Down Force

The now ubiquitous spoiler—that horizontal fin typically perched on the trunks of sports cars—goes way back, back before the elevated brake lights that now decorate them on every third Honda you get behind on Lake Street. In the early days of Gran Turismo racing in Europe, about forty years ago, the spoiler was the solution to the problem of “lift.” At one hundred miles per hour and greater, the massive airflow under race cars has a tendency to lift the rear of the vehicle, depriving the wheels of traction, and preventing—as physicists and motorheads everywhere know—the transmission of power to the road surface. Clever engineers decided to capture the force of air rushing over the top of the car with a wing-shaped appendage on the back that would transmit that force down to keep the rubber on the road. In the sixties and seventies, Ferrari and Lamborghini added spoilers to their production cars, and it was only a matter of time before everybody wanted one.

The family tree of such bolt-on beauties has deeper roots, of course, than GT racing and Ferrari envy. Some would trace the lineage back to the Cadillac fins of the fifties, or even the running boards of the forties. But it took dealers a while to realize what kind of market share they were giving up to classified advertisers in the back pages of car magazines. By the seventies, enthusiasts were spending thousands to “personalize” their cars, and dealers were still just peddling rustproofing and the odd set of floormats after the deal. The enhancement trend reached the average consumer in the eighties as itinerant installers went from dealer to dealer like gypsies, dressing up defenseless, ordinary sedans with euphemisms like the “spring package” (white spoiler, white wheel covers, and a pink stripe on a white car) and “performance group” (rear-deck wing, chrome wheels, low-profile tires).

Observing the force that spoilers exerted on consumers’ wallets (if not their wheels), most dealers have now folded accessory departments into the showroom. To see the very latest in auto prosthetics, I paid a visit to a suburban metro dealer whose manager kindly asked that no one be named, though I can safely disclose that they sell a brand that rhymes with “gourd.”

The strangest new things are now sprouting from trucks. Our manager estimated that eighty-five percent of all new models are “personalized” before delivery. The decline of the once popular visor (so many fallen to automatic car-wash brushes, said the manager) has given way to “vent shades,” which are plastic deflectors apparently designed to keep air from entering the window, even if it’s open. “Cab back spoilers,” a matched pair of wings mounted vertically to the top of a pickup box where it meets the back of the cab, are still in some demand, but the strangest thing has to be the “tailgate spoiler,” a narrow little wing stuck out on the end of a pickup box like the last hot girl to leave a party. SUV buyers hate to be left out of anything, so they can get a “rear air deflector” mounted near the top of the tailgate too, though frankly, it’s less of a statement.

Despite the caricature that spoilers have become on trucks (and yes, even minivans), they have enjoyed a huge comeback in the street-racing subculture, where the Honda Civic (no kidding) has muscled into the gearhead niche inhabited thirty years ago by Novas, ’Cudas, and GTOs. Known either disparagingly or venerably as “riced-out,” depending on whom you talk to, Civics and even Acuras now appear alongside their big-block ancestors on the Porky’s scene in St. Paul, dressed in ground effects, $2,000 worth of trick wheels, and massive homemade spoilers that look like they might have been stripped from a Cessna.

Ever mindful of our readers’ needs, we found an expert to explain what folks are actually getting for their aftermarket dollar. Automotive engineer Simon Palko took a strong stand for fiberglass conservation. “You’d be better off throwing fifty pounds of bricks in the back,” he said of the various truck enhancements I described, adding that the wind drag inherent in pickup and SUV design is merely exacerbated by the add-ons.

What about the Civics cruising Lake Street like nobody’s business? Palko pointed out that all of these cars are front-wheel drive. Were they to go fast enough to generate lift, he said, “adding down force in the back is acting like a lever, reducing force to the drive wheels in the front.” He doubts, however, that many of them reach the velocity where it matters. “With most of those cars, for every fifteen horsepower they add in performance modifications, they add fifty pounds of plastic for cosmetics. It all kind of balances out.”—Joe Pastoor