discovered mysterious lines scribed on the floors of Roman temples. What did these odd lines mean? The scholars discovered that they were the outlines of huge Roman ships, drawn in plan view (plan view means “as seen from directly above”). The smooth temple floors made an ideal surface to loft a ship’s hull full size.

The Greeks, Norsemen, Southeast Islanders and even some tribes of American Indians used a variation of this same idea.They would draw a full-sized hull outline on a sandy beach, plant sticks around the perimeter, and then connect the sticks with thongs. Finally they’d string more thongs diagonally across the hull to indicate the ship’s ribbing.The resulting “blueprint,” crude as it was, be-came the working drawing for a trireme, a packet or a war canoe.

These techniques worked well enough for the ancients, but as ships grew larger and more complicated, the blueprints had to be refined. For one thing, a simple plan view drawing gave the shipwright only a two dimensional, incomplete map to work from. What he really needed was a set of plans that showed in a way that workmen could read and follow.

So in the 1600s, European ship designers came up with a system for representing all three dimensions on a flat sheet of paper. This system involved basic geometry. Automobile stylists still use it today to map out autobody surfaces, but they now let computers do the mathematical calculations.

Once a ship’s designer had the ability to indicate to the carpenter or ship-wright exactly how the finished hull ought to be constructed, style started to enter the picture. Ships evolved from the tall, ungainly craft that sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to the sleek clipper ships of the mid-1800s. Amazingly, in that transformation, the fundamentals of ship-building didn’t change. What did change was that the ship designer-call him “stylist”-could and did get involved in the building process.

It’s easy enough to see that the design system that evolved for ships’ hulls carried over first into carriage building and then into auto body design. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the first step in designing a ship’s hull meant carving a scale “half model” from wood. A common scale was one inch to four feet, or 1/48. And the half model was exactly what it sounds like: not a representation of the entire hull but just half of it, split vertically down the middle and flat from the keel line up. This half-hull model was usually carved from a stack of planks, or layers. The planks fit tightly together, one atop the other, and they were held in place with tapered pegs that fit into vertical holes. The model did not have masts or sails.



Sections were taken at specific intervals and transferred to full-size drawings on the floor of the shipbuilder’s loft.


Once this scale half-model was approved, the master builder would take the half-model planks apart and use the individual slices to make sectional full-sized drawings. In other words, the separate sections (planks) were all scaled up, or “lofted,” to full size. (The verb to “loft” grew out of shipyard parlance, because the only place where a ship builder’s shop had enough room to lay down the scaled-up outlines of a full-sized ship’s hull-enough clear floorspace, as in those Roman temples—was usually in the loft: the attic above the boat works. This was also the area where, at other times, most of the sails were cut and sewn.)

In the shipyard loft, the “loftsman”—the person in charge of scaling up the half-hull model—would first draw out the lines of each hull section and then, from those drafts, make full-sized templates, or “molds.” The ship’s carpenters and craftsmen in the shop below then used these templates to cut and size the wooden beams that formed the ship’s main framework. By using the same templates first on one side of the hull and then the other, the two halves of the finished framing came together as mirror images.

Now it’s important to recognize that any mistake the hull designer or the master builder might have made in his original scale model got magnified, often by a factor of 48 or more, when that model was lofted full size. And since any scale model always did contain surface flaws, it was up to the loftsman to “fair” the full-sized representations. Fairing meant, first and foremost, making an ungainly or flawed design efficient as it moved through the water. Fairing meant smoothing the surface, sculpting the lines, reshaping, streamlining the hull, because a smooth, streamlined hull made the ship go faster, and speed meant money. Speed made the ship more profitable. So profit became the main motive for fairing a hull.

But fairing also had an aesthetic component. The art of fairing meant that the loftsman had the authority to change the full-scale drawings and templates so the lines looked “right;” so that the hull had what was generally accepted as a “proper” shape. The hull should look pleasing; it should look graceful and “fair,” as in “a fair young maid.” A good loftsman had an eye for fairing, and his aesthetic sense was as critical to the design process as his ability to make the hull efficient. Fairing, then, became the act of combining efficiency with beauty.

