Something Intangible: Presence

Over on The Truth About Cars, Jack Baruth wrote a very good review on a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special Talisman. He compared it to a 1984 Cadillac Limo and decided that even though the ’76 had less passenger room, could only haul five people instead of seven, and didn’t handle nearly as well as the ’84, the 1976 Fleetwood Sixty Special Talisman was the better car.

Why? Because it was what a Cadillac should be, he concluded. Even though the interior was a mass of flimsy ’70s plastics and fake wood-grain, there was still something about the car that said “Cadillac” in a way that the ’84 didn’t. Pretty much every comment on the article agreed with Baruth, and followed the standard template of “They don’t build ’em like that anymore” and “Why doesn’t Cadillac build a car like this?”

Well, there are thousands of answers to that question from CAFE to market issues, but what I found interesting is that everyone generally loved that overgrown hunk of American steel that uses more gasoline than an oil rig fire and handles as well as a sinking cargo ship. Whenever I look at a car enthusiast website the comments generally attack the “Malaise Era” cars of the ’70s that had so much vinyl, opera windows, and fake Continental humps. Why do these big Cadillacs, Lincolns, and some Chryslers, get a pass? Why don’t they get as much hate as, say, a 1976 Ford Thunderbird?

The answer is “presence.” These extinct dinosaurs project some sort of distortion signal that cause onlookers to forget the inefficient interior packaging and cheap, plasticky bits that masquerade as luxury.

Look at this ’76 Cadillac etc, etc, Talisman.

It’s long, it’s low, and so wide that the photographer probably had to use a wide angle lens to get the entire front end in the shot. But look at what it’s not. It isn’t swept back with its edges rounded off to create a sense of faux-sportiness or more efficient aerodynamics. No, it’s upright and greets the world with a proud grille and Cadillac emblem on its hood. The fenders gently round out near the doors until they become carefully curved, but still upright, over the rear wheels.

This is presence. It’s large, larger than it needs to be, but not so large that it’s over the top. It’s the kind of size that asserts itself in traffic and commands other drivers to get out of the way. The upright, but still somewhat sleek styling, fits that size perfectly. It’s proportional, which creates a sense of purpose because there aren’t any strange, extraneous details that make bystanders wonder just what the designers were thinking. No, everybody who sees this car knows that it was crafted for people with money and power. 

It doesn’t matter that the technology by this point was on the downward slope to obsolete or that the interior wasn’t nearly as good as Cadillacs of even ten years before. The presence made critics forget all about those issues, and continues to do so today.

Lincolns and Imperials of the same era have the same effect.

Both are large, slab-sided pieces of Detroit iron that manage to command respect through sheer presence. As with the Cadillac, it comes from proportions and upright lines.

I feel that I must make a distinction at this point about what presence really is. It isn’t luxury, the awkward looking ’84 Cadillac Limo in Baruth’s piece is proof enough of that, and it isn’t menace. Many cars, such as a Dodge Viper, can appear menacing, but they don’t have presence. Presence is something that commands respect and silences critics. Rational thought is quickly abandoned and replaced with a sense of mild wonder. Presence isn’t sporty, sleek, or even beautiful. It is a three piece suit, expensive cigar, and wood-paneled boardroom in automotive form.

It’s still with us.

To find presence in its modern form, look at the Rolls-Royce Phantom or the Bentley Mulsanne.

Both are long, heavy, and upright with only a few concessions made to aerodynamic necessities. Both have excellent proportions with sweeping curves and straight lines that only serve to emphasize each car’s size. Looking at both cars immediately brings to mind expensive suits and fur coats with ermine collars. These are the effects of presence, and both these cars have it in spades.

For the most part, I’d say that most cars with presence are luxury cars. In general they don’t have to worry about the packaging problems of economy or midsized cars because they’re designed to have large amounts of passenger space. They also don’t have to worry about the effects of drag on fuel efficiency because their owners have incredibly deep pockets.

However, there is one non-luxury car that I can think of that has presence, or at least presence that starts to bleed over into menace: the Chrysler 300.

Again, it fits all the criteria: it’s upright, it’s long, and fairly wide. While the short greenhouse and high beltline make it more aggressive than the other examples, it still doesn’t reach Dodge Charger testosterone derived anger. Since it is more of a near luxury car, it doesn’t bring to mind the finer things in life, but that’s all right, because this is near luxury presence. Instead, it draws a viewer’s eye and inspires, an admiration for the owner’s taste, if not complete respect.

I tried to think of a midsized or smaller car that has presence and came up empty handed. Many fit the bill for unapologetic upright lines, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, but there was always too much of economy in their proportions, such as the standard three box design of front, middle, and rear, or, in more modern cars, too much flat, boring sheetmetal that pointed to uninspired design. If someone can think of a small car that’s not necessarily from a luxury brand that has presence please mention it in the comments.

My guidelines for presence is rough and certainly open to interpretation, but there is a reason why we find old, outdated, impractical cars cool. It isn’t just because they’re old, it’s because there’s something stamped into their sheetmetal and mixed into their paint that triggers a reaction in our minds. There are more clues out there—what I’ve hit upon aren’t even a handful—and I intend to find more. It’s not about dissecting each car and subjecting it to some sort of science, it’s about understanding why we find ourselves attracted, against all reason, to certain types of cars. If we can figure that out, we’ll know much more about ourselves and our cars.

2 Responses to “Something Intangible: Presence”
  1. Is the “imposing nature” of these cars the reason why they are so popular with drug dealers?

    • Jason Lowrey says:

      Hm, that’s something that never crossed my mind when I was writing, but that is a good point.

      I’d also say that their popularity with the drug dealers also has to do with these cars’ basic construction. Any car built up through the late ’80s or early ’90s, but especially any in the ’60s or ’70s, had a great deal of empty space between the pieces of metal that made up the doors, fenders, or even the supports for the passenger seats. Before the police caught onto it, these empty spaces were a great place to hide drugs. See The French Connection for a classic example.

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