Do we get the stylistic leaders we deserve?
In recent weeks the design chiefs of the German car industry’s premier division reminded us exactly how they justify their retainers. This elite trio of Audi’s Marc Lichte, BMW’s Adrian van Hooydonk and Mercedes-Benz’s Gorden Wagener hold perhaps the most coveted and yet simultaneously least enviable jobs in the business, being at the very sharp-end of the changes rapidly encroaching upon all carmakers, but impacting the upper denizens in potentially even more profound a manner.
Earlier this week, we talked to a design commentator about the challenges facing carmakers; given the lack of vision which characterises the mainstream legacy motor car in the current environment. Viewed in this context, the manner in which these particular figures have deigned to comport themselves suggest a certain element of necessary irreverence.
First we meet BMW’s Senior Vice-President of Design, Adrian van Hooydonk, perched on a stairwell, looking downcast. Recently, he (along with sidekick, Domagoj Dukec), mounted a stout defence in the pages of Autocar of the carmaker’s rather vexed new styling direction – both men contorting in ever decreasing circles to justify their relative positions.
According to the dynamic FIZ duo, they have segmented the BMW range into subsets; one aimed at what they term, “elegant creators” – who they say tend to favour the traditional BMW offering [whatever that might be nowadays], while a second grouping dubbed “expressive performers”, are more interested in making a style statement. “They want a car that is almost irrational“, Dukec added in a manner which suggested he wasn’t entirely convinced by his utterances either.
But equally clear was that far from adopting the Millwall Football supporter approach to the understandably harsh critical backlash, we are instead being asked to weep bitter tears for Adrian and Domagoj, because it appears that people are being simply horrid about them, not just on social media [where people seem to go for the express purpose of being horrid about each other], but also it would seem, at customer clinics; so much so that van Hooydonk no longer attends them, since, he pointed out, “it can be brutal“. But surely that simply goes with the territory?
BMW’s stylistic overseer went on to state, “We are expanding the vocabulary of the BMW brand with each new model and we’re pulling them further apart. And that’s deliberate. We are making them stronger in character without taking the brand apart,” Now of course, the problem with trying to appear smarter than you are is that the truth often has an inconvenient tendency to slip out between the cracks.
While on the subject expressive performers, I might suggest that next time Mr. van Hooydonk makes an attempt at justification, he does so through the medium of contemporary dance, which might at least have the virtue of being amusing.
Meanwhile at Ingolstadt, it’s been equally busy, with Design Director, Marc Lichte being wheeled out to pronounce upon Audi’s latest stylistic opus, the “Dynamic and High Caliber” [their spelling] Taytron. The new fully electric gran turismo was introduced virtually last month in what Audi portentously termed, “The Day of Progress.”
In this hour-long virtual ‘Celebration of Progress’, [I’m not making any of this up] “the brand with the Four Rings introduced the [I’ll remember it now] Audi e-tron GT2 to the public for the first time.” Head of Design, Marc Lichte, while attempting to pretend that this was just a normal launch event, spoke to breathless viewers slumped at home in their underwear, pronouncing that, “progress means creating something new. Something that no one has ever done before in this form.”
There is of course a sizeable issue with this statement, and you have undoubtedly seen it a nautical mile off. It’s a two word problem: Porsche and Taycan. Sorry Marc, can we just pause you there for a second? You did say “creating something new“, yes? You did, okay right, always good to clarify.
Mr. Lichte, heroically portrayed in a lavishly produced Audi-made promotional film both as intrepid yachtsman and foul-weather mountain biker, clearly has certain difficulties with facts, having also told journalists recently that the what’s it called again, e-tron GT2 [honestly, I am trying] is “the most beautiful car I have ever designed.” Yes Marc, and the equally self-effacing Walter de Silva designed the Alfa 156 – and the original Audi A5… all by himself.
To Sindelfingen then, and having already sold over 2.5 million of the last generation model, Mercedes have debuted their latest W206 generation C-Class saloon and estate. Mercedes have toyed with the proportions slightly, so it now enjoys shorter overhangs and a more cab-rearward stance, not to mention allegedly, [heavy sigh], a sportier demeanour. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?
But while there are perhaps at least two and a half million people worldwide whose hearts will be rendered afflutter by the advent of nu-C, the rest of us are likely to remain relatively unmoved. Not great, not terrible, Mercedes current mainstream design direction is wildly unremarkable. Yet, by contrast to its Swabian rivals, there is at least a consistency about Sindelfingen’s non-EV output which is notable by its absence given the toothy hilarity over at the Vierzylinder, to say nothing of the Lichte-helmed silliness at Ingolstadt.
And while it feels a little counter-intuitive to be speaking of Mercedes-Benz design in an even vaguely positive manner, even allowing for the fact that to go from awful to simply very bland hardly amounts to a recommendation, it does bear acknowledging that the current three pointed star offerings do not offend, largely because they don’t stand out in any palpable way whatsoever.
Gorden hates to disappoint, so it will surprise nobody that the following somewhat predictable message was received from a space both inside and outside of Mercedes’ Californian design studio. “We have created the most stylish and exclusive C-Class ever applying our company’s style of Sensual Purity. We create desire through the aesthetic beauty of sensuous surfaces, perfect sporty proportions, and an extraordinary ambience in the interior.” For which we give thanks.
But notwithstanding the certain knowledge that each are in thrall to their respective CEOs, the German design-trio [and Mr. Dukec of course] continue to offer good value for the satirist. However, they are somewhat below adequacy when it comes to much by way of faith in the future direction of the motor car. Well remunerated they might be, but one has to question whether we, the putative consumer are getting our money’s worth?
 South East London football club, Millwall’s fans became notorious for unsavoury behaviour, their matchside chant being “No one likes us, we don’t care”. (Sung to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “We Are Sailing”).
 9 minutes and 28 seconds of my life I’ll never get back.
 While each of the three design leaders have been in their roles for some considerable years now (and therefore have shown their creative hand), their respective CEO’s are all relatively new appointments – hence their design decisions somewhat remain to be seen.