Step-by-step guide on entering a car design school

Hi- blog founder Lee here! If you are reading this in application season- good news! We have some advice for you. I will be offering some additional comments on this article (written by contributor Marco Braun. I spent many years on the other side of this process- as head of a Vehicle Design bachelor course, interviewing and selecting candidates. Some of the students I selected and taught now work for major OEM studios, such as Rolls Royce, Polestar, Volvo, Maserati and Koenigsegg. They also went on to complete Masters level courses to achieve this. I like to think I have a good instinct for candidates- and yes, there will always be human beings on the other side of every process such as this. It is never just by the numbers!

info about where I taught: Lahti Institute of Design

Lee

In this article, I will tell you all about the experience of studying transportation design. I myself was lucky enough to study at one of the world’s best universities for car design. However, many may not be lucky due to financial constraints. This is why I wrote this chapter. I will give you a complete overview of how to enter a car design school. After the chapter, you will know exactly how to enter the education program of an automotive designer and what really matters. You can set your priorities in your own design studies and adjust your skills. In this way, you will push your career towards becoming a professional car designer.

Where to study?

Where is the best place to study car design? Nowadays it is possible to study car design anywhere in the world. Whether it is in Brazil or India, talented car designers come from all over the world. The internet also makes it possible to learn online. On Instagram and Simkom you can see the status quo that should be achieved. However, there are still a few car design schools with an excellent reputation. The most successful car designers are graduates of those universities.

  1. Art Center College of Design The Art Center College of Design has been a leader in art and design education for nearly 75years.
  2. HFG PforzheimThe Pforzheim School of Design (Germany) is part of thePforzheim University of Applied Sciences. It is very competitive in terms of artistic aptitude
  3. CCS – College for Creative StudiesThe College for creative Studies is one of the leading arts education institutions. It offers courses in, Product Design and Transportation Design.
  4. Royal College of Art The Royal College of Art is the world’s most influential postgraduate institution of art and design. Find out about courses, research and innovation here.
  5. Strate, School of Design Top tier ranking of the best car designschools in the world.

Note, it is not important where you study, but what you make of it. It is beneficial to study at one of these schools because they are well known and attract many talented students. Also, they maintain close contact with major car companies. However, strict eligibility for admission, financial constraints or other personal reasons sometimes make it impossible to study at one of these schools.

If you don’t have the opportunity to go to such a school, I can tell you this: To become a successful car designer, the choice of university is only of little importance. Self-motivation and the unconditional will to work on one’s skill is more crucial.

For example, a former fellow colleague of mine failed 3 times in the artistic preselection exam in Pforzheim. After that, he tried the exam again even though it was forbidden to take more than 3 attempts. He failed. Then he studied interior design in an average design school and completing his studies, got a job as an exterior designer at a famous car manufacturer in Germany. He only managed to do this because he was determined to become a car designer.

On the other hand, for example, many of my fellow students were busy doing other things alongside their studies. Some spent a lot of time on hobbies, others worked part-time. They didn’t focus 100% on their design studies. They fell by the wayside later and couldn’t find an internship or job. Therefore, it is not important where you study, but what you do with your studies. Many roads lead to Rome.

Excellent advice and a good chapter here Marco. I will add:
Yes, it is true it does not matter where you study design, or even if you study car design as a specialist subject at all. All good design degrees can and should produce potentially good car designers. I also know car designers who did not study at all, that do not even have a bachelors degree! Most of the skill has to be self-taught, and certainly it requires a lot of self-motivation. There is however, one hugely important contribution that “famous” schools will add to your potential for success- and that is connections. It really is a matter of who you know in life, and the best schools collaborate closely with, are visited by, and are known intimately by other car designers and the studios they work in. There are truly excellent design schools (for example Steiglitz Academy in Russia) which are not listed here- but which strived to maintain close links with industry through alumni. The alumni network of a school is the most important factor for you in choosing where to study. One of the best Masters courses in the world right now is at Umeå University in Sweden- and I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking to study car design. Local connection with Volvo/Polestar but globally many other OEM studios make them a great choice.

Lee

How to apply?

The application to a design college consists of 3 steps. First, the submission of the art portfolio. After the portfolio has been pre-selected, the artistic exam takes place. At the end a personal interview.

Art portfolio

If you are applying to a design school, you will need an artistic portfolio. Please gather information about the requirements of the respective university about like size, number and content that they require. Basically, it’s about showing your drawing skills and an interest in technical and artistic subjects. When creating your art portfolio, you need technical drawings such as objects and products AND also artistic drawings like drawings of people, hands etc. The goal is not only to show your passion for cars or industrial designs but also, to present your various artistic interests. Paintings, graphics or cartoon drawings do not belong in an art folder. You may decide to put in something like that, but only a few, to show the breadth of your abilities. From numerous portfolio discussions and preparation courses in which I have participated, I want to show you what really matters. The skills that should be shown in your artistic portfolio are also the basic skills for any car designer. Before you start studying car design, you should master those skills.

