Faces

Recognizing faces is an important human trait.  We are born with the ability to recognize the human face.  We learn our mother’s face early on.  Some animals use smell, some use the sound of the mother’s voice.  I suppose many use all of those; and possibly we do, too.

But to recognize Mother’s face by sight is important to a baby.  Mother is a baby’s world.

As we grow older, we still carry this “face” thing with us.  The “T” shape of human features:  the two eyes joined by the brow and bridge of the nose, the vertical line of nose finished off by the serif of the mouth–these things get transferred to inanimate objects, as well.  Who hasn’t noticed the frowning countenance of a certain house that makes us feel it wouldn’t be a nice place to live, or even gives the house the reputation of “haunted”?

We transfer the same tendency to see faces in objects like rock formations, even the moon!  We see faces on animals: on an orangutan, a face “only a mother could love.”  One class of objects we see faces on is the automobile.

Since the Model T, cars have seemed to have faces.  One of my earliest childhood memories is of a car with a grille that seemed to have huge teeth standing up from the front bumper.  In those days cars had steel, chrome-plated bumpers.

More recently, it seems that auto makers have deliberately insinuated the illusion of faces into their models.  I noticed it long ago.  The grille area shrank with the advent of plastic bumpers; and an opening under the bumper provided the extra cooling air to the radiator.  The grille opening became trapezoidal with the long side on the top, giving the illusion of a smiling mouth.  Some, like the grille of a Mustang from fifteen years ago, gave the impression of smug self-satisfaction.  A few gave you the impression that that the car was putting its tongue out at you.  Some, like the Volkswagen beetle, with the engine in the back, had no grille at all, giving the impression of a frog on wheels,.  Most cars, though, suggested that they were friendly by having a simulated smile on their simulated faces.  This went to extremes a few years ago, when Mazda introduced models with what one writer described as a “goofy goblin grin” on its grille, even expanding it to include the blacked-out bumper inside the “mouth.”  When I first saw these, I was taken aback, because now it was obvious that car makers knew we see faces in their cars and were taking advantage of it.

Then one day about two years ago, i was driving behind a new Camaro.  I noticed the four trapezoidal tail lights on the back, and the slightly concave line of the rear deck.  I was looking at the car when the driver applied the brakes; and suddenly I was staring at not two, but four baleful, red, frowning eyes.  The lighted area of the tail light was a half disc with the curved edge below.  When I could see the front of the car, I saw that the headlights were recessed and partly obscured in a slot above the bumper, that gave the car an appearance of wariness.

As time went by, I saw that other car manufacturers had picked up on this, and I began to notice car models that looked angry.  As LED lighting began to replace incandescent bulbs on the exterior of cars, the makers started to use them to make shapes; for instance, the odd ogee shape of Volvo’s tail lights.  The LED strips took the place of the parking lights in the front near the headlights, being sometimes used as running lights.  Now car makers were able to add facial features to their models; and they did, with a vengeance.  Cars began to appear with frowning eyebrows.  There were cars with mouths full of white teeth that looked as though they were ready to bite.  There was a model with the bottom half of the tail lights outlined in red LEDs.  When only the tail lights were on, the LEDs gave the car the appearance that its “eyes” were closed, but when the driver stepped on the brake, the eyes opened.  If he used his turn signal, the car winked!

All this is interesting; perhaps, even amusing. But why would car makers design cars that look angry?  I was puzzled by this, thinking that it might be a reaction to the cars with big, sappy grins.  So I went poking around on the internet to find out.  As it turns out, car makers had panels of consumers answer questionnaires.  And the reason cars look angry?  People.  Like.  It.

It seems that we like it when our cars look angry and aggressive.  Now, we all will admit that there is a lack of general good will in our country today.  Rudeness is increasing.  People seem not to care about each other as much as they used to.  We see on the news that “road rage” is becoming more frequent, and we wonder if some idiot with a gun will shoot us as we drive.

Then, why, in God’s name, do we need cars that look angry?  Won’t they just make things worse?  We need kindness, not angry cars.

At least trucks have it right.  Most of them have no faces at all.