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.))