Designing the Unfamiliar

What do mock-wood panelled estate cars and electric cars have in common?

2016 Mercedes EQ concept car: source
2016 Mercedes EQ concept car:

Design is often about managing incremental change to existing forms and the use of metaphors from existing products to “explain” new features or new technology. Our mobile phones show the icon of a camera to identify the image -capture function even if nearly nobody uses cameras any more. I’d hazard that 75% of the owners of a mobile telephone have never used a camera. By analogy, the wooden panelled estate car existed long after wood was a necessary material in the construction of such vehicles. Designers felt customers expected their estate car to

1985 Chevrolet Caprice estate: source
1985 Chevrolet Caprice estate: source

look as if it was made of bits of tree so wood effects were deployed. Today, the designers of electrically-propelled cars are, in some cases, still forced to refer to the grilles (the “front grilles”, of course) of ICE cars because customers have been accustomed to seeing a big dark oblong at the front end of a car. A car without a grille is thought to look deficient.

Some firms are more willing to challenge customers’ expectations than others while a few are designing the modern equivalent of wood-effect vinyl decals.

At the extreme end of the spectrum Tesla have what looks exactly like a grille on the Model S. This is analogous to putting real but decorative wood on the outside a car whose structure is metal.

2014 Tesla model T:
2014 Tesla model T:

In the middle of the spectrum we have the model X, which nods at the grille by having an slim but actual hole (I think there’s a hole there) and creases underneath it to hint at the earlier existence of a larger grille. This is reminiscent of the fake boot lid humps on Lincolns, suggesting the presence of a spare wheel under the boot that was not actually there.

2016 Testa Model X: source
2016 Testa Model X: source

VW’s ID concept goes unbegrilled, only having a faint suggestion of a grille.


Now I’ll turn to the problem cases. Despite GM having pioneered electric car design, with their EV-1, twenty years later they are designing their Ampera as if it has a fuel-burning engine under the bonnet. Clearly they got this wrong.

2018 Opel Ampera: source
2018 Opel Ampera: source

So what do we make of the 2016 Mercedes EQ concept car? Here it is again. Is this okay? It’s not a grille.

2016 Mercedes EQ concept: source
2016 Mercedes EQ concept: source

This is not a blank panel like the Tesla X, either. It’s not quite the full-fake air intake of the Ampera. This can be viewed as either a really huge badge or a direct analogue of the wood-effect vinyl appliqué as seen on a car like this:

1989 Dodge Caravan: source
1989 Dodge Caravan: source

What we see here in the Dodge is a totally decorative finish that references the material that might have been used, (had they made MPVs in the 1940’s).

On the surface the MB EQ concept car looks as if it is a clever re-working of the grille which acknowledges the traditional appearance of a car and also puts it to new uses. What we really find, though, is a very large and complex badge that co-opts the form language of an air intake for a car that doesn’t need such a thing.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s customers were thought to have no trouble with grille-less cars:

1963-1978 Simca 1000, USA version: source
1963-1978 Simca 1000, USA version:

And this:

1962-1973 Renault 8: source
1962-1973 Renault 8: source

Or indeed this:

1963 Hillman Imp: not to be grilled.
1963 Hillman Imp:

So, there we are. Mercedes are giving us modern technology designed to nod in the direction of the obsolescent ICE. For Mercedes that famous grille, which they have exploited for decades, now becomes something of a mill-stone. If they use a grille the design will be semantically misleading. If they don’t use the grille the design might not convey an important element of the car’s identity or the reason you should pay more than for a Nissan.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

32 thoughts on “Designing the Unfamiliar”

  1. I’m a great admirer of the grille-less car, and I find faux grilles very irritating. However, other people feel socially naked without a suitably important grille in front of them, so might I suggest a large LCD display onto which you can put whatever you want?

    1. The flexibility appeals. It could be linked to body sensors and show your mood – smileyface / sadface. You could also exchange jaunty salutations with other drivers.

    1. That´s very fine indeed. It looks quite correct. The bumper form hints at a grille but is not explicit. It´s quite clever that way.

  2. Good article Richard and something I have found interesting for some time. I do wonder if having a face such as in humans is the real reason we are receptive or turned off to certain cars and how much does choosing a particular designed face reveal about our own character.
    Do aggressive people or those wishing to appear so choose that type front?
    Every car with no face has long since disappeared not because of this but because the engineering dictating it
    wasn’t successful ie rear engines.
    With electrics not needing air intakes we are on the threshold of again adopting faceless cars based on engineering requirements which will remain into our future.
    The Mercedes front could be widely adopted with programmable displays reflecting different makes, or driving moods from aggression to placid etc.

