The CAR inquisition: interview with legendary designer Syd Mead

Published: 31 August 2016

► We interview the fabled car designer Syd Mead
► Ferrari design boss calls him a ‘visionary mind’
► His thoughts on the future of design and mobility

Despite little of his work existing beyond two dimensions, ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead has inspired countless professional car designers. He’s worked on vehicle, city and character designs for cult films like Blade Runner and Tron (both 1982) and more recently Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015), product design for Sony and Phillips – including an electric car concept as far back as 1973 for the latter – plus aircraft, ship and hotel interiors and pretty much anything else you (or he) can imagine. Which is why car designers love him.  

Ferrari design boss Flavio Manzoni calls him a ‘visionary mind’ while ex-BMW Group design chief Chris Bangle dubs him ‘the Oscar Wilde of designers: when you think you have a new idea, you find he’s drawn it all before – and usually decades ago.’ In March 2016 he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by specialist website Car Design News.  

The key to the breadth of his influence is that unlike other imaginative artists, Mead is very much a designer too, and one specifically trained in car design.
He started his professional career in 1959, at Ford’s advanced design studio where he jokes that his ‘contribution to American automobilia was the tail light on the ’64 Falcon Futura’. In fact he also designed the 1961 Ford Gyron show car – a suitably space-age wedge of wonder – before quitting to become a full-time commercial designer and illustrator. 

Throughout the ’60s he worked on lucrative accounts for large American corporations including marketing books for US Steel. These featured brilliantly-imagined and rendered futuristic vehicles that became an overnight sensation in the design world and are now highly sought-after collector’s items.

Hollywood came calling in the late ’70s when special effects maestro John Dykstra – who had just won an Oscar for Star Wars – asked Mead to work on his next project, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). ‘I did the final design for the V’ger spaceship’s back end on a cocktail napkin at a hotel bar,’ recalls Mead. He then designed the vehicles for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and was listed in the film’s credits as ‘visual futurist’, but quickly dispels any pomposity that label might infer: ‘I made the title up on the phone. I’m a visual futurist, because it’s visual and I do future stuff. I knew it had to be bumper sticker-friendly.’ 

Now 82, his long and successful career has allowed him to buy many desirable vehicles – from a ’50s Gullwing Mercedes SL to ’60s Corvettes – but the car he wished he’d designed was the ’61 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, ‘a fantastic car with this short cab and long hood fashionable back then. Now, because cars are getting shorter and people are not, you have the rear doors practically over the rear wheel – the cut and the rear window peak is either over the rear axle or a little bit behind. I
admire today’s designers and what they are doing with these new proportions, because it’s very difficult.’ 

One car he’s very glad he didn’t design is the Pontiac Aztek: ‘Like “Hello!” What the hell is that supposed to be? I have no idea how it came about.’

And after a lifetime of future-gazing, his view on the future of the car is that they’ll turn into ‘mobility solutions’. ‘In my rendering The 200th running of the Kentucky Derby there are two guys wearing “gyro” or “wheel pants”. I came up with the need for something like a courier in a crowded environment where his footprint is no bigger than the person. Those wheels can fold up against your ankle when you walk and fold down when you want to skate. You have the gyro in the small of your back.

A lot of car companies have made [bigger] mini-pods but I think it’s going to go to stuff like this: an individual transport idea. There are already ride-on things by Honda, with wheels made up of other little wheels so they can go diagonally; very ingenious. We don’t use horses for transportation anymore but people still have them as pets, to ride for pleasure, and I think cars will drift in the same direction. But anywhere in the world, if you can afford a car, you buy one. It’s still the mass-transit idea of choice.’

Espace meets NASA. Car designers admit that, with most ideas, Mead got there first

CAR’s Curveballs 6 questions only we would ask…

Tell us about your first car...

‘It was a ’44 Ford roadster. My brother tracked it down; he’s an intuitive mechanic. We bought it and used the hell out of it.’

Which achievement makes you most proud?

‘It would be the three Boeing 747 designs for heads of state, including the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Oman because they had such critical design parameters. The third one was for the Sultan of Brunei but the Swiss screwed that up.’

What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car?

‘We’ve done “grid circle” tours. In a Mk7 Lincoln. We took off from Pasadena, went north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, turned right and ended up at Bismarck, North Dakota, then turned right again at Omaha and took another right back home. It was a two-week right turn. The route sort of followed the Interstate network but we’d go off on little side trips too. It’s fun to do because it’s spontaneous.’

Tell us how you screwed up…

‘Working with clients that don’t tell you the truth (on several occasions).’ 

Supercar or classic?

‘Definitely classic. My ’72 Chrysler Imperial.’

The curveball…You’ve spent a lifetime imagining the future – if you could invent one real transport-related gadget to make your life easier, what would it be?  

‘It would be an anti-gravity transport module. We don’t really know what gravity is but we’re going to figure it out. I think that’s the next huge breakthrough in controlling the real world.’

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By Guy Bird

Contributor, cultural curator, design commentator