About Really Nice Cars and Boring Ones Too

Today I’ll ask why the 164 is ace and why the 2017 Mazda Vision Coupe is like a naked lady.

2017 Mazda Vision Coupe: source

An article and a comment by our colleagues on the Alfa Romeo 164 constitute the launch position of this particular rocket aimed into Inquiry Space. The article can be found here for your review but I will cite part of S.V.Robinson’s follow-up comment as it suggests the direction of this piece today: “I remember one commentator stating that the 164’s styling had that same balance and immediate sense of effortlessness as the Supermarine Spitfire and, oddly, it stayed with me as a very left field but accurate point if view…. I see a beautiful red 164 V6 regularly and it still stands out for its stance, raffish good looks and nice details”.

DTW touched on blandness before, using the Toyota Avensis as a subject. That car, it turned out, consisted of watered-down references to some other cars. This time, the inquiry into blandness starts with an anti-example, the Alfa Romeo 164, and contrasts it with the famously unsuccessful 1980 Talbot Tagora. While we must feel a little pity for the poor old Talbot, at least someone remembers it and, if I keep writing, it will eventually emerge from its purgatory to find fans who will love it for the very crimes it represents.

1997 Toyota Avensis: Wikipedia

The blandness of the Toyota Avensis stems from a mix of weak signals that interfere with one another producing a form of design white noise: echoes of Omega, Laguna, 5-series and others. Nothing there makes one dream of something else in relation to the Avensis (nothing apart from spot the reference). When you hear a tune like another tune, the fragment you recognize totally swamps the rest. The Avensis is a medley played by James Last.

S.V. Robinson’s remarks about the Alfa Romeo 164 suggest that the success of the Milanese at least partly stems from its ability to provoke imagination. The 164 has a very clear central conceit: very simple primary surfaces and apparently constant radii on all the secondary surfaces. Finally, there are a few grace notes: a grille which at the time seemed strident, a full-width tail lamp and the one strong, expressive groove down the side. In writing that one might think we have the formula for a plain and mechanical car.

The sum of these elements and the tension between the simplicity of the surfaces and the expression of the details: imaginative contemplation starts with these. The shapes stimulate thought and free fancy: how driving it might be, what it might be like to travel in it (where, with whom, why), what personality the car displays and what kind does it project. Most interestingly, the design seems rather timeless.

At least from where I am, the 164 generates no nostalgia. One’s imagination gets drawn not to the 1980s but, most likely, to tomorrow afternoon touring Bordeaux, Franconia or north-west Sweden. SV Robinson called it “raffish”. You can’t say that about a BMW 5-series or a Ford Mondeo. You could certainly imagine a person like the 164.

Typical 80s rubbish? A 1987 Alfa Romeo 164. Image: stockphotos.net

None of this 164icity relates to blandness you say. We get to that concept when I bring in the Tagora which doesn’t suggest anything at all.

Even though the Tagora shares so much with the 164 (whose design is not much younger) the Tagora only produces the visual equivalent of a steady tone (like a disconnected phone line). If the Avensis suggests faint white noise or James Last, the Tagora sounds like invariant off-key signal that does not capture our interest for long at all. What went wrong? Why is the 164 the subject of poetry and paeans while the Tagora endures more kicking?

The Tagora’s blandness comes from the apparent inability of the designers to do more than the minimum. Unrelenting rationality must have driven each design decision, rationality of the simplistic kind. Have you met those people who imagine that they are design-literate when they chant about the necessity of function? Such an attitude may have informed the Tagora’s form. Function might be the beginning of design and it might also set the limit on creativity.

In between the functionality of a concrete slab and the near-uselessness of swirly silk carpet there exists a rich range of functional beauty: function plus. Designs must function but they must do more than function. The Tagora –in essence – misses the inflections and subtle deviations of the sort that add life to the elegant 164. PSA didn’t even make it gloriously useless like a sports hearse. It’s only pretty much the minimum.

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The Tagora’s sad role in life can be described as follows: its failure serves to explain the means of the 164’s success. The Tagora has nothing to send the imagination off and leaping. Perhaps the only thing I imagine in relation to the Tagora might be what it would be like to be a retired accountant in one of Europe’s less interesting or perhaps declining regions.

Only with a little effort does my comedic imagination finally suggest an association: imagine driving a Tagora in the United States. That’s about as much free-association I can think of. The Tagora lacks tension. Every element is dead weight. We know now, after all this, that perhaps a 1-3% adjustment of a few items could have made the car positively memorable instead of memorably forgettable. The slide show has a version tweaked in 1o minutes.

