A Road to Nowhere?

Does Car Design Have a Future?


Car design is usually 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 wasn’t until the late 1990s that 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 seemed 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 so 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, gasp and wonder why the roof leaks.

Gropius's Underwhelming Adler
Gropius’s Underwhelming Adler

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.

Are designers worse than they used to be? Quite the opposite in many ways . 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.

In a Car Magazine interview in 2009, 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 disturbingly shameless admission a watershed. Once, the term graphics would have meant badging, and maybe the odd add-on stripe. Now it described much of the styling of the vehicle.

Take the sides of the 2010 Mazda 5 from a few years back 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 program it for manufacture and, ultimately, it becomes just another mediocre joke repeated too often.

Mazda 5 - Because They Can.
Mazda 5 – Because They Can.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with complex curves but, in my view, there is something wrong when they become purely graphic embellishment realised in three dimensions. 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 most Bangle BMWs interesting, rewarding to look at, not entirely unrelated to the structure underneath and, for me, preferable to the tastefully dull saloons that went before. It was the flood of inept imitators that followed that really trivialised car styling and, of all these, Mercedes and Peugeot were possibly the most unforgivable, since they had sunk so far.

You got the understanding that Bangle’s mind was at ease working in three dimensions, but I’m not sure that’s the case with many contemporary designers who have been restricted by the very freedom that CAD offers. CAD fills in the gaps, you don’t have to imagine them yourself, you don’t have to become a sculptor.

And then there is the message the styling gives. 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 . I don’t mean that I only care about the nuts and bolts, far from it and, in a way this might be a sham, suggesting things that aren’t really delivered. However, I’m not talking about side vents that lead to nowhere but how the shapes and lines relate to and suggest the vehicle’s features. Examples of this?

Purpose : The monospace shape of the original Renault Twingo didn’t necessarily 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.

E Type

Many classic designs, if they have any worth to you, were 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. CAD Programs, Scanners, 3D Printers and 5 axis CNC machines allow the most complex shapes to be realised in just 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.

Rear Window, Handle, C-Pillar, Little Bit of Black Plastic ...
Rear Window, Handle, C-Pillar, Little Bit of Black Plastic …

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 iPhone, 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.

In a mix up, Simon's inspiration board went into production.
In a mix up, Simon’s inspiration board went into production.

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 pointed 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.

Purposeful ... When Reversing
Purposeful … When Reversing

But am I just making the mistake of prematurely projecting today’s designs into history? Does it matter that so much of today’s output will look desperately clumsy in twenty years time? Did any designer ever really produce for posterity? And why do those who do try to maintain a continuity these days get lambasted?

Over 30 years ago Giugiaro came up with a good looking and supremely logical template for packaging 5 adults of reasonable height and a decent amount of luggage in comfort in a compact hatchback. Since then VW’s designers have updated and refined this concept every few years and, at present, we are on the seventh generation VW Golf introduced, as always, to boringly predictable cries of Boooring! from red blooded petrolheads.

I never understand this. Although I’m not a potential customer, I find most Golfs satisfying to look at, and very well detailed. Those who suggest that their designers have been lazy or incompetent are surely being wilfully mischievous.

Obviously a lot of effort and thought goes into each Golf redesign and, since even the densest stylist knows that a fastback roof and radically rising waistline has been de rigeur for the past few years, surely VW would employ such features if it thought there was any advantage. So why haven’t they towed the line and got funky with the rest? Probably because people are still roughly the same shape as they were 30 years ago and the profile of, say, a Mark 3 Ford Focus does not suggest a more practical package. The outside of the VW suggests exactly what you get inside. The outside of a Nissan Juke gives you no such idea.

Is practicality at odds with interesting design? Not in my view. The Fiat Multipla, introduced, of course, to boringly predictable cries of Ugggly! from red blooded petrolheads, was a fine piece of industrial design, which had the courage to look itself rather than pretend to be a track day star.

It was upright, square in head-on section rather than tapering, and had a wonderfully airy glasshouse. It made no attempt to be conventionally pretty and, unfortunately, one of its worst critics seemed to be Fiat itself who appear to have regretted its radical appearance from day one, hastening through a third rate facelift to make it look more conventional.

Fiat deserves great credit for introducing the design and a reasonable amount of contempt for not sticking with it. Had they done so, and had they taken this thinking across to the second generation Panda and other vehicles, as originally intended,, it might have been far more influential. Instead, Fiat today offers us the incoherent and bloated 500L and, if they shift more units than they did Multiplas, can I say that they are wrong? Well, since I’m not a Fiat shareholder I certainly can.


Has the plot been lost forever? After a lifetime’s interest in cars, I’d prefer to think not, 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 car 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-popular TV programme where three contrivedly blokey guys get to arse around with kitchen equipment week after week. But van Hooydonk is no fool; just because I rankled at what he said 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.

2 thoughts on “A Road to Nowhere?”

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