The author wonders why some automotive designs end up being not as good as they should or could have been.
In the field of automotive design, there is always a degree of tension between the designers and the body engineers charged with making their designs a reality. Many designs, when first revealed as concepts, are loaded with details that might look beautiful, but are difficult or impossible to incorporate into the body engineering for viable and economic series production. That, and the need to comply with the raft of motor vehicle legislation and regulations, is why production cars are often a disappointment, typically described as ‘watered down’ from the concept.
If the designer is unconstrained, then the result is, for example, the bonnet of the Jaguar E-Type. While undoubtedly beautiful, it was a nightmare to fabricate from many separate pieces of steel, laboriously welded together then lead-loaded and smoothed off to achieve the end-result. No modern mass-market automaker could ever countenance such a procedure, so compromises have to be made.
My own car, a 981-generation Porsche Boxster, contains an example of such a compromise: there is a horizontal panel gap in the rear quarter that stretches from the trailing edge of the door to the rear wheel arch. It is there, presumably, so that the rear wing and quarter panel could be fabricated separately, rather than having to make a single large panel that stretched all the way from the tail to the trailing edge of the front wheel arch, incorporating the rear wing, quarter panel and outer sill. The panel gap is pretty tight, but still visible, as can be seen in the photo below of an example of the current 982-generation Boxster 718 in white:
When I first saw photos of the 981, my eyes were immediately drawn to that panel gap, and I disliked it intensely for the way it interrupted the visual sweep from the engine air intake up over the rear haunches of the car. My then current Boxster, a 987, had no such compromise, nor did its predecessor, the 986, so it is clearly feasible to fabricate a single panel for this purpose. I can only assume that the compromise was made to make the 981 easier to build and / or easier to repair after an accident. Needless to remark, it didn’t stop me buying a 981 and I have become reconciled to it over time. I am sure our readership can suggest examples of other such compromises that automakers have incorporated into their designs for similar reasons.
Today, however, I am more preoccupied by what I would call ‘unforced errors’ where designers (and engineers) have adopted a sub-optimal solution for no obvious reason or benefit. My first exhibit is a car I have mentioned before in this regard, but now want to analyse more fully, the Citroën DS3 (as it was called at launch).
Overall, the design of the DS3 is pleasant enough and I like the way the trailing edge of the bonnet continues diagonally down the rear corner of the front wing to meet the bottom edge of the side DLO. Everything above this line, however, is a fussy mess. The door window frame is partly recessed into the A-pillar, but only from about one third of the way up the pillar. Below this is a large triangular section of metal. Into this has been pressed a crease that, weirdly, doesn’t continue the actual door window frame shut-line downwards, but instead an imagined line coinciding with the edge of the glass. The unnecessary fixed quarter-light in the door just adds to the visual clutter in this area.
There’s more trouble at the top of the A-pillar. It would appear that no account was taken of plans to paint the A-pillars and part of the door window frames satin black. Hence, there is no line at which the black paint should naturally stop. Instead, the line of the top of the windscreen is carried around the A-pillar until it crosses the door window frame in a seemingly arbitrary manner. Above this line, the door window frame changes colour from satin black to the roof colour. Even on cars with a black roof, a popular option on the DS3, the door window frame changes from satin to high gloss black at this line.
The Photoshopped image below is an attempt to rectify these issues, in so far as is possible without changing the underlying body engineering a great deal. The pressed crease in the triangular panel at the base of the A-pillar is now aligned with the door shut-line. The rear side window is made taller, so its top edge now aligns with the top of the door window frame, which is squared off at its trailing upper corner. The whole of the door window frame is now painted satin black and the roof colour begins above the door window frame, shut-line and taller rear side window. Finally, the unnecessary fixed quarter-light is removed from the door.
The end result is by no means perfect but, I think, a great deal neater than the original. The change of colour at the top of the A-pillar is still somewhat unsatisfactory, but at least it no longer encroaches onto the door window frame. To do the job properly, floating or differently coloured roofs needed to have been considered at the body-in-white stage, with appropriate changes in profile included at the tops of the pillars to provide a natural point for the change in colour.
This is, I think, an example of an unforced error, where a little more care at the design stage would have resulted in a much better execution that would have been no more expensive to engineer and build. Sometimes, however, manufacturers find the optimal design solution, then change it to a sub-optimal one when the model is replaced. Take, for example, the Suzuki Swift.
The 2004 model was a delightful design and featured a particularly neat treatment of the A-pillar and door shut-lines. The shut-line at the leading edge of the front door continued vertically upwards, and the door window frame behind this line completely covered the A-pillar when closed, apart from a neat triangular section at the base of the pillar ahead of the shut-line. The top of the windscreen and side windows were perfectly aligned horizontally, which provided a natural point to terminate the high-gloss black finish on the door window frame. The door window frames also extended into the roof as far as the drip-rail, which made the shut-lines invisible. This was a masterfully neat resolution of a complex design issue.
The next-generation Swift, launched in 2010, introduced a rather less satisfactory treatment in this area. Instead of completely covering the A-pillar, the door window frame was partly embedded in it, leaving a visible shut-line running up the pillar. The door window frames no longer extended to the roof drip-rail, so there was a visible shut-line running horizontally between the top of the DLO and the roof drip rail. The 2010 Swift was by no means ugly, but was noticably less neat than its predecessor. I can only assume that this sub-optimal design solution was introduced because it was easier and / or cheaper to engineer.
An earlier example of an unnecessary change introducing a design flaw where none previously existed concerns the 1972 Alfetta berlina. The original design featured a very neat bright metal veined horizontal air vent at the base of the C-pillar. The seam at the top of the C-pillar between the roof and rear quarter-panel was concealed by lead-loading, a time-consuming and potentially hazardous process. In the car’s first facelift, the grille was replaced by a larger plastic item, a slight but not seriously retrograde step. The C-pillar treatment still looked upmarket and classy.
When the Alfetta received its final facelift in 1983, the vents were relocated to either side of the rear window and the joint at the top of the C-pillar, rather than being lead-loaded, was covered by a really awkward and nasty looking body-coloured plastic capping, featuring an impression of the Alfa Romeo crest. One must assume that the latter change was made to facilitate easier and cheaper (and safer?) assembly, but at the cost of a really messy C-pillar treatment. Another change made in the same facelift was the addition of a grey plastic surround for the rear lights and number plate that looked more appropriate to a commercial vehicle than a prestige saloon car.
These are just a few of many examples of sub-optimal design I can think of, but I will now hand over to our readers who, I am sure, will have their own examples and thoughts on this issue to share.