Here are some examples that you can use as a guide.

When you draw, you have to think about form as you want your drawings to show some volume. When you practice this, don’t stress the quality. Draw a lot, and quickly. Quantity over quality in this case. Take large-format drawing sheets and fill the whole sheet with sketches. Draw the same object several times in different views and perspectives.

Remember that it’s not about painting beautiful pictures. To paint beautiful pictures, you need two resources: patience and time. Maybe your grandma likes those paintings, however, if you want to develop a good understanding of form, it is useless. What you should also be doing is deconstructing objects. Think of each object as if it were made up of simple forms.

Seeing and grasping the forms correctly must be learned. The best way to learn this is to draw real objects. Do not use photos but use products in your environment. Why? The challenge is to transfer a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional canvas. Photographs have already anticipated this step.

You can also look at a real object from all sides and touch and feel it. You can turn and twist to be able to completely understand it three-dimensionally. Also, draw the object as if it were made of glass. Draw it in a transparent state and draw the hidden lines.

Pay attention to perspective and proportion. If the basic structure of your drawing is not stable, everything will fall apart visually and appear awkward. Therefore, pay attention to the correct perspective and proportion. Learn to study the relationships and distances between the individual shapes and transfer them to your drawing.

Qualifying Examination

After the portfolio has been pre-selected, the artistic exam takes place. The test differs from school to school. At the university in Pforzheim, it lasted one day. I was sitting in the same room with other competitors while we were working on several tasks. The first assignment was a still life that had to be drawn in 1 hour and 30 minutes. The next task required drawing a scenario out of the imagination, like an airport operation or a rush hour in the morning. A third task related to the specific subject is “automotive design”. In my exam car seats were brought in, which required to be drawn descriptively. Descriptively means to draw in perspective and from different views and angles.

If you pass the exam the first time, do not hang your head. It is not uncommon for the university to test whether you have stamina and can meet the high demands of the course.

Expert Discussion

After the exam, you will have an individual or group interview with the tutors. They will check your subject-specific general knowledge related to automobiles/automobile design. They will ask basic questions such as, “name three famous automobile designers” or “what is ABS”. Here you should show that you are enthusiastic about an automobile and motivation making it clear that you are the right one for the program.

braunmarco.com

The actual application process varies a lot- as Marco rightly pointed out. The advice here regarding drawing of 3D form is excellent- as that is what all designers are judged on. Often, young people mistake a portfolio to mean a list of achievements, or artworks that took the most time. Effort is not the key metric or measurement used by design schools to judge you. Quality and understanding of the world is. A portfolio of photography for example- is not going to get you into a car design school. Lastly- what is termed “expert discussion” here usually takes the form of an interview. This is sometimes a group, but often a one to one chat- and for example in my own process of selecting Vehicle Design candidates this was one of the most crucial steps. Attitude, knowledge, previous skills, or just simple enthusiasm for design- are all assessed in minutes during any interview. Interviewers are trying to asses your potential and motivations- not just your knowledge. Personally I value wide knowledge, travel, reading, and broad observations of the world as these are what make a good designer in any genre. I also asked questions that are not as related to cars as Marco has explained. A good school will seek this type of student. Be wary of narrow- technical questions- this is perhaps indicative of German engineering based thinking, but other schools may have a much more open approach. Most importantly, always be yourself in interviews- do not try to speak or act in a way that you think the interviewer wants you to. If a car design school does not select you- maybe it was difficult for the interview to see your potential or maybe you are just not ready yet.. It really is a case of 110% commitment and determination- and if you are not in that frame of mind yet, don’t give up. Lastly, don’t worry too much about schools, because when you are ready for this career- the industry will know it better than any school.

Lee

Proportion of a CITY CAR

The purpose of this tutorial is to give you an idea of how to best start a new project in the world of automotive design. Both beginners, students and even professionals feel the same difficulties whendrawing a car type that they have never drawn before.

The purpose of this tutorial is to give you an idea of how to best start a new project in the world of automotive design. Beginners, students, and even professionals alike experience the same difficulties when drawing a car type that they have never drawn before. 

Before starting a project, it is very helpful to know the basic proportions and hardpoints of the object. Familiarize yourself with the package and proportions first.

This example should encourage you to analyze the basic proportions of different vehicle types.

Mazda2


Always focus on the side view first. The side view contains all the necessary information you need to draw a car. After internalizing the basic proportions, it will be easier for you to get results since the basic architecture is correct. 

For the purpose of this tutorial, let’s assume you need to design a city car. In the first picture below, you see the same car but with different proportions. Their overhang, wheel size, and cabin-to-body ratios are different.

