From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The car radiator grille was first broadcast on 26th November 2022. You can hear the audio here.
The radiator grille is the face of a car. It’s been an important design feature for over a hundred years, a defining element that helps identify the brand of vehicle while giving a hint to the car’s character. Some grilles look like toothy grins; others are more evocative, like the backward rake of a 1970s BMW that gives a shark-like hint of stealth and speed. The most famous grille of all, Rolls Royce’s, has the classicism of the Parthenon in polished meta, telling us that, while you might not be able to afford a stately home in the Palladian style then you can at least drive a car that looks like one. Without a grille, cars would look very different and with the rising popularity of electric cars, maybe they’re destined to disappear.
The first petrol-driven vehicle was a sort of motorised three-wheeled carriage designed by Karl Benz in 1885. Its combustion engine at the back was completely open to the elements. Things had changed by 1901, when German engineers, Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler, launched a vehicle that set the style for cars that would follow. It was called the Mercedes 35PS and had the engine placed before the driver and encased by a bonnet. At the front was a large radiator, a honeycomb design perfected by Maybach, made up of 8000 tiny pipes through which the heated water from the engine circulated, cooled by oncoming air. This became the default for most water-cooled engines. The more powerful the engine, the bigger the radiator. Grilles were designed to shield it from stones and dust, and while most were simple mesh, their frames could be shaped to provide something altogether more distinctive.
They became a big part of brand identity although the cheaper the car, the simpler the grille. The first Model T launched by Ford in 1908 had a basic brass frame for its radiator but this was eventually changed to a decorative grille with the Ford name at its centre in a dashing script. The BMW company, makers of aircraft engines, bought a flailing car company in 1928 that made a version of the Austin Seven and they poached a coachbuilder’s design for the iconic BMW radiator, commonly known as the split kidney, which has remained, in some form, as an essential part of BMW design language. By the middle of the twentieth century, interest in aerodynamics, along with the idea of speed it evoked, led to curvier cars with integrated headlamps, and a change from the traditional upright grille to a wider, lower air intake, often quite generic. Some luxury manufacturers like Bentley persisted with the upright grille, offering a design cue that harked back to their origins, and some still do.
With rear-mounted, air-cooled engines, like the first Volkswagens of the late 1930s, a radiator grille at the front was redundant. But some front-engined cars, like the Citroen DS of 1955, tucked air ducts below the front bumper to eliminate the need for a grille and to highlight its sleek aerodynamic form. The grille has remained, although sometimes abused, with grand ones grafted on to cheaper cars to posh them up, as British Leyland did in the 1970s. Even when the electric car arrived, a blank panel was often employed to honour the design convention and placate a public wary of the novelty, although Tesla dropped the fakery in 2016. The combustion engine for cars will disappear but electric cars still need airflow to cool batteries and brakes. The radiator grille might survive, then, as a relic of the past or just as brand logo. Or maybe it’s because we simply like our machines to have faces.