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Car design: a reader laments current styling trends

Published: 18 October 2010

No Sonny, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Did In My Day

Actually, back then, if they could be bothered to make them at all, they hardly ever made them properly, and much of what got made properly wasn’t worth the bother. So that’s nostalgia for you. But a post a while back from the clear-sighted Wittgenfrog echoed my own thoughts. I’m depressed at seeing myself in print spouting (actually, I’m even depressed at privately finding myself harbouring) negative thoughts about new cars and, specifically, about their styling.

Car design is often late to the party. This isn’t because designers aren’t up to it - consider the bold output of the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s, when run by Walter Gropius, then consider his rather conventional design for an Adler car of the same period. It seemed to take until the late 90s before critics felt that a car, an Audi, deserved the Bauhaus soubriquet.

Compare 50s modernist and brutalist buildings with the florid vehicles produced then. Cars did vaguely get round to embracing minimalism, but by then it was the 70s, and architecture had started fiddling with post-modernism. It was only relatively recently that vehicle design started catching on to that, first in a lukewarm way with retro, then by introducing jokey references such as the half-height Citroen DS3 B-pillar, which seems to support nothing, and the bug eyed lights and grinning grilles of various recent offerings. Why this conservatism? Well, producing items with a relatively long gestation period and a relatively long production life, designers are understandably anxious not to get it wrong although, of course, they often do. In contrast, architects only really need to please a handful of people, commissioning clients and planners generally, the rest of us just get to look and gasp.

But what is the reason for my disaffection?

Is it just age? I don’t think so. Are designers worse than they used to be? In many ways quite the opposite. They are now far better trained, and purpose trained, than they were in the past. For quite some time now, car design has been a suitably glamourous profession. Designers can be treated with respect, and their opinions are listened to. They don’t risk all their best ideas being crushed by a cynical accountant or an unimaginative production engineer. In part this is good, but this very elevation in their status means that we should expect all the more from them, and be all the more exacting in the criticism of their products. And the resulting downside is that, maybe, they are too powerful, too polarised and too industry-aware from day one.

What don’t I like about styling today? Much of it seems just incoherent nonsense. This isn’t because I can’t read contemporary design, it’s because it actually has no reason. It fills in the gaps. It appears from nowhere and it ends up nowhere. It’s just there because it can be. Take the sides of the new Mazda 5 which incorporate a complex, intertwining wave - quite elegant in itself, though rather out of place on the side of a still-boxy MPV. Technically, it would once have been incredibly impressive, if you had known that it was the product of a skilled panel former, but it isn’t. It would have involved little ingenuity to programme it for manufacture and it just exasperates me.

The BMW view of design

In a CAR Magazine interview a while ago, Adrian van Hooydonk of BMW said 'there is no such thing as car design: it's a mixture of product design and graphic design.' I found this a disturbingly shameless admission. Once, the term graphics would have meant badging, and maybe the odd add-on stripe. Now it describes much of the styling of the vehicle

There’s certainly nothing wrong with complex curves but, in my view, there is something wrong when they become purely graphic embellishment. Some might trace this back to van Hoodonk’s one-time boss, Chris Bangle, though really I like to think of the sides of Harris Mann’s Triumph TR7 as being the true origin of flame surfacing, resulting in Giugiaro’s amused outrage at the drooping side creases - 'My God! They've done it to the other side as well!'. I bet he doesn’t bother making that joke any more - so many cars, so little time.

Actually I found many Bangle BMWs interesting, rewarding to look at, not entirely unrelated to the structure underneath and, for me, certainly preferable to the tastefully dull saloons that went before. It was the flood of inept imitators that followed that has really trivialised car styling and, of all these, Mercedes are possibly the most unforgivable, since they have sunk so far.

How to fix it

To me, styling should always appear to be secondary to a car’s primary features. By primary features I mean the things that are essential - purpose, structure, aerodynamics and engineering . This isn’t me saying that I only care about the nuts and bolts, far from it, and note that I’m not actually saying ‘styling should be secondary ...’, just that it ‘should appear to be ...’ . Thus, it needs to pretend to have some function, even if it doesn’t. This might be a seen as a kind of sham, but a modicum of hypocrisy makes the world run, I’d contend, and is at the root of many great designs. Examples of this?

Purpose : The monospace shape of the original Renault Twingo didn’t actually give more room for passengers and less for the engineering, but it stressed the fact that this was a car for people who didn’t want to think of engines.

Structure ; The soft creases on the metalwork of old Mercedes, such as the W124 could have been sharper, but larger radius bends make the metal seem thicker, underlying quality.

Aerodynamics : In its original form, the Citroen DS19 actually wasn’t that all that slippery, but it really looked as though it was.

