One At A Time The Days Arrived And Never Departed

Just the other day I was thinking about grilles (front grilles, of course). Today I ask you again to consider the Jaguar XJ-S, that famously endearing monster.

Jaguar XJ-S. A likeable mess.

Of course the car is not just viewed from the front. From other views the effect vanishes and you notice the plan curvature and also the way the central bonnet edge is set below the level of the lamps. But let’s consider the front view.

Here the grille is seen as separate from the lights.

My beef with this front treatment has been the instability. In one viewing one is inclined to read the lamps as being separate from the grille. The red outlines in the marked-up photo (above) show this in a forced way.

Here the gestalt is made up of the lights and grille.

The other way to view it is to see the grille and lamps as one unit, as shown in the marked-up photo (above). Again, this outlining forces you to see it that way.

Notice the curve flowing from the wing inboard. Under it is a sharp corner.

In real life one’s eye never settles on one or the other. You can choose to view it either way yet it seems to me to be irritatingly oscillating between two possible designs.

Why is this design doing this? It hinges on the small area where the leading edge of the bonnet meets the upper edge of the grille and the pointy in-board edge of the lamps. That radius on the bonnet (the result of pressing limitations, perhaps) is at odds with the strongly noticeable points of the lamp and the upper corner of the grille. It’s not visually consistent.

Interestingly, this unstable design reveals what cognitive researcher Gregory called active seeing. We can choose to see things a certain way if we concentrate. Vision is not a passive process, not entirely. It is a process where we sort and analyse and can, in the end, determine what we see given enough leeway. Consider how one can see red things more vividly if one is looking for something red (the red Kellogg’s label, for example).

I don’t want to be dogmatic about ambiguity in design. There are ways to suggest a variety of possibilities. It would be best if they were not contradictory in the way the Jaguar’s grille is. We are reminded also here that the human eye is very sensitive to pointy shapes or even just a tendency to relative pointiness. That means designers should be careful with their radii and graphics.

Author: richard herriott

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

15 thoughts on “One At A Time The Days Arrived And Never Departed”

    1. Thanks – yes, though the Jaguar is not nearly so alarming. The interesting part with the Jaguar is the way such a small detail, the sharp elements/round element upsets the whole item. You would hard pressed to guess that in advance – it´s only visible in the metal. A drawing might not make it apparent. I wonder how many different proposals they went through before getting to this one.

  1. Interesting analysis, Richard! What strikes me in these pictures is the odd shape of the headlights: rounded on the outside, but with a very sharp corner towards the grille. This is a clash of shapes within the same object. But it might also suggest that the intention was to actually read the enveloping shape of lamps and grille as a whole, as drawn in your third picture. This is in agreement with the flowing shape of the bonnet, but maybe it’s the grille’s upper corner that works against this notion. It should have been more pointy in that case.

    1. The Peugeot works very well – it´d be be even better if the bumper was not there. The Jaguar is clearly the least satisfactory. I think the designers didn´t notice the effect or did not know how to correct or did not have the time to do it. It becomes a lovely counter-example, illuminating what is right and taken for granted on the other cases.

    2. Might Jaguar have solved the problem differently, if they had changed the profile of the leading edge of the front wing from a smooth curve to a (sideways) ‘V’ shape, the centre of the ‘V’ aligning with the bodyside crease?

    3. I think that alongside the points well made here, there is also the case of design intent to consider, and what can happen when that intention is disrupted. From my researches into the subject, the XJ-S was intended to have more of a wedge nose treatment; some of design leader, Malcolm Sayers’ earliest sketches showing this to be the case. One can perhaps read this in the shape and profile of the centre bonnet section. Owing however to proposed regulatory changes, the frontal aspect had to be altered, leading (via the interim proposal shown above by Daniel) to the treatment which entered production. (By the way, the lower image of the double sided model is an early XJ40 proposal – which initially was very much in the XJ-S idiom.)

      The Cibie headlamps were in fact uniformly oval – it was the housing which was rounded at the outer end and pointed at the inner. Jaguar adapted a similar solution for the rectangular headlamps as fitted to the XJ40 model, to similar less than ideal effect. In both cases, more elegant solutions were required, but money was always an issue.

      As Doug Thorpe, the former Jaguar designer who completed the car for production once pointed out, the design was an ‘entity in itself’ and did not lend itself to alteration without extensive and costly changes elsewhere. The XJ-S also arrived at a point when carmakers were moving away from coachbuilder’s styling solutions to something which could be production engineered more cheaply and easily. Hence, a lot of the car’s detailing can appear somewhat cheap-looking – probably because it was.

      The linked “Sayers’ Moodboard” article above provides another layer to the car’s stylistic gestation, should anyone wish to delve deeper. The “Longer Read” section of the site contains an even more in-depth exploration of this fascinating car’s creation.

  2. I knew that the shapes on the XJ-S reminded me of something I have looked at numerous times…


    (Nice trousers…)

    It asks the same question: separate items or common envelope? And what about the auxiliary light clusters, are they part of the headlight shape? Perception might even change with the version of grille that’s fitted (here a later example from after 1977):

    It’s getting even more tricky with the GSA and its black surrounds on the lower lights…

    1. Interesting – I think that in the GS´ case the lamps and grille are read as one figure. The point where the bonnet flows between the lamps is pointy and so it the rest of it. On paper the two designs are the same; the execution is where the difference lies.

    2. The Peugeot is the clearest instance of this shape, I think (at least of the three examples we have looked at). It looks like the outline of the whole front fascia has been cut out of the body – it’s all surrounded by body coloured sheet metal. Within this hole, the grille acts as a background on which all the light items are superimposed. The other two (XJ-S and GS) have the bumper as the lower boundary, so the frontal area isn’t surrounded quite as nicely.

  3. Nice article.
    When I first saw a Lancia fulvia zagato I didn’t like the front lights.

    Since then it has become one of my favourite fronts.
    Maybe it has something to do with polarizing vs clean-cut designs?

    1. The Fulvia Zagato was meant to have headlamp covers like these which they couldn’t get homologated for road use

  4. The level of insight in this article is fantastic.

    I will just throw in my personal understanding on this
    precise subject:

    The ‘quantity of separation’ (physical, or visual) of the inner part
    of the headlights’ shape, from the grille’s outer edges, seems
    to directly influence (adding to, or subtracting from) how
    convincingly anthropomorphic does a front-end look.

    The closer they are, the less ‘human’ it all looks, usually.

    It is often used as a fine-tuning tool, to adjust precisely
    how ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ does the front-end appear, so as
    to restore such a balance, especially in cases when
    the core design of the front end is too extreme,
    in one direction or another.

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