The car can be built or designed like these. Nevertheless, between the two designs, the upper one is more convincing. This is mainly due to the cabin-to-body ratio. To avoid the mistake made in the second design and prevent other errors, take a close look at the proportions.

First, try to find out the length and height of the car. To find the correct wheelbase, it helps to take one wheel as a base unit. Now you can guess how many wheels fit between the front and rear axle.

Also, you can see that the overhang of the front and rear is about half a wheel. The rear is a bit shorter. The height is slightly more than one wheel.

In the next step, try to get a sense of the cabin-to-body ratio. This knowledge is extremely important as most cars are roughly made out of two boxes, which are the cabin and body. You should know in what ratio the upper box (cabin) is set on the lower box (body). You will never go wrong assuming a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio. Whether you are drawing a side view or a perspective view, you should pay attention to it.

The roofline of a car is usually not straight but follows a dynamic curve. The head of the occupants usually determines the peak of the curve. To find the location of the roofline, it helps to draw a straight line down and see in what proportion the line intersects the ground line.

Next, look at the shoulder. You will notice that almost every automobile has a certain angle. This gives the whole car a forward motion and makes it look dynamic even when it is not moving. You can emphasize this angle sometimes more and sometimes less. 

Now, you can also check where the front light and the rear light are positioned. If you draw a vertical line from the beginning of the light downwards, you’ll see that it overlaps the front and rear wheel.

Another important point is the position of the A-pillar. It gives you information about the angle of the windshield. If you extend the A-pillar, you see that it is tangent to the front wheel. The door joint is usually located where the A-pillar begins. In this case, slightly offset behind the front wheel.

After completing the steps above, you’ll have an approximate skeleton of the car. When drawing your design on this skeleton, you will always hit the right proportions. 

Now, you have all the information needed to start drawing your own car. If you follow this tutorial, you can be sure to meet the basic package and technical requirements of designing a vehicle with the right proportions. This will make your sketch look convincing and realistic.

braunmarco.com

Pick up Truck in 5 days

In this tutorial, you will learn how to create a complete pickup truck design in 5 days!

As a student, it has always been a great challenge for me to create a design proposal from three different views. Not only must the same idea be presented from three different perspectives, but all three views should also have the same proportions, colors, etc. For me, that has always been very challenging, and it still is today.

In this example project, I want to show you the process of making a complete vehicle proposal in less than one week. You will learn how to make a complete car design proposal that contains three views at a reasonable time. This ability is essential for working in the auto industry, where it is important to deliver qualitative results in a short time. 

In this tutorial, I will use a very easy way of CAD: just using lines without creating 3D surfaces. This saves time and can be performed even without much CAD knowledge. This is a special technique, and it is not a rule to be followed, but it should give you an idea of how to speed up our design process. It’s very helpful for beginners as well as professionals. 

Now, if you follow the steps below, you can design a full pickup truck proposal in less than one week.

Day 1

Having a good side view is essential since all further steps will be built on this side view. Before this step, draw some side views and select an idea. This side view is the base and is more important than anything else. When you start a new project, focus only on making the side view. Don’t care about the front and rear ideas yet. Not a single perspective drawing is necessary. 

In this step, pay special attention to the right proportion and balance. This can take some time, so don’t rush. Choose a reference to get the overall dimensions right. Just use a real car image from the internet as a base. After correcting the proportion and balance in Photoshop, refine the shapes and paint in some color. 

Day 2

Now that you have a good side view, it is time to go into 3D. Do not generate real 3D surfaces, but instead, focus on a line model. Use a free version of Autodesk Alias, as it is a common program in the automotive industry. Upload your sketch in the software and trace the lines. When retracing the lines in 3D, try to stay as close as possible to the original sketch. Be very accurate and do not change anything. 

After you have drawn the lines on a 2D plane, pull them into a 3D space. To get the right dimension for width and certain curvature, it is helpful to use an already existing 3D model as a base. Or if you can’t find a suitable one, just use a blueprint. A good source of free 3D models is Grab.com. It is always good to have templates to guide you.

Day 3

After you are satisfied with the line model, you can choose three views. You should choose views that describe your design in the best possible way.

Do not over-dramatize your view. Rather, try to take a view that conveys the most information to the viewer.

Take a screenshot and increase the contrast to make the lines more visible. Print them out on real paper and choose a size that makes it comfortable for you to sketch.

Now, you can start drawing an idea for the front and rear of the vehicle. When sketching, do not waste so much time. It is ok when some areas in the sketch remain empty.

Day 4&5

Next, it’s time to scan your sketches and load them onto Photoshop. Now the advantage of this technique becomes apparent. You no longer have to worry about proportion, balance, or perspective because all the information is already included in the line model based on the side view from step one. That saves you a lot of time. 

