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,
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
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).
: "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., CPNet.com (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
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
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
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
temporal polysensory area (Young and Yamane 1992:1327). 3.
The emotional impact of grilles registers in the amygdala.
See also MESSAGING
1999 - 2013 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of vintage grille configuration (picture credit: unknown)