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Gavin Green on copycat styling (CAR archive, July 1990)
12 July 2012 09:00
‘A new Metro went by me the other day and, to tell you the truth, I thought it was a Citroen AX. And that upset me, because if I can’t tell them apart then what chance has the average motorist got? After all, I designed the AX.’
Geoff Matthews is one of Britain’s finest car stylists. His Midlands-based design consultancy, Styling International, employs 45 people. He is the former chief exterior designer at Citroen where, apart from styling the AX, he had a hand in the shape of the new XM – one of the few distinctive-looking new cars on British roads. Before joining Citroen, he designed the Renault Espace, probably the most significant ‘car’ of the ‘80s.
Matthews is one of many experienced designers who – like us – reckon too many new cars look the same. Nowadays, it’s hard to tell a Rover from a Ford, or a Vauxhall from a Renault, never mind the horde of we’ve-seen-it-all-before Japanese saloons, identifiable only by their badges.
The quest to give models a ‘family look’ – supposedly to make a manufacturers range more distinctive – has, ironically, achieved the very reverse. The range of cars sold by Britain’s Big Three – Ford, Vauxhall and Rover – has never looked more similar. This is particularly true of the nose treatment: the ‘face’ of a car. All three makers – as well as number of continental manufacturers – have settled on the droop nose/narrow horizontal grille/shallow tapered headlamps treatment for every model in their range. It’s plainly a shape people like.
But are stylists – and the managing directors who tether them – so devoid of flair that they all have to follow the leader? Clone car design is stifling interest in motoring. Nowadays, brand-new cars are often not even noticed when they first venture out on the road. They look too much like the rest.
Motorists are disgruntled, and it goes beyond the ‘All cars look the same nowadays’ chat, widely propagated in pubs. ‘Old’ cars, sometimes euphemistically tagged ‘classic’ cars, have never been more popular, or valuable. People don’t buy classic cars for their mechanicals they buy them for their style. In an age of unimaginative MFI car design, classic cars are seen as distinctive antiques: attractive alternatives to same-again moderns.
After-market bodykit makers are doing record business. In order to give their Ford or Vauxhall or Rover a bit more individuality, more and more buyers are fitting them with bolt-on bits, never mind that the result usually looks less professionally executed than the original: at least it’s different.
We Europeans – inventors of the car, and still the largest producers of it – are largely to blame for the cul-de-sac in which many car stylists find themselves. Japan and America still look to Europe for design leadership, for the new directions. American and Japanese designers openly talk about trying to give their cars a ‘Euro-look’. And, as Japanese and American cars look more like European ones, so design uniformity increases.
‘At the moment, Japanese and American makers are showing more design initiative than we are,’ says Matthews. American design is now particularly impressive. There is a great deal of professionalism, and some eye catching mass-produced cars. Japanese cars, on the whole, are still a little bland; they lack distinctiveness. Yet there are some wonderful-looking niche vehicles that have come out of Japan recently. And some handsome mass-produced cars have appeared, too. ‘Japan and America have both had an uphill battle. America lost its way after a wonderful period in the ‘50s. And Japan has no history of designing distinctive cars. As a result, they have been trying harder than we have. We Europeans have become complacent.’
Ask Renault’s new design chief, Patrick Le Quement – an outspoken critic of same-again styling – which maker (other than his own company) gives its stylists freest rein, and he cites Nissan: ‘It leaves its designers the freedom to design what they want. It trusts its stylists. And the result certainly shows,’ he says.
Most car company bosses, contends Le Quement, do not allow their designers such liberties. ‘Everyone accepts that design is important. But some companies think it’s so important that they cannot leave it to the designers. Instead, it’s up to more “serious” people, such as senior managers, to make the crucial decisions.
‘Some of my design colleagues frequently complain that their management sometimes chooses the worst proposal they are shown. I have a policy of never showing proposals I’m not happy with. After all, my job is to please the customer, not senior management. Being able to defend a design from management, is as important as being able to do the design in the first place. The defence of a project is where the battle is won or lost.’