    1. Thanks. Designers do carefully consider the car´s expression. That the front end looks like a face tends to drive the forms. Neutral to aggressive seems to be the norm. Cuteness is seldom chosen as an expression unless it is a small car: Figaro, Twingo, old Mini. Some of the “mouthless” cars here look far from deficient. A priori, I think it can be made to work if there is no grille. Putting a fake grille on is the least satisfying solution for me. Perhaps non-designers might disagree. Sometimes what designers like is not what the customer goes for.

  3. Interesting analysis. Car design has largely settled into rehashing the same old tropes, so it is always instructive to see how various studios react to the challenge of new technologies or niches.

    BMW created a new styling language for the i3 and i8, which they now seem to be rowing backwards on; apparently the BMW board have assessed that the world is now clamouring for an electrified 3 Series. Perhaps being more rigorous in following through the styling of the i3 concept to production would have helped matters; nobody seems to be complaining about the i8, by contrast. Compared to the haphazard and lazy appliqué of BMW cues upon their new MPV (which I cannot even be bothered to remember the name of) and I feel I must credit BMW for making an effort with their i-line. That said, BMW made a great job when they introduced the X5 only to foul the waters with each subsequent generation, so perhaps their design problems are a contemporary phenomena.

    1. It will be a great pity if BMW don’t evolve the i cars. Agreed that there were styling compromises productionising the i3, not all of which I could see the need for, and the range extender was just one step up from tying a Honda generator to the roof. But they were one of the few car things that actually excited me for ages. They need refining, not dumping.

    2. Isn´t it worse than the same old tropes? The designers are piling on styling. A little later you can see the efforts Lexus have made to exhaust the box of design features.

    3. The i3 concept was a superb thought led exercise. What could you do with an almost silent car with a sandwich floor? You could increase the glasshouse, making the whole car light and airy, like floating on a cloud. Then, as production engineering and accounting start agitating about ditching the glasshouse, you could come up with the half-arsed kink in the DLO.

      Often I think to myself, what would Steve Jobs do? I know it’s a tired idea, especially now he’s dead, but I think he would’ve been quite pleased with the i3 concept, fake kidney grilles apart. The production car reeks of compromise and a lack of clarity.

    4. I remember having a bit of a spat with Johann in my final days at TWBCM about the production i3 and my (and others) complaint that the concept had been spoilt. Over time, I’ve come round more to his way of thinking and still find the i3 a refreshing sight – though, unlike the concept, I feel that all black suits it best.

      It is odd that the EV that comes from outside the mainstream industry, which is the one you’d think would be most different, is the most conventional in appearance. Not that I can criticise, since Tesla seem to be selling them.

    5. Chis. In view of this month’s theme, I’m already seeing Michael Fassbender shouting ‘But I said it needed a fucking glass floor too’ and Kate Winslett replying ‘Great idea Steve … if you vant to look up girl’s skirts”.

    6. I haven’t seen that film. Any good?

      Steve Jobs wasn’t always right. Often he was very wrong. But sometimes you need a shouting jerk willing to cut through the compromise.

    7. I’s OK, in that the acting, production, etc is very good. But, first, it’s really an Apple groupie’s film – really, who else cares? And, second, I have a problem with biopics generally in that, just because a good actor creates a convincing character, doesn’t mean that person was really like that – or said that – or did that.

    1. So did I. I omitted the Rover SD1, of course, which was inspired by the Ferrari 365GTB which, I suppose, was the first Ferrari without a proper grille. Of course, I’m differentiating here between grille (ornamental) and cooling vent (practical).

    2. And, of course, the SD1 begat the Rover 800, which was preferable sans grille to my eyes. The 800 was less buxom than the SD1, but, and was damned for being ‘bland’ at the time, but I always thought it neat, well proportioned and Rover could little afford to take risks.

  4. Passat B3. I think the estate version of the B3 was the most pleasing of all Passats. Laurent’s photo of the Dauphine was superb.

  5. Other grilleless cars of note: Chevrolet Corvair made in the hundreds of thousands und Gott in Himmel, many a Porsche 911 and the VW Beetle.

    The Tesla Model 3 just looks awkward.

    1. Also remember the Fiat 500/600 and their successor, the Fiat 126. And the slightly larger Fiat 850. And the Skoda 100/110 and the Tatra 603 and the early iterations of its successor, the 613 – although the Skodas could be perceived as aiming at a largely captive market.

  6. I know I go on about the MGF, but there was a transverse mid-engined car made to look like a compromised longitudinal front engined car. Ridiculous and a wasted design opportunity.

    Where do we draw the line? Take interior plastics for example, all that effort expanded on a design texture to give a faux-leather appearance.

    Its all dishonest design.

  7. I realise I’m performing CPR on an old topic, but as a child I was fascinated by the fake wood strip along the side of my grandparents Mini Clubman Estate. It was quite the looker in 1974, resplendent in 1970’s orange.

    Also, isn’t the whole notion of a bonnet rendered redundant on most an electric cars, excepting impact absorption? I assume thats the reason ‘cab-forward’ design has disappeared from our roads (HGV’s excepted)?

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