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