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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It has been at least 30 years since I first became interested in car design. My childhood obsessions swerved towards cars early, but then learning about how they came to exist was harder. Occasional design articles in Car Magazine helped educate me, and around the same time I wrote a letter to Rover Design – and a wonderful reply came back to teenage me from Roy Axe. There have been countless books published on cars, and there have been biographies written about important figures in the industry, but design and styling was previously very niche. I am lucky to have attracted attention of a publisher who has sent me a car design book to review. I also decided to look into what other books are available on this subject, because there seem to be a growing number especially autobiographies. Roy Axe wrote one, and that’s one book I intend to read for obvious reasons. In 2020 I read a couple of books in this genre, and here I review one of them.
The Crowood Pressreached out to me- and asked if I would interested in reviewing their recently published book on Bruno Sacco, former head of the Mercedes Benz Styling Department. The book is called “Bruno Sacco: Leading Mercedes-Benz Design 1975-1999 and is written by a chap called Nik Greene. The book seems well-titled, but I will get back to that. Expectation was for a biography of Bruno Sacco, who is a towering name in vehicle design. Revered for his expert custodial control of one of the most important automotive brands, Sacco oversaw a seminal era of Mercedes design. It is from his era that my preferred Mercedes Benz designs originate. The W124 (class E) and the first generation SLK (R170) are my personal favourites from the definitive automobile brand.
I am apprehensive about writing my first book review, as I am not sure of the correct etiquette, and in the case of this particular book I must be blunt and admit I did not enjoy it. I wanted to get that off my chest right away- and I will add that I didn’t manage to read every word in this book, as it is dry and rather tedious to read. It serves as a hefty and no doubt fact-filled reference book, ideal for a University library shelf (good reference for my day-job) but as an enjoyable read it fails. Perhaps the subject matter does not hold enough personal interest for me, but the real issue I have with a car design book such as this, is when it is written by someone with a lack of knowledge for the car design process. Finding a combination of design know-how and writing skill is rare indeed, so I can cut the publishers slack in this regard. This is, I am afraid, not a book about Mercedes-Benz design, and nor is it a book about Bruno Sacco. Sacco barely features, and a vast majority of the text appears to be reference material on the history of Mercedes Benz engineering achievements. Think Wikipedia in book form, with superb and exclusive photography. Factually correct, but uninspired in prose or storytelling.
The nature of this book is stated in the preface by the author- and in this we can respect his professionalism (clearly an accomplished researcher). Unfortunately he reveals the reason for my feelings on this book, by mentioning personal meetings with the great man Bruno Sacco. It is very pleasant to hear that Sacco was a humble man who credits all his success to team work. This is pleasantly accurate, because no car is ever designed or created alone, and Sacco did not himself “pen” more than perhaps one Mercedes car. The author clearly reveres Sacco, and defers to his request regarding the content of the biography about him. The failings of the book can be explained by quoting the author himself.
The only way I could honour one of the greatest designers in automotive history was to write his story through the history of design, honouring the people he honoured, and showing his talent through his work and not through his ego.
Nik Greene – author
So this appears to be exactly what Nik did, and the result is as mentioned previously, rather dry. Of 208 pages in this publication, we only start to learn about Sacco on page 130. At last we hear of his life before Mercedes Benz, and things start to feel a lot more like an actual biography. Sadly it is all over by page 138, and we return to detailed history of Sacco’s most personal car design, the C111 Experimental Safety Vehicle Project. This avoidance of anything not-Mercedes related, and anything personal, creates a book which feels corporately sponsored (NOTE: the publishers asked me to make it clear it is NOT sponsored in any way). The vast majority of this book is a fascinating guide to the entire history of vehicle design and engineering, but with the point of view that no other company exists than Mercedes Benz. This final third of the book is where things get messy. Twice we are led though the timeline of Mercedes design- firstly seemingly unrelated to Sacco, then concentrating on Sacco’s time and his guidance. This is a genuinely interesting section of the book, and perhaps the entire publication could’ve been 2/3rds shorter. The stand out aspect of this book are the images and photographs, which often appear to be exclusive archive material, unavailable in any other publication. One photograph showing a young Gorden Wagener talking with Sacco over a small clay model of the CLK coupe design stands out as prophetic. Master training the apprentice. Sacco is shown in casual attire, a cardigan, and with spectacles on (vanity appears to stop him wearing these in any other formal photographs). The last 3 chapters of the book are better, with the final being “Sacco’s Legacy”. Here we also see the mistakes regarding design, with clay model review images being wrongly explained as “exploring different sizes of vehicle” which they were not (all clearly have the same package and dimensions). My favourite fact learned from this book, is something that changes my previously held dislike for the W140 S-Class design. A car I have always felt is too large, and just too arrogant in its design. How can someone as renowned as Sacco have made this mistake? He didn’t. He wanted the entire car to have 100mm lower roofline, but was overruled by engineering. A rare regret that he admitted to.