2017 Nice Comfy Lovely Smooth Ride: source

I’ve extracted from these two examples the concept of imaginative contemplation. The other day I discussed the 2017 Toyota Fine Comfy Lovely concept car: I said I wanted to like the car and, I can say that it does indeed have the capacity to stimulate imaginative contemplation. A coach, said Eoin Doyle. A space ship near Rigel, said Bill, among other things. I saw classic saloons suggested in the sculpted flanks and Zagato in the roof.

2017 Mazda Vision Coupe detail: source

By association I turn to another show car. I am going to unsettle some of our loyal readers by suggesting that Mazda’s 2017 Vision Coupe might be a car which teeters between blandness and exaggeration. The car disappoints because it looks simply too much like a drawing of a generic GT – and it manages this without carrying my mind off to Lugano, Oporto or the glamorous night streets of central Milan. The car makes no suggestions. It spells it out.

If I can be a bit coarse, it achieves as much as a technically good drawing of a buck-naked attractive woman. Yes, very nice, but there’s nothing left to the imagination. Mazda has made a trap for itself with the Vision Concept, the blandness trap. Everything Mazda might do to make the VC viable as a production car (mostly the proportions) will push the form towards ordinary and bland. If Mazda transposes the superficial themes of the proposal onto a mid-size family car then it will become apparent that the ludicrous proportions carry the show. Minus them, nothing much remains.

2017 Mazda Vision Concept: source

Mazda are right to spot that we see little elegance in today’s cars (compare any of them with an Alfa Romeo 164, a Citroen XM or 60s Mazda Luce saloon). They err in their proposal for a remedy though. An exaggerated bonnet and tiny glasshouse push proportions to the fore and don’t leave any flourishes to lure the viewer’s imagination after the sucker punch. If the Tagora and Avensis are bland, the Mazda dodges this by being very loud about its simple message.

At the end of this tour I propose that a great design has the capacity to suggest. It does so by sending out a clear but rich signal. The forms need to deviate from blunt functionality in ways that suggest other possibilities without going so far as to scream about them. In all of that, our imagination can play and, I now realise, the great designs are incomplete: they need a viewer. The viewer can bring something to the shapes (their imagination) and the duds either tell us what to think (Mazda) or don’t allow any further thought (Tagora).

[Note: the concept of imaginative contemplation discussed here has a debt to Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics and Roger Scruton’s work on architecture and aesthetics. I haven’t gone to check more  precisely where it stems but I am sure the heavy lifting has been done by those two and not me.]

Author: richard herriott

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

27 thoughts on “About Really Nice Cars and Boring Ones Too”

  1. Interesting thoughts here. For me, the 164 relies on proportion just as much as the Mazda. The big difference is, while the Mazda tries to be as spectacular as possible, in the Alfa it’s done very subtly. Perhaps it’s rather balance than proportion. It’s clearly well balanced, but with just a hint of movement, probably given by the wedge shape and the not-quite-vertical rear face. So yes, it’s very suggestive and with some imagination you see yourself on a winding road with great pleasure. The Tagora, in comparison, is too static and still seems unbalanced as everything seems slightly off the place where it should be.

    1. Simon: the Alfa’s proportions are correct thus meeting a minimum aesthetic requirement. This is not the same as relying on them. Other aspects of the car are also good: graphics, surfaces, details, material. In contrast, the Mazda’s design is mostly centred on the proportions. Without that there is a quite nice saloon and not a lot more.

  2. On this occasion, we’ll need to agree to disagree, Richard.

    Yes, the Mazda’s proportions are stunning, but the elegantly fluid surfacing is just as delicious, to my set of eyes at least. If certain photographs are to be believed, the rendering above simply isn’t doing the Mazda justice.

    1. No one will be surprised that I’m with Kris rather than Richard on the appeal of the Mazda.

  3. There appears to be a consensus within mainstream car design that the era of busy surfacing and graphics is coming to an end. (Warm applause). The Mazda proposal illustrates one attempt to address this shift towards cleaner forms and should perhaps be viewed as part of a wider conversation as to how that can be achieved.

    Certainly if the Sindelfingen maestro’s work is any guide, undefined blobs appears to be the net result of the ‘elimination of lines and surfaces’. Given the lighting of the Mazda images I’ve seen, I’m slightly ambivalent about the design. It’s very dramatic and some of the surfacing is really lovely, but what I don’t really see here is anything Mazda would actually take into production. Frankly, (and probably unsurprisingly) I see a lot of Jaguar in this concept. (Would that Jaguar could produce something as alluring).

    Regardless of one’s view however, what this piece does raise is how certain car designs can elicit almost universal praise (Pininfarina’s 164) and how seemingly difficult it is to (a) pin down what makes it so good, and (b) how obviously difficult it is to replicate.

