Theme: Shutlines – The Vanishing A-Pillar

Yesterday, Driven to Write gave you an overview of the A-pillar. Today however, we’re going a little deeper.

Mercedes W201. Image via carsguide.au
The mighty Mercedes W201. Image: carsguide.au

Since we started this month’s theme I’ve spent more time looking at shutlines and panel gaps than is either healthy or rational. Nevertheless, it’s been an absorbing study, giving rise to a number of observations about the manner in which manufacturers have managed these transitions over recent years. From a purely scientific perspective of course, we should really be limiting ourselves to those junctions where at least one of the abutting panels opens, but I’m trusting our editor will let this pass – and lets face it, we’re not about to get into all this again any time soon.

What I’d like to look at then is the phenomenon of the disappearing A-pillar; a styling device now largely redundant, but relatively prevalent during the immediate pre and post-millennium era. A-pillars traditionally merged into the scuttle panel; normally a single pressing, joined to the roof panel with a visible seam. As aerodynamics and styling merged bonnets and screens, the metal scuttle was no longer necessary but a means of managing the transition from A-pillar to front wing was.

Repeat offender - the Ford KA. This A-pillar has already begun to rot.
Repeat offender – the Ford KA. This A-pillar has already begun to rot. Image: Driven to Write

A popular solution at this time was to fold the top edge of the wing around the A-pillar, allowing it to disappear into the recesses of the inner wing. The intention being to create an impression of solidity; a kind of buttress effect if you will. The idea could be said to have evolved in Sindelfingen, Mercedes’ superb W201-series being perhaps the earliest example of this approach. Its successor, the W202 C-Class and its replacement, the 2000 W203 also followed suit. It worked for the 190, suiting the architectural rationality of the car’s styling. Unsurprisingly, later iterations were less successful.

Ford employed this approach on the 1997 KA, but instead of lending a visual solidity, it made the A-pillar appear insubstantial, as though it was collapsing into the wing recess. Anyone would think I had a vendetta against this car. I actually admire the KA’s form, but its detail design leaves a good deal to be desired, so this merely adds to the growling list of design failures I’ve noticed over the years. (On a side note, when the KA’s A-pillar base rots, and I can assure you it will, you will have to remove the wing to deal with it.)

Ford had another attempt with the A-pillar of the 1998 Focus. This was better executed, but it appeared the design team couldn’t quite decide which approach to take – the result being a bit of a fudge.

It's less overt here on the Focus, but still unsatisfying.
It’s less overt here on the Focus, but still unsatisfying.

What is interesting to me however is not so much who adapted this approach, but more how the various design teams treated it. For example, Volvo have made a bit of a pigs ear of their A-pillars, while BMW has largely cleaved to very disciplined approach, 1-Series excepted. Audi too have mostly avoided it, apart from the first-series TT, where it seemed to work and on the A1, where it hasn’t really. It’s probably worth pointing out here that I’m not saying the vanishing A-pillar conceit is a poor solution, merely one that I never found visually convincing.

This is how Saab did it. Note the crease in the door panel which continues the wing line.
This is how Saab did it. Note the crease in the door panel which continues the wing line. Ford did this with the Focus, only not as well. Image: Driven to Write

It wasn’t a universal approach by any means. Several manufacturers adopted an alternative solution. The 1994 Saab 900’s wraparound front door partially concealed the A-pillar, the remainder being hidden beneath a plastic finisher that framed the windscreen. This allowed the A-pillar to vanish into the wing virtually unnoticed. It’s certainly better handled than that of its 2004 successor. Perhaps the most interesting example is that of the Citroen Pluriel, which doesn’t so much descend into the wing recess as embed itself. Although in the overall scheme of Velizy’s shutline crimes, it’s a minor misdemeanour. In fact I may be alone in seeing it as such.

Image via nicarfinder
Image via nicarfinder

These days, the trend is towards merging the wing and A-pillar, making the disappearing A-pillar a footnote in the increasingly narrow history of shutline management. Can’t say that I’ll miss it.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Theme: Shutlines – The Vanishing A-Pillar”

  1. The Pluriel’s solution works in part since the colours emphasise the structure. It’s as architectural as as the 190E. The Ka is equally good – the panel gap helps the flow from side to front.
    You make a point about the leaf-catcher/scuttle. There are no cars on the streets with those now. The youngest I could find was an AX which is an ’86 design (off the top of my head). I wonder what the last car to be launched with one was.

  2. The Ka is good in emphasizing the front-side-flow. But its rounded-out A-pillar bottom makes this part look flimsy. Compare this to the 190, where the three-dimensionality and the continuous width of the pillar conveys the impression that it grows out of the wing and is very solidly anchored somewhere behind it.
    The Pluriel is really a special case. What I like very much is how the pillar base with its contrasting colours prolongs the sweeping window line. However, the little corner that is shaped by the wing’s top edge doesn’t look convincing from all angles.

  3. Eoin. With all respect … you obviously do have a vendetta against Ka! In view of your joint history, that is perfectly understandably, but I must agree with Richard that the A pillar detail is fine. The DS is the earliest example I can think of with an A Pillar that disappears behind the bonnet / door, but I have a nagging feeling there is something earlier (maybe a show car). The Rover P6, inspired by the DS, did the same. I remember the creation of a ‘moat’ was considered so radical at the time that Autocar devoted a whole article to an architect who had modified his Rover 2000 with a cack-handed infill.

    1. The Focus is tricky because the sharp crease of the front wing doesn´t lead clearly up the A-pillar which has a round profile. If the base line of the side glass had been raised a bit to be level with the windscreen there might have been less visual noise. I expect this kind of thing troubled Chris Bird when he arrived. These days designers move around so much there must much less of an in-house culture as regards dealing with such things.

  4. I think the Pluriel’s cant rail and C-pillar could be removed to make it a full-blown convertible, which is why they made the whole DLO surround a contrasting graphic. In my opinion it would be a smidge more convincing if they also did that with the upper frame of the windscreen – the A-pillar diving in to the wing would then look a lot more like a structural element.

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