You can now invest this time in making a cool rendering. If you are not completely satisfied with your design yet, do not try to change. Try to finish your design and bring it to an end. If you’ve executed the steps correctly, congratulations! You have finished a complete pickup truck design in less than one week!

braunmarco.com

Step-by-Step Rendering of a Sports Car

This is a step-by-step tutorial that will teach you how to create a digital car rendering yourself.

We start by clarifying what a good basis for each rendering is and how best to start. Next, we will use a digital brush to define the shapes. In the end, we will apply reflections and details to get an outstanding result.

1. Creating the sketch base

One of the most important tips for a successful rendering is to have a good and solid base. By “base,” I mean a hand sketch, digital sketch, or line model. If you don’t have a base, things can get complicated and frustrating. So do not explore shapes without a solid sketch base, simply because it’s easy to lose yourself and waste time. 

After you’ve created a base, at this point, the actual design process and shape development has already taken place. The rendering is a more detailed illustration that helps make a visually appealing presentation, which, in turn, helps sell the proposal to the customer.

2. Defining the surroundings

Before the coloring process, you should be roughly aware of what your surroundings look like. It helps to prepare a scene to roughly visualize your thoughts. It’s not necessary to do this every time, but it helps you understand what’s going on. 

In the example below, there is a primary light source coming near the front of the car, there is a wall behind the car in an outside environment, and the sun is shining. So, we should somehow transfer this scene to our reflections.

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3. Blocking out

In this step, we divide the car into three different blocks. This helps you visualize the different materials later.

Divide the vehicle into the main body, greenhouse, and grill and wheels. 

Then, create paths with which you get a sharp edge and an overall clean look. Select the path and fill it out with a base color.

Cut out the wheels from the original sketch and transform them a little bit. Make them elliptical and correct their position. 

Once this step is done, half the rendering is done. You can’t go wrong anymore.

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4 & 5. Shading

In this step, try to describe the shape using different gray values. The rule is: Whenever the value changes, the shape also changes. 

Try to use the correct values. The rendering will look unrealistic if you use the wrong values. If you want to know more about the topic, I definitely recommend Scott Robertson and Thomas Bertling’s book “How to Draw,” in which they explain the fundamentals of light and shadow.

By the way, never choose white as your brightest value. It will not work. We will only paint certain spots white at the end when we use the color dodge tool in Photoshop to really highlight certain areas.

6. Adding reflections

Don’t draw a photorealistic render here. The reflections should be designed as simply and effectively as possible. It will be helpful to check the surfaces. 

In the example mentioned earlier, the car is in front of a wall. That information should show in your reflection. Moreover, all surfaces that point upwards should reflect the sky. And don’t forget the greenhouse. If you want to create lighting effects, simply use the color dodge tool.

7. Adding details

Details take a lot of effort and time. If you don’t make an effort in this step and don’t invest time, the details will often just disturb and not help your rendering. I definitely recommend adding details because they help the rendering a lot and make it much more attractive to the viewer. 

In order to create details quickly and effectively, I suggest using real photos. Use a photo of an existing car’s grill, and you’ll save time. Also, add some mirrors.

braunmarco.com

Happy Yuletide Holiday!

Cheers!

Happy holidays to you all! I have an interesting treat for you on this Xmas holiday. I often mention that my very full time career means a lot less posts appearing here. During 2021 an interesting solution to this appeared – in the form of another contributor. I was very pleased to be contacted by a talented vehicle designer called Marco Braun. Marco offered to write a few guides to car design that complimented my own. Today I publish these guides in a festive gift bundle! I ask that you also check Marco’s own web portfolio and contact him if you are interested in working with Marco! Marco was one of the designers responsible for the recent Lexus LF-Z Electrified Concept car and I am very pleased to have his expert contribution to this blog.

braunmarco.com

Marco Braun is an expert in the field of Automotive Design. In February 2017, he graduated with a B.A. in Transportation Design from the University of Pforzheim. In the past, Mr. Braun has worked on experimental concepts, advanced, competition, and production design for the Lexus and Toyota brands, in Tecno Art Research, a design studio in Nagoya-shi, Japan. Since the start of my professional education, it has been my vision to play a part in the development of transportation and mobility designs of the future.
E-Mail
info@braunmarco.com
Link

Rush Magazine- issue 2 featuring thoughts from Automotive Styling.

https://www.rushmagazine.co.uk/post/the-art-of-speed

Book club for car designers part 2: book recommendations.

I actually managed to read a few car design books in the last year, one upside of lockdown it seems. There are many coffee table, or reference works on cars and even car design (in theory). A lot of these are very dry- and essentially just worth checking for photography or facts/data, but not for entertaining reading. I guess I won’t be sent any further review copies by publishers as I was very critical of the Bruno Sacco biography for example- which wasn’t a biography at all. If you would actually like to learn anything about car design I have read a few books that I would recommend (please excuse the amateur photos of the books).

