All the Ways We Sang, All the Songs We Went

A random glance at a Mazda Demio made me think again about grilles and the way designers deal with that hole in the front of the car.

The subject unfolds as a matter of design semantics. That means more or less we are concerned with the meaning of the air intake and its expression. This Demio (above) is a bit fancier than the one I saw in my district but it is geometrically the same. The approach was to use an “egg-box” in-fill and to use a U-shaped plastic trim piece to enable them to fill the air-intake gap between the lamps, bumper and bonnet.

The more you think about it, the more it seems evident that that a drawing of some graphics led the way for the Demio rather than plain old engineering thinking. The boring old engineering approach would have been to avoid the U-shaped panel entirely and maybe lower the leading edge of the bonnet and extend the bumper upwards. This is a schematic version:

1998 Mazda Demio alternative grille aperture

This approach is seen on our good friend the Opel Corsa “B” (all now genuflect in the direction of Ruesselsheim, please):

Opel Corsa “B”.

I get the feeling there is an appropriate design for a grille for a small car. It probably is best being respectfully simple. The Corsa, is in my view, the right kind of grille for this class of car: clever and economical.

To get back to semantics we see the Skoda Citigo is trying to punch above its weight with a chromed garnish. This isn’t quite a separate grille but suggests one. It’s one to annoy design purists who might want to either have an untrimmed aperture or go the whole hog and have a proper, separate item as on a full-size car.
2017 Skoda Citigo. (c)

If we consider the role of the grille garnish, then the visually odd Peugeot 208 gets even odder:

2017 Peugeot 208: wilfully odd. (c)

Here is the grille and the aperture marked up.


The pink line is the rough longitudinal centre section; the red is the where the air intake holes seem to be. The grille surround has slipped south of the upper aperture. The chrome frame is not framing the aperture. It’s raw decoration and this disconnection between the expression and the expresses is a bit too much even for me, Mr Timberlex Fan Club DK. Semantically, this is an expression that has come adrift from its associated structure.

That is not very Peugeot, is it? It is certainly not what I expect from a more serious car brand. On reflection however, Peugeot have form in the duff grille department:

Peugeot 106: source

And the footwell was too small as well.

In a future instalment I might just discuss a certain Jaguar.


Author: richard herriott

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

63 thoughts on “All the Ways We Sang, All the Songs We Went”

  1. How about the Alfa 916 which started with a wonderfully clean grille with an insert like a Jano-era car, then acquired unnecessary chrome adornment and ended with a horrible nose job that ruined the car?

    1. I would agree. While the GTi’s stance was pretty much perfect, the standard three door version of the 205 always looked a little spindly. On the other hand, the 5-door looked good irrespective of model or trim level.

    2. ah, in for a penny… I much prefer the third version. the first two
      are indecisive and cluttered with those little grilles, the last has
      a simple boldness, a gesture, which renders the whole car
      attractive to me.

    3. sorry, my comment about grilles, wherever it is,
      was of course about the Alfa 916.

  2. Good morning, Richard. It’s great to have you back as a contributor! That 208 grille really is horribly incoherent. Peugeot’s form for dodgy grilles continues to the present day:

    An enormous grille AND a large air intake below the bumper, obviously fake because it couldn’t possibly need that much cooling. The larger 308 and 508 models have much more appropriately sized apertures.

    In an uncharacteristic act of common sense, Peugeot did facelift the 106 and dispensed with obviously fake grille on the example you picture in favour of this neat and rational solution:

    That Corsa really us a neat piece of work. I like the way the bumpers flow into the wheelarches.

    1. Thanks. The new 208 is not bad -there´s still something wrong with the silhouette of the dark grille “graphics”. The fangs are so awful. They spoil the 508 as well.

    2. The problem is that pedestrian protection regulations require bumpers that reach as far down and as far forward as possible, creating a large vertical area that wasn’t present in older cars and that somehow needs optical structure if you don’t want it to look like a cliff.

    3. True, but if you ignore the “fangs” (difficult, I know) the 508 solves the problem in a much more satisfactory manner:

      Agree about the Alfa, though. The chrome ring added to the original is ok, but the facelifted one is horrible.

    4. Absolutely, Daniel. I always thought the 3 door, pre-facelift 106 was great, along with the 5 door 205. Their respective lesser- and greater- doored brethren did nothing for me. But I am very aware that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

      And yes, good to hear from you again Richard!

    5. Adrian, I absolutely agree about the five-door 205. It was one of those perfect designs that couldn’t be improved by adding or taking away anything. We might be in the minority in preferring it over the three-door, which I never liked as much. If looked fine in GTi form, but I didn’t quite like the rear quarter treatment in lesser guises.