And now we make that leap that allows us to recognize that the same techniques and processes used in ship design carried over into horse drawn vehicles. Carriages, like ships, needed to be efficient, but efficiency in this case didn’t mean streamlined; it meant light weight. A carriage had to be light. That’s because there was only from one to four horsepower to pull it.

Unlike ships’ hulls, the designing of carriages was almost never preceded by a scale model. It’s possible that a few carriage makers did use models, perhaps made of wood or sculptors’ clay, to help customers visualize what they were buying. But models weren’t common in carriage design, even in Europe. Rather, what carriage builders did was to first make detailed sketches, usually 1/10 or 1/12 scale, and the loft those sketches full-size on big, upright wooden panels.

To save space, the technique of lofting a carriage involved drawing a side view and then also superimposing half of a plan view on top of it. Both views were crammed onto the same board, and the drawings were kept separate and readable by being done in different colors. Offsets were called out on separate sheets of paper, and sometimes templates were made for the carriage body, but mostly not. This same technique evolved into the design and construction of automobile bodies and was used well into the 1980s.

A few photos and captions from the book.


On the chance that this is the first you’ve known about this book—that it’s all brand new news to you—you may not be familiar with the co-authors. Dave Holls was a professional designer, employed his entire 39-year career at General Motors. At the time of his retirement, he had risen to the number two man at GM Design with the official title Director of Design. But more than merely a working designer, Holls was a life-long student of design, maintaining voluminous personal files and photos on design and design history. Mike Lamm, co-founder and first editor of Special Interest Autos, is the author of many books. He is known and respected for his carefully researched and very readable prose. Together Lamm and Holls covered in detail, that amazed even the most knowledgeable, the story and history of the automobile in America in their seminal work A Century of Automotive Style; 100 Years of American Car Design. More…

“What a book! Undoubtedly, without any reservations, this is the most significant automotive book of the decade. How I wish Automobile Quarterly could have published it.”
—Scott Bailey, founder and former editor/publisher, Automobile Quarterly magazine

“The comprehensive and well-written A Century of Automotive Style, loaded with pictures ranging from the most recent prototypes back to early horseless carriages, traces expertly and engagingly the ever-changing shapes of this quintessential 20th century invention.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Reviews

“We get more information on all of the better-known custom body houses here than in any book previously written.”
—Matthew C. Sonfield, The Classic Car

“Lamm and Holls have put just about all that one could ask for on this huge subject into a large, solidly structured and masterfully written book.”
—Jonathan Thompson, Road & Track

“This is quite simply the best book ever written on American automotive design.”
—Jack Telnack, former Vice President of Design, Ford Motor Co.

“Immensely impressive, eminently readable and a comprehensive survey of one of the most fascinating aspects of the motor car.”
Classic & Sports Car (British)

To order a copy of the DVD, contact Michael Lamm.

  1. Michael Greer

    So many prototypes we never got to see, sigh. Visiting my uncle at GM Tech Center, at least I got to see a few of GM’s fun thoughts, like Mako Shark, etc. I think Mustang picked the wrong clay…ha. thanks.

  2. I have this book in my library as a very cherished and well-thumbed cornerstone. Automotive Bacchanalia for me. I can’t imagine anyone interested in cars or automotive history or design who would not simply adore this masterpiece. Mike Lamm and Dave Holls have created a work that is timeless yet historical… and a fabulous reference for anyone even remotely interested in automobiles.

  3. Tony Miller

    The book is outstanding, exhaustive and unique. If you’re interested in car design history and don’t have it, get the DVD for sure!

  4. Back then designers took time styling – that’s why old cars looks great, while now they rely to much on computers and it’s not art anymore… those old cars where like sculptures on wheels.

  5. Don Leblanc

    Hi Gary;
    I was reading a review about this book when I noticed in the “Amazon also recommends…” a book titled, “The Creative Priority : Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business.”
    By Jerry Hirshberg. It sounds like an insightful book.

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