From the heydays of Harley Earl and Raymond Loewy on through the late 1960s, American cars were juggernauts of style. The studios of Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, and a number of smaller marques produced fanciful rolling sculpture with names like Imperial, Bel Air and Wildcat. And they looked every bit the part, from their swoopy interiors to branding wordmarks in chrome that mimicked the grand forms around them.
By the 1970s, though, in the face of environmental regulation and superior competition from Europe and Japan, the business case for such exorbitantly designed Detroit iron had evaporated. Nearly all mainstream American brands shifted to producing commodities, semi-identical appliances differentiated primarily through massive marketing efforts. The romantic, evocative model names didn’t go away, but it became more common than not for virtually the exact same car to be sold as any number of different models: a Ford was a Lincoln, and a Buick was an Oldsmobile was a Pontiac was a Chevrolet.
In this grim context, masters of letterforms working anonymously inside marketing departments emerged as the de facto stylists of consequence. Indeed, their often whimsical little plastic or metal nameplates epoxied to anonymous trunk lids and fenders and pillars were sometimes the only real character these cars had. Now, with a few decades of patina, these marks also serve as strangely beautiful time capsules of letterform design and fascinating case studies in egregious branding.
The following five were photographed out in the wild in 2016 and 2017.