Engineering : A bulge on the bonnet of the E-Type and subsequent Jags was part of the original design, but you still felt that they had shoehorned in a bigger engine, just for you, at the last minute.

Many classic designs, if they have any worth to you, were also dictated by strict manufacturing constraints as well as the designer’s whim. Some constraints remain - four rubber clad wheels are still the norm - some have increased - safety legislation dictates a fair amount - but some have almost disappeared, particularly in what you can do with shaping metal and plastics. It used to cost a fortune to produce a rear light cluster for instance, and the more complex, the more it cost. The disciplines that this sort of thing imposed have largely diminished. I can make a small complex shape, get it 3D scanned, then have that machined 10 times scale on a 5 axis CNC, all in a few hours. It's wonderful but, rather like all those digital holiday photos that you never get round to editing down, the ready availability of such technology causes people to do things that they'd think better of, were the process more onerous.

Shutlines have become a big issue to me. They may be more precise and finer than they once were but, unless I have unusually keen eyesight, they remain perfectly visible. They can’t be ignored, but some try to. Or, even stranger, on the same vehicle, at one end shutlines will be emphasised and be part of the design, at the other end ignored completely. The worst areas for this are probably rear doors, their shapes sometimes having nothing to do with anything going on around them.

Lamps are another problem. Lenses that break through shut lines have always jarred; a feeling increased because this frequently puts them slightly out of alignment. But now the lamp is often used to continue, and even reconcile, a fold in the adjacent metalwork. The problem with this is that it ignores the different characteristics of metal and plastic and, more practically, that such critical shapes get lost in a confusion of amber, red and clear acrylic.

Is the cross-pollination of references really healthy? Nothing’s new of course, Harley Earl wanted to make cars look like fighter planes. But now a designer will have a photo of another successful industrial product - a Riva speedboat, an Adidas trainer, an iPod, a Rexel Stapler - sitting over their desk as inspiration. Well those things are the result of their own specific practical needs, translating them does not make for good design, it just fires off associations and creates a nice, lazy glow.

We applaud some creations, not because they actually look good, but because they are at least not the same, boring fodder as the rest. Others we accept because they appear to elevate the mundane, even if at a cost. For decades owners have put up with the odd driving position, minimal visibility and clumsy access of a big Lamborghini because it offers, to their eyes, something else. But poor rear visibilty in a family hatchback, poor rear seat headroom in a family saloon, just for the sake of a ‘sporty’ profile. Is it really worth it? Who is really fooled? Daddy Cool?

And do some designers even really understand cars? Mark Lloyd of Citroen points out that his DS3 half-pillar resembles a shark’s fin. I admit that I hadn’t noticed that, but my inattentiveness wasn’t helped by the fact that it’s swimming backwards. Surely if such a symbol has any power, it needs to be pointing in the normal direction of travel. Even more off-balance is the use of the leaping cat on recent Jaguars. Once a forward facing bonnet emblem, it’s now plastered across the boot, at right angles to the way it needs to go. But so what? It’s just graphics.

Is there any hope? When I consider the Peugeot 308, a car that I would suggest has no redeeming stylistic features at all, and that I hope at least represents the nadir of Peugeot’s fall from grace, I really wonder if the plot has been lost forever. This was probably penned at least 5 years ago now, but are things showing signs of improvement? After a lifetime’s interest in cars, I’d love to think so, but maybe all the tasteful combinations and permutations have been done to death and doodling down the side and drawing funny faces on the front is all that is left; at least until technology produces an underlying structure that is so different that a whole new set of considerations come in to play. Also it’s a world market now, not a collection of parochial industries with their own styles, quirks and easily understood local client bases. I can’t help but be Eurocentric in my viewpoint and I don’t know what an individual in a particular emerging market expects from a car’s looks, but I doubt whether many designers are that sure either. For good or bad though, a reference to an X-Wing Fighter from Star Wars, or even an octopus from Finding Nemo, will certainly have more universal recognition than, say, a 1952 Pegaso.

For the present though, cars are still treated a step or two above most other consumer objects; just imagine proposing a world-popularTV programme where three contrivedly blokey guys get to arse around with white goods week after week. But van Hooydonk is no fool; just because I rankle at what he has to say doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Our growing sophistication as consumers, combined with our growing disinterest in what goes on underneath the skin, as well as the acknowledgment that those freedoms that automotive icons such as the Countach once seemed to represent are gone, means that, on tomorrow’s hyper-restricted roads, the car’s special romance will be redundant. It will indeed be just another piece of product/graphic design, and the only time I’ll think about it is when I need to buy one on Amazon.

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