Geoff Matthews agrees senior management has a lot to answer for: ‘The car industry is becoming increasingly cost-conscious, owing to the huge sums now involved in launching a new model. As a result, most managing directors are now finance-based, not product-based. And they’d rather play follow my leader than innovate. It’s safer that way. It may not be lucrative, but - for truly innovative ideas are usually highly profitable. And it may not be better for the industry. But it’s safer, and less likely to lose money.
For instance, after the launch of the Golf, other company bosses knew that concept – radical at the time – was successful , so they got their designers to design a car virtually based on the Golf. The Peugeot 205 was the next big step in the small car class. Other companies, when trying to design a 205 rival, used it as their base. That’s no way to innovate.
‘The phobia all major manufacturers have about market-researching a car has also stifled innovation. Of course, you can understand management wanting some feedback from the general public, before committing hundreds of millions of pounds to a project. But many clinics – where the public pass judgement on new prototypes – just aren’t done properly.
‘It’s pointless asking the general public properly to judge an advanced car. These are people with today’s eyes; what do they know about tomorrow’s cars? They don’t have the vision to see one step ahead. I know from experience that, if you clinic potential small cars buyers in France, many will be Renault 5 owners: if you’re new car looks like a Renault 5, you’re flattering their tastes and they’ll probably like it. They feel more comfortable with a car that looks like their own. Clinics can slow progress. Some clinics, of course, are run more professionally than others. You should only take so much notice of a clinic. Some makers take too much.’
Le Quement agrees that market research now has more power than ever before. ‘Test conditions, in clinics, are quite artificial. The public often get about two hours with the car. If they are surprised by something new, they’ll often reject it. Perhaps two hours later, after the clinic’s over, they’ll like it.
‘I’m absolutely convinced that the biggest risk of all is to take no risk. I have always been an advocate of instinctive design over exhaustive marketing. I told that to the president of Renault, when I joined. To my gratification, he agreed.’
This safety-first policy – of involving as many people as possible in design – means there is less room for visionary individuals than there used to be: less room for the very people who gave us the car industry in the first place. This, reckons Geoff Matthews, is one of the prime reasons for the blandness, the lack of direction, in current car styling: ‘The great old men of the car industry – the ones with the vision and power to get things done – have gone. The Ferdinand Porsches, Enzo Ferraris, William Lyonses, Henry Royces. Those men stamped their personalities on their cars.
It’s difficult for people working within large corporations to exert similar indulgence, although people have done it: Harley Earl and Bill Mitch [General Motors’ styling chiefs in the ‘50s] had a crucial role in a large, bureaucratic company. But they had tremendous personalities, and great strength.
‘Being the director of styling at a big car company is now a very difficult job. The stronger you are, the more likely you are to get fired. Go back and argue, like Bill Mitchell used to in the old days, and they’d sack you. Car company bosses want compliant stylists. When I worked at Citroen, I came to the conclusion that the only way I could really influence the styling of our cars – in a major way – was if I became a managing director.
The problem now is that young designers enter a big company at 20, full of ideas, passionate about the business. It takes a further 20 years or them to get into a position where they can exert any influence. And, by that stage, they’ve become part of the establishment. They’ve had to be: otherwise they wouldn’t have got into a top position. Their raw ideals, their passion, has been distilled.’
Le Quement – formerly of Ford and Volkswagen, before he joined Renault in 1988 (‘just after they finalised the shape of the new Clio’) – reckons car design schools have increased uniformity.
‘There are only a handful of car design schools, worldwide. And they turn out remarkably similar people. When a would-be designer sends me his portfolio, I look for originality: someone who has broken the mould. I don’t see much of that very often, I’m afraid. Most of the portfolios I get, to be frank, could have come from the one person. They are even presented in the same way.’
Le Quement reckons many tutors seem to be moulding students, rather than letting talented students properly express themselves.
>> Now click to page 2 for the rest of Gavin's insight into copycat car design.