Overall then- a very comprehensive history of the engineering and design of Mercedes Benz, but rather light on insight into the man named in the title. For a fan of the brand this becomes a must-buy, but for the rest of us, perhaps it’s not as compelling.
How do we conceive our company’s designs today
in the context of our history and current technical
demands and possibilities? We must continue to follow
the three basic principles.
1 A Mercedes must always look like a Mercedes.
2 It should symbolize all the values that are the hallmark
of an authentic Mercedes and that our customers
expect of it.
3 The design should include as much innovation as
possible while at the same time remaining true to the
values of the brand.
It is highly important that both the driver and the
passengers have the clear sensation of being in a
Mercedes once they are seated in any of our cars.
This feeling is induced not only by the design but also
by the finishing, the choice of materials, and even
the tactile impact with interior surfaces. This way, it
is not difficult for customers to establish a relationship
Remember when designers had to draw a side view over a package? The actual production vehicle package? It seems designers no longer do this. Obviously at sketch phase, character is key- but eventually… surely…. one MUST draw the same design over a package? This is what I was taught, but I guess design schools stopped, so design studios stopped? A production car being a disappointment compared to a concept car is nothing new, but these sketches are FOR the production car!! Roof height is a typical “cheat” when sketching and even making a scale mode, but the overhangs? The overhangs are completely different on the production car and I cannot understand who is sketching different overhangs – then just accepting whatever overhangs the production team create.
When the new BMW M3 and M4 were announced it sent car Twitter into commentary not seen since the days of Bangle Butts. We all know about those massive upright grilles, but those are really not the controversial part of the design. My first instinct was that this felt like a turning point in German car design, perhaps an indicator of the end to its influence. Design paradigms and trends now work from East to West. Or has this been true for some time? Asia dominates, and the world follows. Traditional car companies find themselves in a race to the death. Deathrace 2000, a race against time to keep producing interesting niche ICE products, that will burn up the remaining desire for dino-fuel dinosaurs. Where once we had fanatical attention to surfacing, and products with timeless (often unfashionable) design, refined artfully in clay, we now have panic stricken factories of old metal. Those institutions took the rough ideas of young hormone-fuelled designers, passed them through mature managers hands, and used skilled artisans to model and finesse with highly developed processes. The designs were calmed and matured internally before the public ever saw the “rough cuts” of the process, and the designers themselves were contemplative and considered. The 2020 BMW M3/M4 is not a refined design, and neither are other contemporaries such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA. Is there no time to refine? Products must be rushed, clay must be milled from quick CAD models, quick, schnell schnell! Time is money! The oil runs out eventually! The answer to creating the ultimate emotional impactful design, is to let those testosterone fuelled sketches make it to production unharmed. Nobody draws over a package anymore, because duh- it’ll ruin the character! It will lose the raw emotion! How is this happening? Designers have power.
BMW is now a styling-led company (a SKETCH-led company!). This is unprecedented. Engineers create average products with average components under the skin- and designers must sell using styling. Front wheel drive BMWs are the canary in the coal mine- the indicator that chassis engineers have lost the argument. Bangle talked of his legacy at BMW being the communication of design and engineering, of opening the dialogue. Unfortunately after his departure, that dialogue seems to have turned to domination by the stylists. Engineers have been converted into stylists! Watch BMWs own launch film, where we see Mr M (Markus Flasch) talking about the “dramatic” design elements, and rather laughably claiming the front is minimalist in design style. The bodywork is functional that’s for sure, and the wide rear arches of the M3 are a good example of just not even bothering to integrate them. They are simply just wider. It has been mentioned that this is nothing new for a 4-door M car, but the severity of the highlights is glaring this time.
Horrible vertical video alert!! Because: BMW is young and cool… and uses Insta stories, but on YouTube…. what?
Car design is the history of surface control. From the days when each body was slowly crafted from sheet metal, until now, after investment was made in ultimate stamping technologies. Now the turning point has come for the end of artisanal elegance. Digital and fast creation means no surface refinement- just surface entertainment. Bangle began this, but it was still controlled. Lexus and Toyota broke the rules- Lexus in particular went from copying the refinement of German surfacing (but with even higher production tolerances and quality) to abandoning restraint and throwing shapes! Metal stamping technology seems to have progressed so much that almost any combination of shapes and draw is possible. Steel enables sharper radii than aluminium and Japanese companies never use aluminium (obvious exception of the NSX!). I mentioned in a tweet that Lexus began this lowering of “quality”, but what I meant was the throwing away of restraint. This was fun and modern. Surface entertainment is not a bad thing. The BMW Gina concept, which was not even made from metal, allowed creases to be alive and moving. The early days of Lexus, with the LS400 and GS300 were very European in simple solid (heavy in the case of GS300) surfacing with a fanatical attention to manufacturing tolerances and quality. Toyota wanted emotion for the increasingly Americanised Lexus brand, and they pursued it by messing around with the sheet metal. After 3 generations of Jaguar-like European looking Lexus GS models, suddenly in 2011 the GS had intricate surface “entertainment”. This production car marked the progress of Toyota design making intentional mistakes. The slow burning Lexus LFA project enabled Toyota to gain confidence in developing this unique form language, from 2003 to 2011. Intentionally busy “not calm” design. Flicks, movements, changes in line direction that do not connect. More like a Jackson Pollack painting- vibrant and alive. Vibrations in sheet metal. It was very interesting, and BMW were at it during the same period, with the 2010 5er F10 being a successful evolution from Bangle’s flame surfacing. I really like what Toyota have grown into though, and I own a C-HR which is definitely my favourite in this reckless abandonment of restraint. To break rules, first you must know the rules, and this is what we see with flamboyant vehicle designs.