The most obvious source of car design wisdom or insight, would come from an autobiography of a car designer we can assume? Due to the niche nature of this topic- these are unfortunately rare. The designers that we want to hear from are often still part of the business and the politics of the industry prevent them from sharing anything interesting. They are also much too busy to put any words to paper. Luckily we have recently been treated by one of the giants of the car design business, to a genuinely self penned autobiography of astonishing quality. Originally written in French, but translated immaculately by another car design expert (and friend of the author) Tony Lewin and published in English, this book is one of the best I have ever read on this subject. I am talking about Patrick Le Quément’s life in car design which he has shared with us and titled: Design Between the Lines.

Patrick Le Quément: Design Between the Lines. Pictured at Lahti Institute of Design library.

Le Quément’s entire life is remarkable and his brilliant book is physically large and aesthetically beautiful, but contains wisdom which is more than skin deep. The book is full colour on every page, with an illustrative image hand drawn to accompany almost every story or chapter. The format of this book is hard to describe, but wonderful to read through. It is not in chronological order, but it is certainly well organised. It can be read cover to cover, but it can also be enjoyed in random order, with it’s clever self-contained chapters on topics of interest. It can be read again to let philosophies sink in, book-marked for reference by any design professor, or simply read as R&R on the beach, Only a great designer could design their own autobiography in this way, and Patrick and his contributors (a good designer makes sure counter arguments are present) have put together not just an interesting story of an interesting life, of an interesting man- they also manage to educate even this knowledgeable lecturer of vehicle design. I have learned from this book- perhaps obviously, in terms of inside stories of design projects we only knew from the outside (Renault Avantime for example) but also in terms of design methodology and tricks of the trade, explained in such clarity that concepts I knew vaguely became crystallised. I have no idea if Le Quément has found himself in any trouble over this, but he explains quite a few trade secrets and magic recipes for design in general. This book will be placed forever on my student vehicle design curriculum, but is also a very enjoyable read. What an extraordinary achievement. Much like Patrick’s design career- this is world class. Design Between the Lines should be on everyone’s shelf who has even the slightest interest in car design. Do not hesitate to buy this!

Patrick’s tongue in cheek explanation of the snobbish hierarchy of vehicle design. Painfully accurate.

In a very slightly smaller format- but no lesser in quality in terms of paper, printing method and full colour content- we have another car designer’s autobiographical tale. This time in a much more traditional chronological, and anecdotal format. The book lives with a very lengthy title: An English Car Designer Abroad: Designing for GM, Audi, Porsche and Mazda, and was written by the very likeable Peter Birtwhistle. I say likeable, despite never meeting Peter or knowing him personally (I knew his name of course) before reading this, my first compliments to this book are that I feel that I know Peter after reading it! You don’t need to know this designers name previously to enjoy his book, as Peter humbly introduces himself. Peter was not just head of Mazda’s European design studio, he actually created it but you can read that story when you buy his book. He seems like a chap I would like to know: honest, hard working and blessed with a journey through life that I and possibly all car designers would wish for- up to a point. The title of this book struck a chord with me, as an English car designer abroad myself. The story contained within must sound very familiar to the few hundred souls that have taken a similar path as Peter, but perhaps alien to those that haven’t. Peter does a very warm welcoming job of explaining his journey for anyone to understand and enjoy. It is not a book just for the insiders, and has no industry double-speak. The gifted Mr Birtwhistle worked his way right to the top of car design and the titular references to four major car brands shows how diplomatic he is to name all that have been part of his journey. Name dropping? Wait until you read Peter’s wonderful story of why and how those companies are all important to him. There are fascinating stories from the coal-face of car design across the entire world, and all told in a very heartfelt and personal way. For example, any MX-5 fan will be fascinated by Peter’s tales of that project. Characters on the journey are described with whit and fondness, and the reader will feel they know those people too. This book educated me on car design politics and process, and it humanises the corporate. Towards the end I was genuinely moved reading of some of his family and personal troubles (trying to avoid spoilers, Peter has had triumphs and tragedies in his life). This is a book that shows us how it feels to be a car designer, the highs and the lows, the loneliness and the camaraderie. It’s an emotional journey that I was not expecting in a book on this topic. I would like to thank Peter one day in person, for opening up about his experiences. This is not a reference book in the way Le Quément’s expertly constructed book is- this is a must read for any young person aspiring to be a car designer, or any old person who wishes that they had been. You can experience what could be, or what could’ve been, through Peter’s eyes and ears, as told by him. With feeling.

Less well known- but Peter Birtwhistle has a fascinating story to tell of his career which took him right to the top.
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Floating on the C.

The history of the floating roof or, the uninteresting curiosity of the separated C-pillar.