    Another random question. What other more recent car designs evoke such near-unanimous praise?

    1. Interesting that, because in one way the revised Tagora is dimensionally very similar to the actual one. While it’s hard to be precise about it, I am sure I’ve not altered any detail by more than 5%. I see the Tagora subliminally being closer (relatively) to a Jaguar but I won’t disagree with the BMW resemblance.
      The point of the revision was to show how much proportion mattered and perhaps to indicate that Mazda didn’t need to overdo it. It’s as grotesque as Cadillac’s V20 concept in the Lutz era.
      In response to Eoin, the way I see it, the 164 works and delights because every parameter is well-done and that includes the correctly judged aspects that are more expressive.

  4. I don’t agree with your conclusion, but I’ll have to adress that in a later stage.

    To me, there’s a dichotomy between progressive thought and conservative thought, and premium products often cater to the conservative kind, as they most often have more buying power. And there’s a divide between them, where certain markers are used to attract the different groups.

    Progressive thought is often avant guard, rounded, streamlined, chiseled, wedge, younger, left brain, convention breaking, deconstructivist, front wheel drive, Saab, Citroën, NSU Ro80, skewed, intentionally distorted, suggestive, incomplete.

    Conservative thought is often more balanced, straight, rectilinear, upright, older, right brained, rear wheel drive, Peugeot, Volvo, Mercedes, unsuggestive, and more complete.

    The problem with the Tagora is that it tried to combine two different and conflicting objectives, that of being progressive and conservative at the same time. It has a very chiseled wedge shape and the shape and detail of a contemporary design fad I would call Hi-Tech Architecture (Re Richard Rogers). While the demographic simply preferred a more conservative line of thought.

    Like how the angle of the front doesn’t correlate to the rear, it nights a more lifted and straighted line to work, the rake of the bonnet is too fast. The front of the car should have been higher and more rectilinear front to back. But here’s the thing, fix the Tagora and straighten it all up, and you end up with the 604.

    1. What do you make of the “revised” Tagora above?

      While I agree with your groupings of progressive and conservative, there are cars from both camps I admire: CX and W-123. Is the Alfa 164 progressive or conservative (open question)?

    2. You’re getting there with the revised Tagora, it got hints of the more dynamic E12 BMW. Lift the front and you’re all there. My point is, fixing the Tagora makes it a whole another car. The analogy with Churchill and his pudding is always there, the Tagora has Always been a pudding entirely lacking of a theme. There simply isn’t any “there” there.

      Maybe the completeness of the 164 lays in the notion Pininfarina succeeded in marrying both conservative and progressive thought in a very attractive package? It’s a very harmonic compromise, balanced yet dynamic.

      There’s also a beauty in logical progression, I’d say the CX and the W123 are polar opposites on the progressive/conservative chart. They are both uncompromised in their respective field. There is a completeness in their respective thought, their makers succeeded in their objectives. And there’s a beauty in that, where the Tagora is not because it fell in between, succeding in nothing.

  5. Comparing the 164 to a Spitfire is over the top to me, I’m afraid. There were 164s around here 20 odd years ago, and while pleasant, nobody fell over in a frenzy of delight at the sheer shock of its incredible presence. It was a boxy Italian sedan with one outstanding feature, a great V6 engine, and a grille that cribbed onto the Subaru Tribeca years later caused it to be derisively dubbed the flying vagina, while the WRX decorated with it is referred to as the pig nose. It is the 164’s least elegant feature.

    Meanwhile, every year at the Air Show, people throng to see a Spit. With delight. Saw my first one on the hoof at Biggin Hill in 1970 – the accompanying Hurricane was dead meat by comparison. My best pal who succumbed to a too early cancer death in 1990 once gave me a huge framed picture of Robert Stanford Tuck’s Spitfire some 35 years ago. Nah, a 164 is no Spitfire I say, gazing at that beaut on the wall. And I don’t suppose R J Mitchell and his helpers sat around worrying about surfacing and proportion in other than structural or aerodynamic terms. Sorry, that’s my view.

    My nearest feelings on design coincide with Mr Doyle’s stated views above. After the outrage of the current Honda Civic hatch, and that really stupid Toyota Comfort Ride concept yesterday, I do hope someone with a true aesthetic sense can banish the curlicue-bestooned bodies and jet engine intake garbage front fascias we are currently beset with on all fronts. They are not of any lasting value. The current rage for hoisting up hatchbacks on stilts and calling them SUVs shows how limited the scope there is for making a two box vehicle look decent, leading to such dunces as that new BMW X7 and the revised Audi Q5 and Q7. General Motors has these designs easily covered in their bigger SUVs in my opinion. Look at a Tahoe or Suburban. Huge but not repellent, and in actual use far more durable.