    6. Hi Daniel,

      What I dislike most abot the 208 grille is the electric version’s which is oddly body-coloured and from some angle it looks like a bad spray can job (I should know)

    7. Lately carmakers a getting bolder with their grille interior motif I think. For me one of the first car that displayed this approach was the Mercedes A-class concept back in 2011 with its myriad of dots: it was for me a game-changer in the grille department so used to the plastic or chrome slats widely used up until now by many manufacturers. Peugeot followed shortly with their “chequered” grille. The motif inside the upcoming 508 PSE is interesting too with what looks like teeth. The new Hyundai Grandeur has some light in hers.


    8. …..Oh and the new C4 will have a grille with a chevron motif by the looks of it

    9. Hi Daniel,

      I can’t see the similarity with your car and the Grandeur. Where are the lights in the grille in your car ?

    10. Sorry I think I get what you meant by jeweled now. Yes, nothing new but this revival comes after decades of the old boring grille with horizontal slats almost everywhere 🙂

  3. The Corsa featured in Richard’s piece was a fine piece of design. Unfortunately, it was crud to drive, like every small Opel/Vauxhall.

    I remember a great quote from Autocar, summing up their first test of the car. They were trying to praise the overall design and packaging, while encouraging GME to rise above the lowest ‘will that do?’ bar in engineering.

    From memory, it went something like this:

    “We now know what the supermini of the 21st century will look like. But we still don’t know how it will drive.”

    1. You can omit the word ‘small’ from your first sentence.
      For far too many years all Opels were deliberately designed to discourage their drivers from properly using the car. Mushy steering, Valium-anesthesised throttle response and hopping suspension were all there to make driving as unpleasant as possible.

    2. It depends on what you want from the car. I enjoyed the agility of the Mk1 Focus and the nifty lightness of the 205. My XM is a delight as well (when I drive it). At the same time, there is a place for cars where the vehicle is a cossetting and stable means to an end. I experienced the Corsa B and it was pretty horrible; other Opels I have tried have been been downright pleasant in other ways. The controls were neutral and that meant being able to get on with life; the car did it sits job. Job done.

  4. Hi Richard,

    This 208 rejected design proposal had perhaps an even stranger grille layout:

    1. Back then I hated this Kadett’s grille. Especially as it often turned light-grey like the rest of the bumper after a few months/years

    2. Oh no,it didn’t work this time, must be the effects of the forced confinement playing tricks on me. Ok, lets hope it works now

    3. To me one of the most unfortunate grille restyling is that of the Mégane 1. We went from “the beak” which was quite nice to this:

    4. Haha, NRJ, now we all know what sort of automotive porn you are perusing in private: yikes!

    5. Richard,
      that was a very subtle point about Opels.
      I often admired them as perfect choice when life requires the car to be positively anonimous in driving/owning, whilst still exuding that ‘take a second glance’ admiration when approaching the car in the parking.

      Whereas, eg.,
      a VW, Renault or a Fiat product, would tend to ‘arrest’ your automotive attention, hence possibly too distracting from the sometimes pressing priorities.

      Opel’s design consistence and subtlety, in the last 30-35 years, is just fascinating.

      Almost without an exception.

      Even the Cascada looks properly honed through.


  5. What was it about 1980’s GM Europe plastics? The Corsa had the same problem:

    1. Others had the same problem at the same time: the Ford Sierra and Escort, for example – pretty much any car with an unpainted plastic bit somewhere.

    2. Yes, Bob Lutz should’ve, at least, given a reason for the greying plastic in his book.

      I remember as a kid I read in AutoPlus a tip sent in by a reader. It said to make a mix of oil and milk and with some cotton you had to rub the plastic with the mixture to make it look like new. I was so happy about this tip so I did it on the Renault 11 and it worked wonders, they looked jet black !
      I don’t remember very well but I think there was a little drawback, after a while the oil in the mix attracted a bit of dust but it was still a good solution. I remember I added strips pf red electrical tape in the groove of the bumpers and of the side strips to make it look even nicer. My father was quite impressed by the transformation but the electrical tape didn’t stick over time, I should have glued it.

    3. The first Corsa seemed to have an additional problem to the greying. Very often you could see them after a few years with their horizontal grille slats sunken down in the middle. Apparently there was a weak part in the plastic structure. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a picture showing this.

    4. Hi Simon,

      I wasn’t aware of this issue but I think we can see what you mean on the white Corsa below. Compared to the red one below, the top slat doesn’t look parallel anymore:

    5. ……And I’am not sure if this one had an accident or if it suffers from an aggravated case of the structural disease you described earlier.