Automotive styling is very much a fashion business. Designers are a rare breed, existing in very low numbers. They study at the same places and learn from each other. They change studios quite often, and sometimes in packs (headhunted by each other). Add the huge risks involved in billion dollar business decisions and we constantly will see what looks like copy-cat trends in automotive styling, but are actually a lot more subconscious in implementation. There are even trends in design sketch styles- but I think that may deserve it’s own blog post. The fashion industry carefully monitors and plans around trends, and this is also true in automotive (particularly CMF departments) but in terms of exterior design the intention is often to appear different (brand recognition) but the result can be quite similar if a design is “on trend”. Sometimes there are glaringly obvious copies- but more commonly we just see the results of parallel inspirations and attempts to appear on consumers radar as the “next best thing”. Recently my fleet of cars increased with a 2014 BMW i3 joining. This wonderful design (exterior by Nicolas Guille) inspired me to think about it’s stylistic influences. For around 10 years we have seen a trend for elaborate C-pillar dressage and floating roofs, along with abrupt changes in window/belt lines. Let me try to explain, and perhaps uncover a timeline. It might not be very interesting….

Authors own i3…. with paint-over graphic.

The first evidence of floating roof designs probably came from our likeable original gangsters of car styling– the US of A. The 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air is pretty much the archetypal elaborate Coupé roof protege. The Bel Air continued this style for many iterations and is remembered almost exclusively for it. Many pre-war cars had contrasted colour roofing. The materials used were soft fabrics and coverings were often temporary. Pre-war was an era when most cars were not fixed roof. The rise of monocoque construction post war (from aircraft metal working technology) with reduced costs of panel stamping in mass production, meant that the the fabric roof died out due to a reversal of costs. Metal was now king, but the US stylists used paint choices and styling lines to remind us of the elegant past of coach-built carriages and pre-war romance. Post war emotional styling was the next big trend.

1950 Chevrolet Bel Air

In Europe the roof shapes and design were much more pragmatic due to manufacturing methods(similar technology from aircraft) but with more subdued styling that owed a lot to housing (actual miniature gutters around the domed roof!) rather than high-tech space-age ideas. It is often joked that a Rover, or Rolls Royce is a stately home on wheels, and this is stylistically and thematically true (inside and outside). The 1959 Mini shows a long-lasting example of this style, continued as pastiche to this day with all Mini designs. Just before the mini appeared, Europe create one of the most original and innovative car designs ever from Flaminio Bertoni in 1955. The Citroen DS. The same guttering can be seen, which also neatly hides the edges of the roof panel, but the jet-set style of American cars is also hinted at. The Citroen was remarkable for so many innovative technologies and the roof was yet another, being made from GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). Matching a plastic panel colour to painted metal (and perhaps even painting it) was not easy in the 1950s, so I believe this might explain the decision not to match the colours on the cheaper ID19 model based on the DS21. The DS/ID roof was also bolted on, with a rubber seal between it and the metal frame. On later models the plastic roof was bonded with adhesive! In 1966, this was truly space age, and links very nicely to perhaps the spiritual successor of the DS for innovation and technology – the BMW i3. A plastic roof panel again, but this time recycled CFRP (Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic) is again glued onto the roof frame. A glass roof was available on the BMW, but Citroen reportedly offered an even more daring entirely transparent panel for the DS! Glass roofs are a modern trend, perhaps publicised heavily by Tesla, but Citroen did it first over 65 years ago.

Detail of 1957 Citroen ID19 rear C-pillar.
Transparent full roof on a Citroen DS
BMW i3 roof is lowered into place before bonding.

Between these two important vehicles were some lesser known brave designs that tried tricks with C-pillar design. The most outstanding of all was the Renault Avantime of 1999. Patrick Le Quement lead a major renaissance of Renault design, and French car design in general, during the 1990s. Beginning with some rather sensible unexciting designs – which were excellent examples of the late 80s and early 90s industrial design aesthetic (strong aerodynamic and engineering-led designs). The late 90s and leading into the new millennium Renault’s financial position enabled Le Quement to take some bold next steps. The Avantime was a very strong example of his modernist approach. Even the vehicle type it represented was totally unique, a 2 door MPV/Coupe/Luxury sedan “crossover” which sounds strange even now. BMW later got close to this concept with their 5 series Gran Turismo of 2009 (F07).

