To begin answering this question, let’s start in 1948, the year that American automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker introduced his Tucker 48. At a time when the major car manufacturers had not introduced new models since 1941, Tucker offered consumers previously unheard-of features on an American car. These included a padded dashboard, a rear engine, and a pop-out windshield made of shatterproof glass. The most distinctive feature was the central, directional headlight that would brighten the 48’s course around bends in the road.
The following year, the British car manufacturer, Rover, brought out its 75, an upmarket sedan, which also featured a centrally mounted headlight. Then in 1952, Italian car manufacturer Bertone showcased the Abarth 1500 Biposto (two-seater) at the Turin Motor Show. The car’s futuristic, aerodynamic styling included a central headlight and fins in the rear. The Packard Motor Company bought it, took it back to Detroit, and used it as design inspiration. Other manufacturers picked up on the styling, most notably Alfa Romeo, which made three concept cars named BAT (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica or Technically Aerodynamic Sports Coup) and displayed them in the 1950s. Other BAT concept cars followed, most recently in 2008. None, however, sported the Cyclops eye that distinguished the Tucker 48, Rover 75, and Abarth 1500.
Of course, the headlight was named for the Cyclopes, a tribe of one-eyed, uncouth, cave-dwelling giants who stood tall and fearsome in Greek and Roman mythology. Belief held that they lived in the Mediterranean region and built the ancient stone walls, which were otherwise unexplainable because the boulders were too large for men to maneuver. As told by Homer, the best remembered Cyclops is the man-eating Polyphemus, whom Odysseus outwitted and blinded by driving a stake through its eye.
How do myths like this get started? Rather than just an entire fabrication, a thread of truth may become embellished with multiple retellings across generations. For instance, the legend of King Arthur probably started this way. The same may be true for Polyphemus and company. At the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, a species of five-to-seven feet tall dwarf elephant lived on Cyprus, Crete, Malta, and Sicily, among other Mediterranean islands. If an ancient shepherd stumbled across the skeleton of one of these junior jumbos and trundled its skull back to town, the opportunity for misinterpretation would be great. Compared to human skulls, which have well-defined, forward-facing bony eye sockets, an elephant’s eye sockets are open and are set farther back on the sides of its head. The purpose of these wide openings is not immediately clear. Furthermore, the dwarf elephant’s nasal opening is central and high on its skull in order to accommodate the trunk’s attachment.
Not being skilled in comparative osteology, perhaps ancient people misidentified this nasal opening as a single eye socket and named the mini behemoth Cyclops, “Round-eye”. Furthermore, the existence of a tribe of huge, one-eyed creatures roaming the Mediterranean region could explain the massive stone walls, still known as cyclopean walls. In 1914, an Austrian paleontologist and evolutionary biologist postulated such a factual basis for the Cyclops myth.
We will never know, but it is easy to imagine that the skull of a small, ancient elephant inspired automotive styling, which is reflected in modern sportscars’ aerodynamic styling even in absence of a central headlight. Maybe it’s a myth, but it’s a good story.