Unforced Errors

The author wonders why some automotive designs end up being not as good as they should or could have been.

Image: Audi Design

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:

Image: izmo cars

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.

Image: autocar.co.uk

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.

Image: the author

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.

Image: carousell.sg

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.

Image: netcarshow.com

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.

Image: the author

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.

Image: autocicognara.it

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

35 thoughts on “Unforced Errors”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thank you for today’s writing. I agree with everything you said here, with the exception of the DS3. You’re photoshop is a great improvement, but there’s still a lot I would change.

    The Swift is delightful car. Probably my favorite design in this segment. Apart from having a shut line obsession I have a fascination for frameless windows. I think the Swift would benefit from them. They might have their engineering challenges, but I think it makes for a cleaner look. It will never happen, though. The Swift is a practical car for practical people. People who might close the door by pushing against the window instead of using the door handle.

    1. Good morning Freerk. Like you, I really like the Swift, but I’m sorry to say that the current Mk3 model has continued the move away from the Mk1’s optimal resolution, now featuring a fussy C-pillar treatment and ‘hidden’ (i.e. not at all) rear door handle:

      It is not by any means a bad looking car, but compares poorly with the delightful, perfect original:

    2. To me, the current Swift is just confused, if still charming. It’s trying to wedge a more squared-off visual style into the original design, which is almost modernist in its austerity. It’s also following trends like the partly-blacked off C-pillar that ruin one of the most delightful aspects of the design: the Saab-esque “visor” front window/DLO combine. Seeing particularly the second-gen reminds me of the Saabs featured yesterday. The more squared-off bustle back doesn’t really work either. Moaning aside though, the Swift is a nice design in any iteration.

      The DS3 never entirely worked for me: the bulkhead’s too high and the headlamps are too big, trying to lend gravity to the bluff but short nose and counterbalance the enormous grille. I can see what they were trying to do, but it hasn’t quite come off for me. Regarding the top of the A pillar: I would suggest that it tries to ape the slanted line at the bottom of the pillar that you like (and I don’t because it attracts attention to the bulkhead being too high), as shown by this expert illustration 😁:

      This does nothing to diminish the amateurishness of execution you highlight.

    3. Hi Tom. For some reason, your illustration put me in mind of this:

      (There’s no fathoming the way my neural connections work these days…)

  2. Great article, those areas on the DS3 are particularly good examples of of the ‘least-worst’ kind of decisions designers frequently have to make, prompting this first comment from a long time reader!

    My guess would be that the position of the incongruous crease at the base of the A-pillar was likely in the position it was on a internal design vision model which probably featured some extremely optimistic and barely feasible shutline resolution, but ideal A pillar proportion and thickness.

    Faced with the realistic breakup of the glass, door frame and capping there was probably a choice between aligning the crease as you have photoshopped, which gives the impression of a thin and fragile A pillar, aligning it as the production model has which gives the intended A pillar thickness but with the door shut bisecting it, or removing it all-together and creating an a-pillar that awkwardly bananas out at its base. The least-worst?

    For me, the roof is clearer cut – although your photoshopped colour break for the contrast roof is cleaner, it would visually lift the cant-rail and DLO top by a good 50mm atleast. When the DLO height is so critical to the impression of overall vehicle height and proportion, a shutline crossing into the white would be small price to pay for the whole car feeling a good chunk lower, especially on what is quite a bloated package for a small car.

    1. Good morning Jordan. Thank you for your comments and a belated welcome to DTW!

      Regarding that crease at the base of the A-pillar, I take your point about my revision possibly making the pillar look thin and fragile, so another alternative treatment would simply be to dispense with the crease entirely. Likewise, I take your point about the paint treatment being intended to lower the apparent height of the roof but, to my eyes, it’s too obviously a ‘cheat’ to be effective (but then, I am a shut-line obsessive!)

      More generally about my revisions to the DS3. There’s an old anecdote that, I think sums it up quite nicely: an English tourist pulls up in rural Ireland to ask for directions to a particular town. The old boy he asks thinks for a minute before replying, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” 😁

  3. Thanks for the article and the photoshop work. The original Swift really was a little masterpiece – one of those cars (or even objects) that, when you first lay eyes on it, it just seems right. It’s quietly striking, yet looks simple (even if making it so was actually very complicated). Its successors were both inferior, increasingly so, rather like the trend in BMW MINIs.