Very bold C-Pillar treatment on the 1999 Renault Avantime

The failure of the bold works of Le Quement perhaps set back car styling a few years, (along with perhaps the Fiat Multipla) to it’s usual cautious self. Fiat followed quite soon with their new Panda design, with a utilitarian approach to window graphics, somewhat similar to the i3 created 10 years later. It wasn’t until Chris Bangle gained a powerful position at BMW that things finally took a step forwards. From 2003 when Bangle released his iconic E60 5 series it was game on, and Citroen certainly took note of this. They explored more interesting design shapes, and their 2005 C-Sport Lounge concept car showed bold treatment of it’s C-pillar, a lot like their famous DS model of the past. The inspiration seemed to come full circle, when that Citroen inspired the creation of an entire new brand: DS, and the concept car developed into the DS5 production model of 2011. The smaller DS3 model was released first, and we saw that the C-pillar treatment and contrast colour roof was emphasised as a key DS brand trait. The DS brand really brought these ideas to the mass-market and this is when other manufactures began to borrow this European flair. The Japanese (Nissan), and Korean car companies embraced this flair, in an attempt to appeal to European tastes and the Koreans are still playing with more styling ideas than perhaps any other manufacturers. Something that we have seen the DS brand introduce into the mainstream, is the shark fin B-pillar treatment seen on the DS3 model first. This forward facing styling feature, is reminiscent of the reverse rake screen of the Citroen AMI-6. The AMI 6 was Citroen’s most extreme take on the interesting styling of a C-pillar. It is the opposite angle to which we are accustomed, and the DS has a B-pillar which reverses the usual directional angle that we expect in this area. This shark fin is something we see moved to the C-pillar in a lot of contemporary Kia designs for example.

Citroen AMI 6 of 1961- with reverse rake C-pillar and floating contrast roof.
2009 DS3
Kia Sorento 2021, with DS style shark fin, but no floating roof or separated C-Pillar.

Lastly a couple of honourable mentions to bold designs that have pushed floating roof, contrast colours, and elaborate C-pillar designs into new genres. The Aston Martin DB11 (designed by Julian Nunn and Leighanne Earley) is still controversial after it’s 2016 debut, thanks mostly to it’s floating C-pillar design. This seemed much too “fashionable” for die-hard Aston traditionalists. Warnings were given that it may date, but has it? The trend is still around 5 years later, and also the design had many advantages. One reason it was green-lit was for the customisation options it gave Aston buyers. Different materials, and different colour combinations (including non- contrasting) are available in almost infinite variations. Aston wanted to emphasise they were a bespoke car company. You can play with those yourself on their configurator…. The c-pillar also conveyed a hidden message, regarding the innovative aerodynamic design. Air is ingested at the leading edge of the C-pillar, the rear of the second side window. Air travels down the C-pillar internal structure, either side of the luggage space, and exists in a slot across the rear deck. This creates a spoiler, an invisible air spoiler, to give high speed stability, known as Airblade. The invisible spoiler is one of the DB11’s greatest design features, and means we get that lovely smooth clean rear deck

floating c-pillar, and air slot rear spoiler visible on rear deck lid.
Photo by Toms Svilans on Pexels.com

A car that I owned (from new in 2017, but replaced in 2021) is the dramatic and bold Toyota C-HR. This coupe crossover was a styling-trick tour de force. A real life text book for aspiring car designers to learn every trick from. There has perhaps not been any car in history that employed so many styling tricks in ONE vehicle, it probably deserves a blog post of its own. It did also hit the trend of contrast colour roof, with a floating C-pillar. By now I hope you realise that floating, means that the roof structure, and the side/door structure of the car seem to be separated somehow- as if the roof just floats over the body of the car. Toyota also used this transitional area, between side and roof, to cram in a “hidden” rear door handle. It was not completely invisible, but it was impractical and a purely styling based decision to put it there. I found it useful as a parent because my young children at the time could not reach to open the door themselves. This meant I had more control of where and when they opened it!

Authors own C-HR… with added snow in complex C-pillar design

The most important and radical cars since the DS, as mentioned earlier, were the BMW i3 and i8. These cars were previewed by the advanced thinking, efficient dynamics concepts. The first of these debuted in 2009. The floating surfaces, and new shapes and structures were made possible by carbon construction techniques. The concepts were perhaps created with total freedom, and the production cars could follow with innovative surfaces. In the case of these cars, the styling was to create the feeling that almost every component of the car was floating- and not connected to any other component. This is a huge leap away from the solidity and formality previously expected of vehicle aesthetics. An annihilation of the Bauhaus-like principles that car design still hinted at, but did not respect, in terms of being pure emotional styling exercises, not rational products. There was of course some functionality implied by these cars styling, mostly aerodynamic flow management and the visual representation of it. This can be done without the flowing aesthetics, as evidenced in cars such as the McLaren Senna, or almost any covered-wheel race car. The i8 followed on from the concept, and put in practice a reoccurring aesthetic which had a surface starting at the A-pillar, flowing all the way to the rear deck, via a C-pillar (B-pillar was invisible, blacked out, or not present). The glass and dark coloured body of the cars were sandwiched in between. This has become a trademark style of all BMW i products. The forward thinking of the original two i3 and i8 products, means that many other brands and designs have been influenced by them. The separation of the roof- with a flowing line from A pillar to rear most pillar, with blacked out section in between has become a true car styling trope of the 2020s.