    6. Before its major restyling there seemed to be 2 grilles, on top of the one pictured above there were these:

    7. Great pics, NRJ, they show exactly what I had in mind. Yes, maybe the second one was helped by a little push from the outside. What you show in the last picture is probably already a first facelift, before the major rework with the smaller headlights. Apparently they realised the poor quality of the first item and changed it. Interestingly, the notchback version had a separate bumper and grille from the start (see below). Maybe they could use the front bumper from these with the facelifted grille.

      Anyway, there is quite some variation between the Corsa variants in the first series. Probably today you wouldn’t bother with that much differentiation any more. For example, only the 3-door had the special flared wheelarches, 2, 4 and 5 door had conventional items.

  6. Ah yes, the facelifted Megane with the ‘Hercule Poirot’ moustache. Lovely!

    1. Ha! I was looking for a word for the grille but didn’t think of Hercule Poirot § Hitler came to my mind but he didn’t have a split moustache.

  7. I think it’s saddening, in this era of electric cars, to see how much car designers have become dependant on the grille (or rather grilles) as a design language crutch, a lazy way of communicating both corporate identity and design intent. Witness the excess of baroque chromework on “prestige” models, or the proliferation of begrilled openings of all kinds on “sporty” models, often out of all proportion to actual cooling requirements.

    In the context of an electric car, clearly a vast grille smeared across the front of the body makes little or no sense. But our designer friends seem currently to be either tooscared, too lazy, or simply unimaginative enough to do any better than just “slap on a fake one” instead. The Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace, Mercedes EQS, Kia E-Niro and many others – they all display the same absurd solutions to this design problem. Only Tesla, with the Model 3, has found a different (and in my view, more honest) approach.

    1. This conundrum is about whether one designs for customers or designs for designers. In the past I´d have been more on the side of designers telling customers what to accept. Lately I tend to think the answer is to be found in each market and each customer group. There was a point when more people were accepting of unusual shapes (and it´s the same for colours). We are in a conservative time and there is no point in killing your business to demonstrate the superiority of one´s taste. There´s no excuse for bad taste either – between those poles most designers must operate. Tesla are lucky in being able to define their segment. Many Jaguar customers want a grille as to the others. Like fake wood, it is not a harmful or dangerous design choice. In the end I expect grillelessness will be accepted.

  8. Thanks for your reply, Richard. Very interesting. I’m afraid I can’t say that I agree with you though. I have always felt that it is the designer’s duty to be one step ahead of the customer. To use his or her skill and depth of experience to show a customer something beyond their normal frame of reference. Something which prompts the customer to reassess what they think they like. Thus minds get opened and the conversation gets nudged forward. In this respect, a designer assumes the role of a researcher and educator.

    When a designer contents him/herself with designing for customers’ existing (as you say, conservative) tastes, over time the landscape inevitably ends up cluttered with me-too designs, currently primarily lumpen SUVs. Usually silver or grey, adorned with oversize fake grilles, fake exhaust pipes, fake carbon trim, unnecessarily huge wheels and baroque surfacing. This is probably a desperately unfashionable (arrogant?) thing to say, but in my view, the customer emphatically doesn’t know best.

    Going beyond the question of taste, there is also the somewhat forgotten notion of design honesty to consider. A grille should be (in my view) first and foremost an air intake. If an air intake is unnecessary, then I feel it shouldn’t be there. Nobody would consider putting fake headlamps on a car just to reassure bling-hungry customers, or would they?

    My favourite ever grille :

    1. Thanks for yours, equally considered. I think this boils down to a theological matter, as I call such deep matters of faith. There is a place for leading design and some companies can do this or do it from time to time. There is also a place for giving the customer what they want. That does not mean stasis any more than leading design means undigestsible avant-garde. The discussion hinges not on which position is right (both have merits) but when to be a leader and when to more reserved. I have a lot of time both for “reckless” novelty (Toyota´s wierder cars, the BMW GT series, Ford Focus Mk1, the madder Kei cars) and also for studied conservatism (old Peugeot, ye olde Buick, the Chevroler Epica, earlier Audi).

    2. I quite much agree with your favourite grille, riczito. It’s simple, technically justified and asymmetric – a delight! Although, I have to admit there is one grille I like even more:

    3. The BX is a work of genius: the small shadowed area between the lamps (the undercut) sublty suggests a grille without miming it (like recent Teslas). That´s design magic at its best. Because of that sublte detail the BX does not look to be bereft. But it is. I had not actually noticed the absence of the actually absent thing. Wow.

    4. Don’t forget the BX’s spiritual little brother, the original (pre-VW) 1987 Favorit:

      Skoda also did the asymmetric grille and badge treatment rather well.