    The DS3 is infuriating. It’s almost a really nice car, but the effect is ruined by the details (such as those you identify and try to fix). The original C4 Cactus has the same issue with the A pillar as the DS3 and looks similarly cheapened by the way the matte dark grey wrap just stops at the top somewhere at the top of the pillar. The top edge looks unfinished. Why would they accept that? A shame as I otherwise am an admirer of the C4 Cactus, for the way that the designer did everything in their path to create a singularly concave set of panels.

    Just don’t get me started on the Adam’s plastic triangle at the base of the A pillar …

    1. Good afternoon S.V. Ah yes, that design SNAFU is definitely worthy of note in this context.

      Not entirely an unforced error as, to incorporate the triangle into the bonnet where it belongs, they would have needed to design a fancy articulation for the bonnet hinges, which would have cost more than GM wanted to spend.

      Here’s the offending article, £19.95 second-hand on Ebay:

    2. I used to be bothered by that triangle on the Adam. These days I am not so irritated – the car is so nice in other ways it seems a small price to pay.

  4. For me all those black window frames snd pillars don’t work in general and therefore for example an XM doesn’t have a floating roof but a roof on an endless number of black supports. This makes the photoshopped DS3 look wrong for me. The rear glass should not align with the door but with the glass as it would do if there were rear doors and the crease in the A pillar should be as it is on the actual car.
    And in an ideal world the DS3 would have a handle so you can grab it and throw it away.

    1. Hi Dave. I would refer you to my “wouldn’t start from here” anecdote above!

  5. Daniel,

    The 2-piece glass in the DS3’s doors is probably due to internal items like door hinges or supports that won’t allow for a full length glass.

    There is also the possibility of needing a channel to support the glass when opening. I was able to find one photo of a partially open door window and it appears the glass moves slightly forward when lowered, possibly to avoid an internal structure like the locking mechanism. In that case, because the glass cannot rely on the window frame as a guide when opening or closing, the engineers needed to extend the front glass channel upwards, hence the fixed glass panel.

    1. Hi Bill. Fair comment, but given how many similarly sized three-door hatchbacks have single-piece glasses in their doors, I imagine that it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of Citroën engineers to do likewise.

    2. Look at the side profile of a DS3; if the glass were one piece and to drop following in the direction of the frame at the B-pillar, it will run out of door to go into before the glass completely descends due to the door becoming narrower at the base along the rocker line versus the window line. It even looks that if it were to descend directly down without any angle it would still potentially fail to have enough space.

    3. Hi cjiguy. Yes, a one-piece glass would appear to foul the front edge of the inner door if it fell in the direction you suggest:

      But it doesn’t have to. It’s not exactly a difficult fix, even if required some minor tweaking of the door window frame channels to allow the glass to drop vertically:

      This, however, rather misses the point I was attempting to make. Why not design out these difficulties in the first place?

    4. The easiest solution would have been to design axdoor without that silly shutline.

  6. Oh, can I be the first to point out that the Alfetta always had it’s panel gap up near the roof line, it was lead filled originally. Sadly I don’t know why the air extraction vents moved, Giuliettas and 75’s kept them in the same place. Perhaps some kind of aerodynamic effect was at play and that position was more effective at sucking stale air out of the cabin. Whatever the reason it makes the rear window look like it doesn’t fill the hole properly.

    For sub optimal detailing, may I nominate the current Mazda 3. Gorgeous as the rest of the car is, the rear door window brightwork is in two parts joined together at a random point along the DLO, rather than been tucked in a corner or done in one piece. Most odd.

    1. Hi Richard, “it makes the rear window look like it doesn’t fill the hole properly”. Speaking of that:

      Still it’s a rare facelift that arguably improves upon the original…

      …which itself was facelifted, leading to an unforced error.

      Those flares are the most horrid ever, IMO. What was Alessandro thinking?

    2. Hi Richard. Thanks for that correction. Text duly amended.

      I’ve being trying to spot the break in the Mazda 3’s DLO brightwork you mention without success. Is it on the saloon or hatchback?

