Theme : Shutlines – The Incongruous Rear Door / Wheelarch Relationship

I look at a personal irritation and wonder if I share it with anyone else.

Passat Wheelarches

At school, my Technical Drawing teacher once counselled us against mixing straight lines and curved lines in a design. Even at an impressionable age, I could tell that was a crude and general rule, made to be broken. But his words have come back to me now and then over the past decade or more, when I view the shape of the trailing edge of the rear doors of an increasing number of cars.

The old way was that the door would tend to follow the shape of the rear wheelarch. Sometimes it would describe a circle, just 2 or 3 cm greater in radius than that of the wheelarch. Sometimes it would be the wheelarch itself. In other cases it would be a gentle curve, but relating in some way to the arch’s shape.

Slowly this unwritten rule has eased and the rear door shutline has got straighter and straighter. There are reasons to support this. With the old way, when the door is open, the gap can looks quite untidy, with a bit of sometimes painted wheelarch housing visible. Also, not complying to the curve of the arch is probably easier for body engineers to sort out and likely makes the body structure stiffer at a potential weak point at the bottom rear corner of the door. But practicalities like that are made to be surmounted.

Not that it always looks bad. It’s seen on the Audi A6 of 1997 and the Chris Bangle BMW 7 Series of 2001, both designs I admire so I can’t say it doesn’t work, but it needs to be handled well. Volkswagen and their associates are particularly taken with this treatment, so I’ll use some Passat models to illustrate. Overall, I think most Passats look fine, but I find the arch treatment doesn’t entirely work of late.

On the B5 model, we see the old convention with the curve of the door bottom relating to the wheelarch. There is a slightly jarring detail where the wheelarch blister starts just within the rear door section, cutting through the shutline and resulting in an unsightly small bulge within the door.

On the B6/7 model, the shape of the arch is ignored entirely. Viewed on its own, I quite like the way the rear window line follows down at a constant angle, avoiding the cliche of a Hofmeister kink. The shutline maintains a reasonable gap from the wheelarch and, although I don’t think the two shapes really complement each other, it’s OK.

However, on the B8 the negative effect has been increased by the shutline’s proximity to the flattened wheelarch bulge. I don’t find this at all good looking and, combined with that chromey / finny vent beneath the headlamps I wonder if, stung by the unjustified taunts of ‘Boring’, VW’s designers are now trying too hard.

VW PoloThis isn’t the worst VW rear door shutline crime, I think that is the 5 door Polo but, in mitigation, there’s less metal to play with there. Returning to mid-sizers, BMW do the same, but usually it looks better. Oddly, Mercedes who are usually quite happy to be the Funky Dad of car styling with inappropriate shapes and creases have avoided this particular bandwagon and still refer to the traditional wheelarch line.

Vauxhall’s Insignia handles it pretty well by emphasing the line as it blends into the horizontal sill but the new Mondeo does a similar thing to the Passat. Even Peugeot, who still have a way to go before I’d start looking for styling tips from them again, do it better on the 508 by putting more of a forward curve on the shutline and keeping it clear of the flattened out bit.

Bearing in mind the care with which VWs are styled, I find it hard to believe that its talented stylists are not aware of this incongruity. Therefore I can only conclude that it is a hubristic decision based on a collective conceit at VW that their shutlines are now so narrow as to be virtually invisible. Really, they aren’t.

21 thoughts on “Theme : Shutlines – The Incongruous Rear Door / Wheelarch Relationship”

  1. I remember that this wheelarch/door treatment first struck me on several Renault models. It was there on the first Laguna generation, then the Megane and the Clio II followed, and it has been there ever since.

    In the early models I was actually quite pleased with this solution, as I never really liked those cut-out doors that looked like they wanted large doors but there wasn’t a sufficient wheelbase. Maybe it looked better at that time because the wheelarches were much flatter then, so the line didn’t cut awkwardly through the wheelarch bulge.

    The current Megane even manages to have the rear door curved opposite to the wheelarch – at least it looks like that from certain angles. Not a very convincing solution.

    1. The problem (as I see it anyway) with the Laguna rear arch treatment shown above is that it makes the sheet metal look “thin”. A great deal of time has been spent ensuring that the visual width of the painted pillars and sills is a consistent depth, implying the metal is thicker than it is. This also applies between individual panels. For example, the distance between the front arch and the trailing edge of the wing panel has a depth consistent with the A and C pillar. This treatment falls apart at the leading edge of the rear arch. Perhaps the designers were hamstrung by the desire to create a robust shape for the rear door, or the need to create a robust curve for the trailing edge of the door over the fulsome beltline. But either way, the effect is ruined for the want of two inches in the wheelbase. Not that I am wont to defend the current Megane, but in that instance the rear arch treatment is better resolved.

