It’s Sunday. Again.
Today’s text has nothing to do with the Espace (above). I wrote a whole other article and scrapped it after Eóin had gone to the trouble of deleting the expletives and formatting it for consumption. What I decided to do with this version of the article was to imagine a parallel between the world of music and the world of automotive product development. Why aren´t there car producers just like there are record producers?
In the music industry, producers have the role of assisting a recording artist in realising their vision for a song or album. In some cases that role is fairly technical and lies towards the sound engineer end of the spectrum. In other cases, the producer’s task is to shape the feel, colour, tone, atmosphere of the record and turn the basic material of some lyrics and themes into something more advanced or even commercially ambitious. They help choose instruments and control the way the vocals and instruments are heard (the mixing).
Some record producers are known for their hit-making skill. Mitchell Froom worked with Crowded House and Cheryl Crow. David Bowie hired Nile Rodgers to make the songs used on Let’s Dance into radio-friendly chart-toppers. Hugh Padgham built a career on helping the likes of Sting/the Police, XTC and Phil Collins achieve chart success. Beck has called on the services of Pharrell Williams to make his latest album Hyperspace more commercially palatable (hear those hi-hats!). In these cases, the artists seem to owe a fair amount to the producer – swap out Froom, Padgham, Williams and Rodgers and the albums would not have been the same at all.
So far so good, but what would it look like if there was a car producer?
“My name is Jon Thrade and I am a freelance car producer. I graduated from the Imperial Royal University in 1974 with a degree in industrial management, specialising in automotive products. For my first job I did seating design management for the Alfa Giulietta 116 programme, from sub-frame to the upholstery. I had the idea to introduce a special layer of foam in the covering so as to moderate certain high-frequency vibrations. The car succeeded commercially (or enough for Alfa) and it gave me springboard for bigger projects.
“I moved to Renault to work on the Fuego, supposedly to manage the selection of the headliners and interior hard trim; but after a management change I found myself heading up the hiring process for the design and engineering programme. They wanted me to make a more stylish car based on the 18, supposedly a hatchback variant. But I had Jardin, Lampreia and Opron work on the exterior and had a team of fast-moving and original engineers re-work the chassis and drivetrain. We were up against the built-in requirements of the saloon but they all did a really good job, based on the starting material anyway. Although the 18 isn’t much-remembered, a lot of other car companies liked what we did and had a go at similar ideas. It ended up being quietly influential.
“After France I moved to Germany where I pretty much decided everything about the Mk 2 Golf. We got rid of Giugiario early on – he wanted a cheap and simple rustic car for the country – and I hired a talented but unknown guy called Schäfer to do the exterior. It moved the game along as did the way we tuned the controls for easy and haptically satisfying use. We signed off the engine programme in record time: basically I tweaked the existing range and tested all of them over one week at a proving ground in Austria (they all thought we were from Fiat). I gave that car a much more rounded, smoother, grown-up feel than maestro Giugiaro would have done.
“As a kind of break from really commercial stuff, I did a stint with Aston Martin and re-mixed the AM formula to yield the V8 Zagato. Management hated it but it sold well and had a high profile. I enjoyed working on the ashtray placement of that one, alongside the glass colour. It’s not pure transparent – we spent a month choosing the glass, working late into the night with Mittino from Zagato, mounting and removing the different sheets. We were log-jammed. Ten samples and Mittino hated all of them.
He went for a smoke late one evening and while he was gone I quickly put back the first sample and told him it was an extra one from Pilkingtons and he loved it. It’s the slight green tone in that really makes that car – look at other cars from Rolls or Mercedes and they never get the colour right, at least not until they saw how we did it on that car.
“After that I’ve spent most of my time working in Japan, usually Toyota, Subaru or Honda. I worked on the ’97 Forester. Originally, they planned a low-slung sports car but after a lot of prototyping and modelling, it gradually turned into a compact 4×4 hatch-estate. I chose all the upholstery and made the last call on the fluids, hard-points, service intervals, gear ratios and underbody sealant densities. Subaru took a back seat on that car so it’s mostly my concept, with a Subaru badge on it.
“The work is pretty low key these days but at the same time the clients appreciate my skills in shaping the teams who work on the programmes. We do something different with every car. The Camry programme allows us to swap tyre compound mix, suspension bushing kinetics and, yes, seating foams. For the current car I used the same paint range from 2007 but all given a higher saturation, about 12%. It totally changes the car. Subtle stuff.