  7. Hi Daniel,

    I’ve certainly been on your case about shutlines before, but as always you present an incredibly detailed and cogent case for why things shouldn’t be the way they are and I can do nothing but agree! I have to say, having not the eye for shutlines that you do I cannot think of any particularly egregious examples of poor work in this regard (besides perhaps some ill-advised developing market facelifts), but I have to once again come to the defense of the DS3.

    Somehow, some way, it remains attractive to me despite the litany of stylistic flaws it commits and the utter farce of a brand it sits within. I will say that the Citroen-badged grille served it much better than the Audi-mocking ‘DS’ retainer it wore after the facelift, and that ultimately despite my endearment to the design it is quite a generic looking thing, perhaps even able to serve as a Proton if one was feeling particularly ill-tempered? It certainly doesn’t say Citroen in any regard, and ultimately I have to wonder if my endearment towards it and not the Mini or Fiat 500 is simply because it doesn’t make it across the pond. Having watched reviews I certainly wouldn’t own one as the interior looks rubbish, and I generally do not believe in the idea of buying an ‘upmarket’ car based on a cheaper one (C3 in this case); I can hear my Chinese mother in my head berating me for ‘paying more for the same thing! such bad value!’ My biggest issue with its looks in prefacelift form (besides the messiness you point out) would certainly be the busy-ness of the front bumper, with the vertical DRL sitting uncomfortably in tandem with the recessed fog light—it gives the impression that it should have been a ‘one or the other’ scenario but instead both have been hastily tacked on.

    1. Good morning Alexander. You make a good point about the DS3: true quality has to be designed and engineered into the vehicle, not overlaid afterwards. That’s why I’ve never been convinced by Vanden Plas, Ghia or Vignale versions of regular production models. I’m sure they were/are perfectly pleasant and the added luxuries are welcome, but my preference would always be for fewer features and greater integral quality. When I chose my 190E company car, I could instead have had a Sierra 2.3 Ghia for roughly the same monthly leasing charge.

    2. See, my problem isn’t so much the trim and spec content as the image and branding itself. I love high-spec versions of ‘normal’ cars since they show that you don’t have to live like a peasant even if you look like one, but to call an ordinary car something nicer (i.e. Chevy Impala -> Buick LaCrosse, Ford Mondeo -> Lincoln MKZ) just smacks of inauthenticity and poor value. It’s partly why I think the new Volvo S90 succeeds where the Lincoln Continental fails (among other reasons): primarily that the S90 is your only option if you want Volvo’s biggest FWD saloon, whereas you could just get a Mondeo Vignale and be most of the way to the ‘Continental experience’.

  8. Away from the DS3, my least favourite current design is the 5 door MINI. The way the tailgate angle is so far removed from the three door makes it look gawky and hunched, while the door and window frames reminded me of those aftermarket convertible conversions of Cortinas and Cavaliers from the 70s (until I looked online and found that actually they seemed far better resolved).
    I was very pleased for a dear friend when she said she was buying a MINI on her retirement, until she told me it was a five door. In white. So the grille looks like it’s wearing a gumshield.

    1. Hi Andy. That’s another great example of sub-optimal design and an unforced error. One of the delights of the three-door hatch is its super-smooth glasshouse and floating roof, achieved by having frameless door windows. They could have done likewise with the five-door but thecost-accountants decreed otherwise and it got the horribly clunky frames you describe that look like they were knocked up in an engineering workshop.

      MINI’s press photos artfully disguise how bad they look, but this is the reality:

    2. Sorry, Konstantinos. I should have accompanied those photos with a “may offend” advisory. 😁

      Joking aside, I wonder if the designers felt a sense of despair about how the five-door turned out? I would certainly be embarrassed to put my name to it.

    3. Ahhhh, yessss, the Neorion 4X4 LWB saloon. The good thing concerning these cars is they only completed 2 vehicles, one red and the other blue. Built on an extended[?] Jeep Wagoneer chassis, they were intended to be competition to the only other 4X4 luxury SUV at the time; the Range Rover. Even the original designer distanced himself from the vehicle, suggesting it resembled a “Mountain Dinosaur”. Both are now back in Greece [the blue car was in GB for a while].

