Your favourite era of car design?

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    Napier Railton

    I think we all like a good looking f1 car, but have you ever thought about what your favourite era of car design was. As we are about to see a whole new generation of car designs in 2022, I thought it would be a good idea to ask this question.

    Instead of simply splitting car designs into different decades, I kind of want to try splitting up the eras by what the cars look like. There are overlap in design eras, but this groups the cars by when the majority of the grid could be grouped by design. Splitting up the 80s and 90s is particularly difficult as changes were more gradual.

    To be honest it was quite a fun exercise splitting the car design eras up. I’ve also picked my favourite car from each era, one of the most successful cars and an example car that was a bit unusual.

    1950 – 1958 – Engine Up Front
    These cars put their engines up front with no mind paid to the aerodynamic characteristics of the cars except how fast they could go in a straight line. Some of these cars were no doubt elegant, but a little minimalist by today’s standard.
    My Favourite: Vanwall VW5
    Top Performer: Mercedes-Benz W196
    Oddball: Lancia D50

    1959 – 1966 – Engine behind the driver
    Now things are getting sleek. The radiator is up front and the engine is in back. Safety was still a bit of an afterthought. Over this period the cars got slimmer, lower and the suspension got wider. These cars were very pretty but there wasn’t a great deal of variety, some years (apart from livery) the only visual difference would have been the exhaust configuration.
    My favourite Honda RA300
    Top Performer: Lotus 25
    Oddball: Ferrari 156

    1967 – 1970 – Bigger Tyres, First Aero
    This is a smaller era than most, but these cars definitely had a look all of their own. This is where we see the first aero devices (mostly simple aero pieces added to the traditional 60s design) and some big mean looking tyres. This is probably where f1 was at its most perilous for the drivers.
    My Favourite: McLaren M7
    Top Performer: Matra MS80
    Oddball: March 701

    1971 – 1978 – Downforce Experimentation
    Let’s get crazy. They weren’t all pretty but no one can deny this era had the most diversity in car design. This is where we get some crazy shapes and designs, looking to generate as much downforce as possible. Safety is also becoming a factor in car design with bigger roll hoops and rudimentary safely standards for cars.
    My Favourite: Hesketh 308C
    Top Performer: Ferrari 312T
    Oddball: Eifelland Type 21

    1979 – 1982 – Ground Effect
    These cars were made with exploiting ground effect to its maximum. These can be recognized by having long side pods, close to the ground, that extend from the back wheels almost to the front wheels. Sometimes conventional aero pieces were discarded entirely, a few cars ran without front wings for example. It’s worth noting that this was the first of our eras to be ended by regulation, not by design trend.
    My Favourite: Brabham BT49
    Top Performer: Williams FW07
    Oddball: Ensign N179

    1983 – 1987 – Clawing back the lap time
    Flat bottomed cars were introduced and with that came a big reduction in downforce. A few odd trends came about in this era like double rear wings, some boxy designs around the side pods, rounded noses and drivers were still sitting upright. In my opinion, not the most graceful era of F1 design, but there were still a few lookers.
    My Favourite: Brabham BT52
    Top Performer: Williams FW11
    Oddball: Toleman TG183B

    1988 – 1994 – Getting skinny
    The seating position started getting lower in the car and the overall designs became more sleek and with neater packaging. This era would end with the adoption of high noses and uprights to hold the front wing on. Picking an oddball in this generation is tough, as there isn’t the greatest level of variety..
    My Favourite: Tyrrell 019
    Top Performer: McLaren MP4/4
    Oddball: Brabham BT60

    1995 – 2003 – Aero Understanding and Computer aided design
    The noses started raising in the previous era but it was now commonly accepted that this was the best way to make an f1 car. The coke bottle area was refined and the way to make an F1 car was seemingly settled upon.
    My favourite: Jordan 199
    Top Performer: Ferrari F2002
    Oddball: Tyrrell 025

    2004 – 2008 – Complex Aero
    F1 cars started sprouting strange little winglets, horns, flaps and other strange shapes, all in the purpose of channeling air for the sake of downforce. Personally I really liked these cars and always thought they looked really high tech and aggressive to me. Although some “protrusions” weren’t always very pretty.
    My favourite: BMW Sauber F1.08
    Top Performer: Ferrari F2004
    Oddball: Williams FW26

    2009 – 2016 – For improving the show.
    In this era, the rules mandated a wide front spoiler, with a flat bit in the middle and tall narrow rear spoilers and the protrusions of the last era were gone. We saw quite a few different things pop up in terms of aesthetics. Really high noses, stepped noses, rude noses, low noses, role hoop blades, extremely skinny rear ends, shark fins, the list goes on. To be honest, I quite liked the way they looked with the rear spoiler being the same height as the role hoop.
    My Favourite: Virgin VR01
    Top Performer: Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid
    Oddball: Lotus E22

    2017 – 2021 – Wider and faster!
    Similar design features were in this set of rules. Wide front spoiler and the tall rear spoiler. However now, there were angles incorporated into the uprights and the angle of the front wing. This is the first time the rules actively had the purpose of trying to make the cars look better (among other things). The whole width of the car was increased and so was the size of the tyres and the spoilers. We haven’t seen a massive amount of variety in this era though compared to the last one.
    My favourite: Renault R.S.20
    Top Performer: Mercedes-AMG F1 W11
    Oddball: Force India VJM11

    If I had to pick one era for design it would be the mid 70s when downforce was being explored. Simply because of the variety that was on the grid in this era. It was a time when you could pretty much tell what car was what even without any paint on them. They are not the prettiest, it’s the variety that I love.

    What are your favourite times for f1 design? And do you think I’ve got the eras correct? Would you split the design eras up any differently?


    It’s always hard to disassociate it from the period in which you started following the sport, which is why I have a soft spot for the 3.5-litre normally aspirated cars of 1989 onwards.

    I’d pick 1997 as my favourite year for car design – wide bodies, slick tyres. Todays are impressive as well – I did prefer them in 2017 before the Halo but I’ve grown used to it (and of course, no qualms from a safety point of view).

    Looking back before my time, the ‘return to power’ cars of 1966-1967, pre-wings, were elegant things.


    My favourite era of F1 design can be condensed into a single year that had one of the most uniformly beautiful grids ever – 1991. Every single car looked heavenly, with not a bad line in the whole lineup.

    Uzair Syed

    2006-2008 is my favourite era of car design. I loved the winglets on those cars, made them look like futuristic spaceships. Loved the smaller proportions compared to now. Rear wings and chunky diffusers on those cars also looked very cool.


    @Napier Railton, you have some good picks. I first started watching F1 around 1981. While the ground effects era had some great ones like the Brabham BT49 you picked as well as the Williams FW07, Ligier JS11, Renault RE20 and RE30, Lotus 79, and Ferrari 126C2 among the top race winning cars others were less impressive like the Ensign N79, Theodore TY01, Alfa Romeo 177, the entire Toleman output, and even the 1979 Ferrari title winner 312T4 – which I thought was aesthetically a dog.

    In terms of overall I would probably say 1971-78 period just for the stylistic variance – even the airboxes were different. Brabham BT42 which had a great array of customer cars in 1974-75 is probably my favorite overall with the Tyrrell P34, UOP Shadows, and 1977-78 Ferraris.

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