“Although each generation looks as you’d want a Camry to look, we usually find new ways to alter the formula – we change the engine notes, fine tune the haptics of the seat rails, mess with the speed of the window motors. I had a new typeface made for the moulding markings (the ones you see on the back face of plastic parts). It’s inspired by Japanese music…. All of this give the cars a unique feel and yet carries the basic message – which is often just a few drawings run up by a designer the year before, or an idea for an engine-range that we develop over months, adding an engine, dropping an engine… that kind of thing, until the whole thing is just so.”
I suppose a similar role does not exist in the car industry because the car is an impersonal product and there is no one single client to correspond to the artist in a record production. What makes the role of the record producer interesting is the way the band or singer will accept or reject the producer’s proposals and the way in which the producer is either trying to bring out the musician’s ideas or suprimpose their own ideas on the material.
In automotive product development, there is no single artist and the vision is the result of an intricate series of decisions. A car producer would not have one person to consult or to advise and the process takes place not in one studio but across a corporation. All of which goes to indicate why cars are not that idiosyncratic anymore – the process is too huge and spatially spread to allow the imposition of a single vision. The people who might have oversight don’t have the detailed knowledge and vice versa.
(( **The photos shown in this article were for a piece about tatty old bangers. The Espace photo could have prompted an article mourning its immenent demise along with the Koleos and Talisman.))
17 thoughts on ““Sit thysen down fur a bit: hev a glass o’ cowslip wine!””
Excellent proposition, Mr Herriott, a really good read. I liked the way Thrade’s career panned out a lot, you could, kind of see how it all unfolds in the real world. And as you rightly say, in the music biz, countless bands and artists would’ve have got nowhere without an astute producer to guide, cajole, brutally steamroller through the top tunes. One overseer for the production of an entire motor car? Some will certainly consider themselves party to that level of power but of course it’s a big, corporate no.
And it’s a little early (even for a bank holiday Sunday) for a glass of any form of wine.
There are examples of cars that are an expression of one single person’s will and vision.
Think of Orazio Satta Puliga’s Alfas, Piech era Audis and VWs, Reitzle era BMWs of André Lefèbvre’s Citroens and many more .
Good morning Richard. Your thoughtful piece suggests that a suitably talented and visionary individual can develop and maintain a focus on the essence of the new model, avoiding the compromised ‘designed by committee’ efforts that are the norm these days. It’s a noble ambition, but also a high risk strategy.
I’m reminded of Bob Lutz’s description of the ‘Vehicle Line Executives’ that GM appointed in the late 1990’s and early 00’s to control all aspects of the development of new models. Admittedly, these individuals were entirely incentivised to bring the new model in on time on budget, with the maximum carry-over of parts from the outgoing model. There was little or no room for creativity or ambitions to achieve product excellence, just a box-ticking exercise to make the new model broadly competitive with its peers.
The position of vehicle line executive must have been a misery.
VLE at meeting: “We have to have better steering for the car, something sharper and more communicative.”
Other exec: “No, that would make it better than the car line above your car line and better than all the other models in the more upmarket brand you share platforms with.”
On another subject entirely, you recently asked us to think about details that were sufficiently offensive to be a deal-breaker on an otherwise excellent design. Your image of the Mk2 Espace reminds me of one such detail:
It’s that really nasty bit of trim on the D-pillar that (presumably) covers a seam between the pillar and roof. It is, for me, so egregious that it spoils an otherwise lovely design. I cannot look at the Espace without my eye being drawn to it.
Or is it the E-pillar?
Speaking of tatty old bangers, of all the cars I‘ve owned my favourite was a Mazda Tribute (aka Ford Escape in the US). Perhaps one of you learned gentlemen or ladies would include it in a future article, as a tribute (pun intended) to a great old friend of mine?
Hello vwmeister. I’m sure we can arrange something…with your input, of course.
For the avoidance of doubt, you’ve just given yourself a job to do!
vwmeister: if you wish to pen an article on the car we would be interested to see the text. I don´t think I personally could do it justice.
Daniel: the little tab on the Espace 2 merely reminds me of analagous features on the Jaguar XJ-something and the Opel Omega A and its neglected peer from Mercedes from around the same time. Do you think that the little flash of chrome on the current (and soon to be deceased) Espace is a sly reference to that? If so, someone at Renault has a sense of history and also a good sense of humour.
