For cars, windows are the windows to the soul

1956 Ford Thunderbird, 1989 Land Rover Discovery, 1997 Mercedes-Benz A-Class, 2019 Cadillac CT5
1956 Ford Thunderbird, 1989 Land Rover Discovery, 1997 Mercedes-Benz A-Class, 2019 Cadillac CT5-V

Design has a talent to give flair and even a little drama to otherwise mundane objects. Tables become ideal places to brainstorm, beds become the center of immediate-family gatherings, plant vases become a touch of nature in the big city… As we allow ourselves to pursue higher-level goals in life, we begin to see beyond the rational function for which any given object was created.

Following that train of thought, windows provide more than light and wind. They break empty regions, help balance the use of colors and materials and, not rarely, define the entire arrangement of nearby objects. Thanks to design, we no longer use windows merely to see through; they began to deserve their own attention. This is valid for buildings just as much as it is for automobiles.

1932 Chrysler Imperial Convertible Sedan
In models such as the 1932 Chrysler Imperial Convertible Sedan, windows were as simple as they could be

How have windows been important to car design?

Early models used them for visibility, so they were as large and rectangular as possible — since air conditioning was yet to exist, they would turn cars into greenhouses on hot days. The first signs of concern with window design came through their frames: automakers had to improve their sealing, so they took the opportunity to invest in offering color and chrome trim as well.

Later on, the shapes received more attention: high-end models made better use of colors and materials to convey their purpose, and the windows were redesigned to help: they became rather short in sporty models so as to make them intimidating, remained large in the family ones, and adopted exotic shapes as those of opera windows to make luxury models somewhat more artistical.

1952 Lancia Aurelia Coupé
The 1952 Lancia Aurelia Coupé uses inverted C-pillars to avoid large windows on the sides and give the rear windshield a panoramic effect

By the 1980s, the need to invest in family design and global production made cars highly similar to one another, so windows ended up coming to the rescue once again: if you compare the multiple models that form a given car family, you’ll see that windows are only less important than body shape to differentiate each one. This time, they became relevant to car design for their position and quantity.

In nowadays, we can say we’re living another big moment in this field: automakers have learned how to use trim, shape, quantity and position together in order to make windows send the exact message they want or need. As a result, windows now deserve pretty much the same attention one would normally give to a car’s lights, grilles or wheels. Who’d ever thought that parts which used to be simple glass sheets would go such a long way?

1988 Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon
In the 1980s, station wagons and SUVs often used large, detached windows which weren’t really concerned with visual harmony

Cut to the chase — bring the examples!

Cars have at least one window per row of seats. Cargo models usually have them only on the front doors because the rest of the cabin is loaded with objects, rather than people. Other than that, they usually have two windows. Since this is the simplest layout available for passenger cars, it’s been widely used on compact cars. Over the decades, companies have used it to make larger ones look nimble.

When you look the other way, many windows are necessary on large cars because they have more seat rows and a massive size; too much plain sheetmetal would make them ugly and very hard to maneuver. As a result, many windows gradually became a sign of large size and of family orientation. In general, more windows help balance the side appearance, but cost more and go against visual sportiness.

The smooth roofline forced BMW to give the 4 Series Gran Coupé a third window behind the rear door

BMW’s design is traditionally sporty, so even full-size sedans such as the 7 Series feature only two windows. Nevertheless, these are carefully designed in order to be large in a balanced way and the company remains aware of the limits of this design solution: models with taller bodies, like the X5, or with smoother rooflines, such as the 4 Series Gran Coupe, always use third windows behind the rear doors.

Third windows can also be used in front of the doors. This option is more common in minivans because their design priorities maximize the cabin’s size. Given that it becomes so larger and taller than the engine’s region, large windows are added to get a less boxy look. Another advantage of that solution is getting narrower pillars, which make them easier to maneuver and less claustrophobic, especially for kids.

2016 Citroën Grand C4 SpaceTourer
Minivans such as the Citroën Grand C4 SpaceTourer have extra windows in front of the doors so as to make the heavily inclined A-pillars narrower

Are there any exceptions to all that?

Of course. Some are simple, like using oversized windows and narrow pillars to avoid additional glass area, but many of the latest window-related solutions involve toying with the other aforementioned variables, such as position and trim. While everything in this regard involves increasing production costs, some of these ideas manage to be cheaper to put to practice than the traditional ones.

Sunroofs add natural light to the cabin even on cloudy days, look really good at night and become priceless during summer. The problem is that durable electric operation and good sealing make them highly expensive especially for compact cars and/or in emergent countries. In nowadays, many companies use panoramic roofs, which simply consist of covering part of the roof with fixed glass.

If you enjoy extra light and charming looks but don’t want the convertible version, the Fiat 500 offers you fixed or electric sunroofs

When aesthetic balance requires extra windows but production cost frowns upon them, some companies resort to fake ones: they add plastic parts whose shape and color resemble those of the windows. They’re particularly common in car families, whose models are usually forced to share doors despite their multiple body styles, and in low-cost redesigns, which have to make a lot look new with minimal cost.

More recently, some image-oriented cars avoid additional windows, whether due to sportiness or cost, but balance their appearance by using logotypes where the rear extra windows would be. The Peugeot 208, for example, has done it since its 2012 debut and uses different ones according to the trim level. That’s a creative way to achieve good looks, cheap production and even stronger image together.

Wide D-pillars make the car more imposing, but can be visually excessive. The Peugeot 208 counters that by giving them logotypes for each trim level

What can we conclude from all that?

In cars, windows have become more interesting and relevant to car design than what we would expect at first. By exploring pretty much all the variables involved in their production and practical use, automakers were able to completely rethink them and convert them into design elements which are just as important as those with more intuitive purpose, such as creases, decals, grilles, roofline and wheels.

Visibility will always be taken into consideration when talking about windows but, to be honest, the latest electronic systems with high-definition cameras and cutting-edge sensors have stripped it from its top-priority status. Therefore, if you come to think, we’ve reached a time when windows have been repurposed in such a way to be more valuable looked at than looked through. Isn’t design impressive?

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

3.3K Followers

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.