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'Aero' look edges out boxy, look-alike cars?

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In the 1930s, sleek aerodynamically styled machines, such as the Chrysler Airflow, Lincoln Zephyr, and one-of-a kind cars -- the Phantom Corsair and Airomobile, for example -- proved to be dynamite at auto shows, but duds in the marketplace.

Departing radically from the phone-booths-on-wheels that dominated automotive design a half century ago, "aero" cars were great for one's neighbors but not in one's own driveway.

Too, they were expensive, which hardly made them attainable for a nation in the midst of a deep depression.

Even so, these early experiments in new shapes continued to have a major influence on succeeding generations of cars to come out of Detroit as well as European automotive capitals, as auto designers attempted to mimic their counterparts in the aircraft industry by developing new ways to reduce wind drag and thus improve efficiency.

Racing-car designers, of course, have battled wind resistance from the very beginning. And designers of exotic Italian models, such as Maserati, Lamborghini, and Ferrari, have produced aerodynamically "slippery" cars for years.

Paradoxically, when the first energy crisis erupted in 1973, the rush to downsize cars and reduce their weight spawned hordes of boxy models whose shapes intrinsically run counter to aerodynamic efficiency. Moreover, this rapid shift to "utilitarian" designs produced a wave of "look alikes" that thwarted efforts to produce distinctive vehicles.

The burgeoning array of aero cars now entering the market, such as Ford's 1984-model Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar, provide designers an opportunity to move away from the look-alike trend and offer buyers a broader choice from which to choose.

"The era off utilitarian cars is ending," says Richard A. Teague, vice-president of styling for American Motors Corporation. "The day of the square car is over, and the rounded car with flush glass, flush wheels, and belly pans (to reduce underbody wind turbulence) is coming."

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