    2. Simon- I was thinking exactly of the first Laguna. This car makes sense as an exercise in very carefully handled shutlines. It’s really very disciplined which is why it still looks good. Have a look at the tailgate and lamps of the Megane 1: rather brilliant.

    3. Richard. I had a look at the Laguna again. While I always thought that its shapes are a bit over-softened (especially compared to the edges of its contemporary the Xantia), I can certainly appreciate that shutline treatment. Brilliant! (Maybe with the exception that Chris mentions.)

      Another point I like on the first Laguna, after it has been facelifted, is the colour combination of the rear lights: a very special red and orange instead of the ubiquitous red/grey combination of the time.

  2. Simon. Since writing this I’ve been thinking back trying to identify the first time the ‘straight’ shutline treatment was used. Certainly it was there on Bangle BMWs, but you’ve now topped the list with the Laguna 1993. Is there anything earlier I wonder, or does Le Quement take the praise/blame?

    That reversed curve seems to be a French solution – Peugeot use it as well.

  3. I can cite two of my favourite straight shutlines that even go back to the 1970s. However, there is no wheelarch to conflict with:

    1. You beat me to it Simon! I was going to comment that, if you really want to know how to deal with a rear door shutline, look at Citroen’s history.

      That GS looks particularly nice – it seems to be in a very Swiss looking setting, is it yours?

      That said, although dictated correctly by packaging constraints, the GS rear door always seemed a bit small. I’ve taken the gross liberty of showing M.Opron what he could have done!

    2. That’s true Chris, though the downside is having to remove the whole wing and leaving it on the pavement whilst you change a tyre.

    3. A very nice correction on the rear door, Sean. It finally makes the three windows seem to be of equal length. As you guessed, it’s indeed my car, and it’s currently undergoing restoration, so why not incorporate your suggestion while I’m at it?

  4. Regarding the Passat, the styling of the B5 is far more progressive that more recent models. It is certainly more overtly “modern” in form, if not in detail as Sean points out. The B6/7 was a flub in my book, falling prey to the recent trend of applying graphics to unflattering forms. The B8 however is a return to form in every sense of the word; shape and proportion were clearly made a priority earlier in the model’s gestation. Although the door/rear arch treatment looks similar between B6/7 and B8, what I would guess to be a small increase in wheelbase in the latter eases the forms no end.

    1. Well observed with the Passats. It has been a general tendency after 2000 to go away from clear shapes and add more optical fuss, so regarding modernity, most cars of this time are really a step back, compared to their predecessors. Only very recently there are faint signs of reversing this trend, as you noticed in the B8 Passat. Is it a coincidence that this goes also for longer wheelbases / less overhang and weight saving, two other topics that I think were neglected in the past 20 years?

    2. It may have been a consequence of ENCAP testing. It cannot be a coincidence that every new car suddenly developed shorter bonnets, more overhang and shallower A pillar angles. Better for crash worthiness and mown down pedestrians, sure, but poor for differentiation. Thankfully as manufacturers get a better handle on safety structures, differentiation is creeping back in.

    3. I still have a strong feeling that fashion plays a major role in small windows, thick pillars as well as the points you mention, Chris. However, it might be a fashion that was originally born out of necessity, that is complying with new customer requirements or regulations without having figured out the technology to do so with grace.

    4. Metal is generally cheaper and lighter than glass, so there is an incentive for manufacturers to go for small windows. But my feeling is that the ‘fashion’ is as much to with modern neuroses as aesthetics. Disregarding crash safety, people just aren’t so happy at being on display in their cars nowadays. Hence small windows and privacy glass.

    5. Sadly, you’re quite right with your last statement.
      Unfortunately, I can’t affiliate to the majority here, as I like my surroundings to be on display while driving. It’s just safer this way.

  5. A favourite rear door shape of mine in recent times was on the Golf Mk4. Its top-to-bottom rear shutline curve was exactly echoed in a matching continuous curve formed by the shutline of the rear hatch, the rear tail lamp edge and rear bumper-body junction.

    1. That’s a very notable one. They made quite a big deal about it, understandably. It’s one of those cases of industrial designers using a very art-inspired approach of working hard to develop an aesthetic conceit.

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