Efficient (Aero)dynamics. Thanks to CarDesignNews for the image.
BMW i3 Concept and BMW i8 Concept (09/2011)

I tried to list a timeline of significant cars with this styling feature- but my knowledge will have significant gaps, and with a current trend such as this you will easily find many more cars with the feature. Asia (Chinese brands in particular) will be home to a huge number of models with this fashionable styling idea. Pick any brand, for example I will choose Geely, and there it is again on at least 3 models.

2021 Geely Atlas (previously Boyue from 2016-2020)

During the more pragmatic 1970s, 80s and even 90s, there were cars with styling features on their C-pillars which might be classified here but mostly the features were to hide welds, or act as air vents. In the 70s the black vinyl roof was a popular look, but without the floating style of the C-pillar being different in colour to the roof and body side. The 80s and 90s also saw aero look as a trend, and perhaps another blog post can explore this. Aerodynamic aesthetics originally meant lack of features, and quite uniform shapes. One example might be the Renault Fuego from 1980, and the same year the extremely small division at the base of the Audi Coupe C-pillar. Perhaps if you find more examples of this aesthetic, post them in the comments section.

Timeline of floating C-pillar developments

  • 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air
  • 1955 Citroen DS and ID19
  • 1959 Austin Mini
  • 1969 Land Rover Range Rover
  • 1980 Renault Fuego
  • 1980 Audi Coupe (B2)
  • 1982 Citroen BX
  • 1985 Ford Granada/Scorpio
  • 1999 Renault Avantime
  • 2003 Fiat Panda
  • 2005 Citroen C-Sport Lounge (concept)
  • 2009 BMW Efficient Dynamics (concept)
  • 2009 Citroen DS3
  • 2011 Citroen DS5
  • 2012 Opel Adam
  • 2013 BMW i3 and i8
  • 2014 Citroen C4 Cactus
  • 2016 Aston Martin DB11
  • 2016 Lexus RX
  • 2019 Peugeot 2008
  • 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

Thanks again to www.citroenorigins.fi for great Citroen images!

EDIT: Thanks to replies on Twitter- and in the comments section, I decided to add some reader suggestions in another gallery.

Debate seems to centre on what counts as a floating C-pillar, and I agree that not all my examples “float”. There has been some designs mentioned with a blacked out C-pillar, such as the Ford Granada Scorpio. Yes a black painted C-pillar does indeed create a floating roof, this is true, but the added upwards kink or other changes of colour or material, are the main exaggerated versions we see as a modern trend. Citroen have had this feature on nearly every model since the DS, and the XM is reminiscent of the BMW i3 for sure. Meanwhile after writing this post, Genesis said “hold my beer” and created one of the strangest C-pillar designs we’ve seen for a long time with their new BEV, the GV60. Hard to describe (essentially a severe V graphic) but I’m not a fan.

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Bella Macchina

Speedsters. There are a few around suddenly… and the reason? Rivals are reacting to Ferrari and their Monza SP1/SP2. I want to quickly write this post about probably my favourite production car design right now (in 2021) and it’s the now 3 year old design of the Ferrari Monza SP1. The single seat version is unique among the supercar collector toys (barring the BAC Mono, which is also a superb design) in having a completely pure selfishly solo driving experience. Along with the front engine layout giving a classical long bonnet this leaves beautiful expenses of bodywork to be sculpted. Perhaps because the overall concept is so extreme, the Monza received a relatively tame and minimalist surfacing language in counterpoint. It also appears rather less aggressive than the current crop of super and hyper cars, with its retro nod to the original 750 Monza. Just beautiful.

Honourable mention to some of my other favourite car styling currently in production- in no particular order:

Land Rover Defender. Another design with exquisite surfacing and such a good product it affects sales of Range Rovers.

Toyota CH-R. Very radical and has influenced the styling of every other Toyota. Good enough that I bought (and recently sold) one.

Mazda 3. Such creativity and flair is rare in the cheap Golf class of car. The entire Mazda range is superb currently, with beautiful interiors also.

Volvo XC40. The quality of this design in all areas is astonishing, and the CMF team at Volvo consistently produce the best interior schemes!

Aston Martin DB11. A superbly judged update to Aston design language which has proven to be modern and timeless.

Hyundai Ioniq 5. One of the most significant hatchback designs of the 21st century? Retro and modern, familiar but new. Very interesting indeed.

Porsche Taycan. An amazing response to the threat from Tesla. Stylistically the best non-911 Porsche you can buy? Difficult to say which version looks best, standard or the Cross Turismo version.

Jaguar I-Pace. Not an SUV or an hatchback, just a unique size and shape of vehicle because it’s an EV. A very clever and futuristic product.

Let me know in the comments what your favourite 2021 available production designs are!