    5. The Favorit’s grille is nice, I agree. Much nicer than the wilfully odd treatment of the first Lada Samara, with such a bad molding quality that it always looked bent and ill-fitting even fresh out of production.

      Richard: Some BXs actually had a small grille in this shadowed area when there apparently was a need for more air: estates, automatic and sporty models, if I remember correctly.

    6. On BX turbo diesels the slot between bonnet and bumper was the air inlet for the tunnel to the intercooler.
      Larger engined BXs had the same shortened bonnet because of their increased cooling requirements.

    7. At the risk of raining on the BX’s parade, shouldn’t the headlamps have been shallower (or higher) to allow the dark “shadow line” immediately above the front bumper to continue unbroken across the front of the car? On Dave’s photo of the red, facelifted example, the headlamps and front indicators look uncomfortably misaligned, the indicators appearing to sit higher than the headlamps.

      Regarding the Samara’s grille, yes it was awful. The thin spars supporting the heavy central block just looked wrong.

    8. The other day on this site I saw some instructions on how to post images, but I’m afraid I can’t for the life of me track them down. Would somebody be so kind as to repost them? Or perhaps add the instructions to the Driven To Explain section? That would be terrific. Thanks!

    9. Hi Riczito, happy to oblige:

      Embedding Imgur Photos in Posts on DTW

      Imgur offers you different links to your uploaded photo, but only one option works to embed the photo directly in your post. How you find the correct link depends on the device you’re using.

      Using an Android tablet:

      1. Upload the photo to Imgur.
      2. “Touch and hold” on the image for a couple of seconds.
      3. A window will pop up giving you s number of different “Share to” options.
      4. Touch the “Copy URL” icon.
      5. Paste that URL into your post.

      I’m sure there’s a correct technical term for “Touch and hold” on a touch-screen device. What I mean by this is to place your finger on the image and keep it there until the window pops up.

      Using a Windows Laptop:

      1. Upload the photo to Imgur.
      2. Right-click on the image.
      3. A window will pop up giving you a number of different options.
      4. Click on “Copy image address”.
      5. Paste that URL into your post.

      Hope this is helpful!

    10. ah yes, the Samara grille. It looked like it could fall off at any given time. When I grew up there was this guy living nearby who had a Samara “Africa replica”. He bought it brand new and he was obviously very proud driving it (fancy sunglasses, bent arm sticking out the window) and even though I knew deep down this was one of the crappiest choice around I have to admit it didn’t look too bad in this special edition with its spoiler, beige paint and stickers. The interior was shocking however, looked very flimsy and had this weird brown color.

    11. Hi riczito,

      On the same theme I like the South American Fiat Uno grille. I prefer the first version of the grille, set in metal, rather than the restyled one.

    12. Ok that panel might not be metal either on the first Uno version but I prefer it body-coloured is what I meant.

    13. Hi Daniel,
      the less than perfect fit and finish of the BX’s headlamp/indicator units is typical of the quaoity of this car. You could call it French manufacturing standards of the time. Because the large plastic panels (bonnet and hatch) are a pain to fit properly they didn’t try at all and gave the BX panel gaps enabling you to change its spark plugs without opening the bonnet.

  9. Thanks Daniel! Strangely, that’s what I thought I did in my reply to Richard above. And yet, when I pasted the URL into the post, it appeared as a URL, and not as an image. I must’ve done something wrong, I guess. Thanks again anyway.
    Regards, Ric Zito

    1. Hi Ric. How the photo appears depends on exactly how you copy the URL in Imgur. Try again following exactly the instructions above and it should work ok.

  10. The japanese designed XP150 Yaris features a samurai-like moustache grille garnish:

    1. Hello Menda: thanks for that. It´s a car line that has lost its way. The first Yaris has a very clear design theme. The XP150 is back to the worst of Japan´s bodge period in the 1970s. And it looks way too big to be a Yaris. Wasn´t the Yaris more of a vehicle placed between Up and Polo sizes? The samurai mousache graphic is very distracting, now I look at it closer. If I mask the grille the car´s form is easier to grasp. There are horizontals crossing diagonals – erk.

  11. Hi Richard, I highly appreciate your comment!
    Indeed, with 4,12 m length and 2,55 m wheelbase, it´s longer and larger than its (discontinued) XP130 sibling sold in Europe and Japan. This way it suits well for some Asian and Latin American markets, where it´s a sales success since its launch in 2013.
    In 2017 was launched an iteration of that Yaris, developed by the design team of the Toyota joint venture company of Indonesia. It comes with the bodge tail lights of the Auris and new bonnet shutline, to say no more.

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