    Take the current Lexus design language wherein someone has made front end probosci the be-all and end-all of their brand. It looks dramatic in photos. On the street, festooned with grime after a rain or snowfall, its teeth are pulled and it looks merely bland and sorry. The same unfortunately can be said of the current Mazda3 and 6, they fade into the background in any colour but that signature Mica Red.

    I cannot imagine how the Tagora was raised as a comparison to the 164. It was an obvious dud from the word go! And best forgotten for all concerned. As for that mousy Avensis, well, it’s Toyota’s way of feeding one the best gruel without a hint of milk and brown sugar. Oliver Twist wouldn’t have been bothered to ask for a second helping of that grey mush.

    The Mazda concept coupe is too long and low to be practical, but nicely detailed. At least one can appreciate the effort put in there. Frankly though, one of those newly built six last E-types of a couple of years ago sitting on a stand in Tokyo would have obliterated all but that new little Honda EV, itself a pastiche of 1967 Camaro front grille, 1970 AMC Javelin front wings and Chrysler Crossfire rear end, but cunningly contrived to please in a smooth way. That’s the kind of change we need for the future, in my opinion. Excessive scalloping and front to back swage lines as on the BMW X2 and Infiniti QX30 are just a copout to a lack of imagination, force fed to the multitude who buy them anyway because there’s so little choice between brands. Surely the stylist should be a link between the mechanical reality and the public’s aesthetic sense, not priests ladling out the received wisdom of the arty class.

    Still, I respect the fact that all things affect the individual differently, so cannot fault anyone’s opinion. I just observe what many people flock to when purchase isn’t on their minds, just interest in shape. Neither they nor I need to be educated as to what we should like. We inherently know it, and car companies who want to succeed should surely care about that before everyone becomes so cynical they no longer care, which I believe we are very close to. That should be the main designer ethos. Instead we get fed PR pap by that twit at Mercedes glorifying in his own brilliance as he produces yet another elephant for the road and lecturing the masses in doublespeak. Perhaps that is why DTW unerringly hives back to older designs, looking for a certain truth missing from today’s efforts.

    1. That’s not the Mazda being discussed here, it’s the rotary concept from a couple of years ago. Yes, it’s a bit phallic, but so was the E-Type so that alone can’t be counted as a criticism.

    2. But SV, the E-Type is also over-rated.
      To be fair, I can see what you like about the car. My argument is based on the worry that it won’t work when translated onto a more conventional package. I like the surfaces/sculpture -it’s artfully done. What leaves me less impressed are the edges and joins. They are only conventional.

    3. Richard, I share your concerns about the conversion of the concept to a production version – even more so on the other concept which seems to be a precursor to the next 3. It will at least be fun watching what transpires.

    4. BTW, I’m interested by the E-Type over-rated comment. Given that car’s legendary status in the public forum, I think it’s inevitable that it can be seen to be over-rated, but it hasn’t stopped many falling for its looks over the years.

  6. The E-Type being overrated is partly a function of its popularity, but I actually go further than that and dislike it, full stop. In this, at least, I have good company – William Lyons agreed with me on this.

    Incidentally, while we’re busy electrocuting the fence surrounding the field of sacred cows, I think the 250 GTO is among the least attractive ‘classic’ Ferraris.

    1. I think it is fair to say that Lyons didn’t much care for the ‘E’ – he never believed in it as a saleable product, refused to tool up for its mass production and it’s fairly clear that it wasn’t anything like the car he would have designed. Mind you it was designed by a race car engineer as a sports/racing car, so it was to be a different type of machine to the XK series which preceded it. The fact that it became the XK’s successor could in retrospect be considered something of an accident.

      In fact Lyons wasn’t alone in his ambivalence. Bob Knight, I was told by a former senior insider, dismissed the E-Type as little more than a four wheeled motorbike and matters of engineering problem-solving aside, had little time for it. It was more the Norman Dewis’ and Bill Haynes’ who championed it. Jaguar it seems was more a collection of personal fiefdoms than a well-oiled professional outfit during this period. In retrospect, it’s a wonder they produced anything of note at all.

      Personally, as much as I admire the more sporting Jaguars, my heart has always beat that bit faster for the saloons – which is incidentally where Billy Lyons’ interest (and Jaguar’s fortunes) truly lay.

      Stradale: Complete accord regarding the 250 GTO. Perhaps the most over-rated classic of all time? Make mine a 206 Dino GT – oh and keep the change…

    2. Not sure I follow Richard. There wasn’t (to my knowledge) a convertible 250 GTO – it was a homologation special made for racing.

    3. Richard, shame on you for getting Ferrari’s outstandingly logical nomenclature wrong!

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