I am sorry to see the Espace bite the bullet. Even if it really was in theory a big hatchback, it was a pretty decent version of the big French car and the last man standing since PSA don´t really do a properly big, imposing car. I really ought to have written about that and not that stuff about car producers. I only found out about Renault´s woes last night. Nobody has picked up on that angle yet.
Richard Parry Jones was as close as one could get to a car producer though he was limited to suspension. Around that time some one single person seemed to have a vision for EuroFord and delegated to the right people across the board for the Focus Mk1. Jac Nasser?
Hi Richard. Regarding the Espace, it’s not just that there is a capping on an obvious joint, but the apparent randomness of its positioning that offends me. Had they aligned the capping with either the base or top of the DLO, it would look less odd. If it was plain rather than ribbed, that would have been better again.
The Mk1 Espace managed either to do without the joint, or disguise it completely.
The flourish on the current Espace you mention might be a reference to the Mk2, but would Renault really want to remind us of that snafu?
Daniel: as I said, the feature on the current Espace might be a sly joke, possibly one lost on senior managers but evident to the design literate. They could have put the joint lower down on the pillar and made flush. I think they bravely decided to flaunt it (“Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them” or “Honour thy error as as a hidden intention” – Eno/Schmidt oblique strategy cards). It doesn´t trouble me because it is so overt. Ideally it ought not be to there at all. The body is plastic – couldn´t they mould it in one piece?
WOW! A carblog where they know Brian Eno and (his) Oblique Strategy!
Wow! A reader who knows about it. They are a rather useful and brilliant. I learned about them via a study of David Bowie´s work with Brian Eno. They were used to great effect on “Lodger”. Carlos Alomar, for one, hated the approach but now uses it in his teaching.
In some respects DTW came into being from another oblique strategy instruction – one that said… “Try faking it”.
Eno already brought the stack of cards to Hansa Studio in Berlin, where they were used frequently by the master(s) – I don´t know about the recordings at Château d’Hérouville in 1976.
In 1978 there was a graffiti in a the New York subway saying “Eno is god”, I would not want to contradict the sprayer regarding this statement. To make a long story short, a life with music without Eno and Bowie is possible but pointless.
I apologize very much for off topic. (If you can read my email address, I´m sure you forgive me for not being able to leave it uncommented.)
Another Eno aficionado here Fred. Some of his solo work has been very formative in my musical education. I’m a fan of his solo (and collaborative) ambient work as well. In addition to Bowie, his production work with Talking Heads was outstanding – not to mention ‘Bush of Ghosts’ with David Byrne. Latterly, ‘The Ship’ was a standout in my estimation, as was ‘Someday World’ with Karl Hyde of Underworld. As far as I can ascertain, he still uses the strategy cards in the recording studio. Is Eno God. Probably not, but he was a very naughty boy.
Another thought provoker and light-hearted. Good stuff. Funny how you picked those particular old banger photos. The Opel in profile looks like an almost perfect facsimile of the earlier Audi 100 of 1984 but in a broodier heavier-handed way, and the mid ’90s Audi 90 reminds me that my new ’94 Audi 90 Sport V6 was pretty much a tatty old banger when new in the way it worked compared to my previous square box ’87 quattro 90. The later 90 was a completely unco-ordinated car that wore wellington boots at all times and perhaps needed Ferdie to have swept down from his perch and boxed a few ears during its development.
The film industry inserts a director into the production chain in addition to the producer, unlike the music industry, but half the time it seems for serious films the producers countermand directors, and the other half of the time, the director refuses to listen to the producer. So you get dustups.
The car business relies on the unsung enthusiast, whether in styling, design or engineering for any advancement over the suits in charge preference for merely making money. A bit of a better thing here or there justified with a straight face as the cheaper choice. As time has gone by, the use of more digital design, the greater money involved and so on seems to have brought us to the uniform luxury car no matter who makes it and the use of creases and ram jet intake facias to replace styling. Mr Eger pointed out that luxury or premium now amounts to a brand name rather than the reality of something different from each other or even being any better than the common herd. I’ve said it here before, there’s no difference in manufacturing quality from a Hyundai to a Mercedes, merely the costliness of the materials, the size of the end result, and the badge. To think otherwise is to fool oneself that there is a “certain something” magical mystique abroad. No, they all buy the same production machinery. So all you’ve got left is a bit of crystal glass as a gear knob or better cowhides suitably diamond-embossed for the seats. Now it’s all “features” most of which everyone has in one form or another. The supplier industry has replaced much of the original thinking at the assembler car companies of today. They come up with and idea and flog it to everyone.