  9. Yes, another pet project of Giannis Goulandris. A completely hare-brained idea that was later coated in typical pro-business Greek car “journalist” brown-nosing. You know, the standard Greek car magazine fare: “such a marvelous idea whose potential went unrecognized by the Evil Socialists and Labor Unionists, blah blah blah.” Fun fact: this project started deep in the military junta’s rule (1972) and, by the looks of it, only aimed at showing that showcasing the “greatness” Greece could achieve under Papadopoulos and his cadre.

    The prototypes were made in 1974 and (what a coincidence!) in 1976, just one year after the junta collapsed in utter disgrace and national disaster (also taking the monarchy with it), the plug was pulled: a change in legislation “condemned” its market prospects in Greece. There are two minor and irrelevant problems with the narrative, though.

    For starters, the “legislation” issue. The Wikipedia article, whose sources are existing Greek all articles on the Chicago, is vague here – as are the sources. Are they referring to the taxation of cars during after the dictatorship? Problem is, already during the 1967-1974 dictatorship, Greece taxed larger engines to death: see the 1969-1972 1.2-liter Lancia Fulvia Berlina “Grecia”, as a prime example of this. Cars with engines above 1.3 liters were very expensive, and anything above 1.6 liters was out of most people’s reach. This means that the Chicago, even if it were ever to be put in production, would be something reserved only for the richest Greeks: shipowners, industrialists, large public works contractors. So, if Greek car historians are trying to imply that the restoration of democratic rule killed Goulandris’ super-duper fantastic project, I have to say their claim holds no water. Oh, and one last thing here: the first post-dictatorship government was staunchly right-wing.

    Then comes the other minor and irrelevant problem: it never stood a chance in the first place. It basically promised it would be a cross between a Rolls-Royce and a Range Rover Classic. Yeah, but… Did it have the necessary mechanical sophistication to poach customers from these brands? Nope. Did it have the styling finesse of a Rolls-Royce? Oh, please. Did it have the build quality, the fit and finish, the comfort, the ride quality, that would at least approach those of a Lincoln Mk. III? To claim it had any of these attributes would be preposterous. Finally, did Neorion have the fame and history that would persuade a rich buyer? No. In the eyes of anyone who was anyone back then, Goulandris was someone who merely dabbled in car making for reasons unknown (I’m torn between believing he did it as a PR stunt for the military junta or as a product of his desire to have his workforce work on thought experiments that’d bring his company some engineering-related notoriety) and not someone who would actually put the money and the effort into it.

    1. That’s a very comprehensive history of the Neoreon, thank you Konstantinos and Bill.

      Just one thing puzzles me: why doesn’t it have doors borrowed from the ADO17 BMC 1800? They would have been perfect! 😁

  10. I understand and agree with all the above expressed design concerns.

    But still I wonder:
    1-are they really design problems ?
    2-or are there, underneath, other, deeper issues?
    3-our civilization heads for more appreciation of values like integrity, logic, relation between form and function, deep thinking, analytical capability or rationality for example? Or visual culture?
    4-or is it heading towards a more elusive set of values, like simplification of tought, overstimulation of senses, high rate ‘information ‘ flow and a massive push towards entertainment and escapism?
    5-some people may agree with this interpretation, others will not.
    6-but from where I am standing, DS3, 5door minis, Fiat 500 derivatives and much others do not walk away with their sins due to design incompetence or automakers distraction.
    7-they are like that because focus groups, social research and the gathering of an huge amount of personal (meta?)data shows automakers the precise visual topics they must complain with and the ones the general public won’t notice and can thus be overlooked.
    8-So Daniel, IMHO l, they do what they do because they really know that only you and half a dozen other humans see their errors.
    9-the others have lost that skill because they never aquiered the necessary set of values.

    Jesus, the things I write…

    1. Hi Gustavo. You’ve probably nailed it with point no. 8. Most people I know think I’m slightly unhinged when I start banging on about poorly drawn panel gaps and shut-lines, ugly DLOs, awkward sail panels etc. The vast majority of car buyers either aren’t aware or aren’t bothered by the things about which I obsess. And it’s not just cars, either: my partner is also an aesthete, so buying a new kettle for our kitchen is a tortuous process!

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