The thought of this influencing the big German brands seemed unlikely, especially as Bangle had started the whole idea at BMW… but seemingly they had returned to more traditional forms once he had left. I am suggesting that his legacy was empowering the designers, and perhaps unleashing that power with greater success than even he imagined. The designers are running amok, chief designers have been and gone amidst the chaos? Toyota are also empowering their designers, with other Japanese brands following, and the Koreans are boldly experimenting too. What these rival companies also did, was to shorten the development time and production lifespan of new vehicles. Cars and their design are now very disposable. At first the quality suffered, but not any longer. Toyota have perfected speed with quality, as is “The Toyota Way”. With this speed, design can be fashion-led because it will be changed soon. A return to the original Harley Earl seasonal styling changes. Designs can be rushed to market, signed-off digitally, tooling made from first attempts at surfacing (do they still bother with Class A?). BMW are following Toyota in this process style, but their quality is lagging behind (which is a shock from a German company)
Later I found that lots of design sketches/renders were released by BMW relating to the design, but these have no signature. We can trace the author through Instagram, so I can name the designer. A truly talented young person, who we can be in awe of… but, these sketches feel critical to explaining the rather typical design process that is happening.
We can examine the power the designers have- from just a sketch. It is clear that these sketches are respected, they are perhaps worshipped and followed right to the end by an unquestioning team. Is there no room for questioning why the designer didn’t match the angle of the headlamp corner, to the surface angle of the grille form? Who didn’t speak up about this? On analysis, the drawings are superb, and if they date from before any 3D models were created they show the designer is remarkably skilled in rendering surface forms. We also cannot blame testosterone as the designer was female in this case. If we look at the production car surfacing, we can see that the designer’s intention has not quite remained intact. There were as usual, many ambiguous areas on the sketches, which needed careful control and additional work to transition in 3D between major surfaces. Nothing new there. Edges change from soft large radii, to razor sharp, or vice versa. This is impossible in real life, in real clay/metal/carbon. Sketches are often like Escher paintings, because they are 2D in nature. Optical illusions and trickery taught in design rendering YouTube tutorials, but the well developed design processes brings multiple talents to refine those sketches and resolve the design. The bright yellow launch colour hid the contours well, but I took a look at the M3 and it reveals soft areas where the modellers simply had to “fudge” the result to try and resolve where and how all those surface ideas ideas meet. In particular, check the area in the corner of the headlamp and nose.
Probably the most poignant images that the designer created- were the head on renders. This is where we see the USP of the design, the focus of extreme DRG (Down the Road Graphic) that BMW wanted to achieve. This car needs to be noticed, and we can also see the bold simple shapes the designer intended. The intention is clear, but what about details? The way those nostrils join the lower part of the front valance for example, was not thought through and the result was clearly whatever hack the production CAD engineers could make do with.
Let it sink in.
Well, the length of time taken to work on this blog post has helped me learn a little more that might inform my thoughts. This section was written much later than the earlier paragraphs. There has been interesting commentary on this design by other professionals. One of the most diplomatic examples came from Ian Callum, during a long chat with the YouTube/TV presenter Jonny Smith, he picks up the BMW question around the 16min mark of the interview. Other avenues were explored by the contributors team at Road Rat Magazine, which were not so diplomatic let us say, and you can find those in comments on their Instagram.
“Where on earth this obsession with putting all the design effort into these monstrous front ends when the designers have lost control of all the surfaces is a bit of a mystery to me.”
I learned something very important from the amazing new podcast by Sam Ofsowitz, which is called “Crown Unfiltered”. According to his contacts in the CAD business, BMW are using poly meshes (using Autodesk Maya) for sketch modelling and speed in the design process. This is not uncommon now, and the evidence can be seen in cars on the road. The significance here is in process, and is all about the philosophy of design at BMW. Speed is now taking precedent to surfacing and transition quality, or finesse. The obsession with Class A, G2 curvature or any other buzzwords regarding pure quality of transitions seems to be over. This change from using Alias NURBS modelling is a huge shift. Design is always a result of which tools are being used, right from the early days of using clay to Magic Markers for flat renderings. The change in fast and “loose” modelling tools is evident in the instinctive reaction I had to this design- where the lack of finesse to the final results is evident… but clearly an intentional process change. I may not have worked on many production vehicle concepts, but in my own career the quality of any product is down to the quality of it’s creation process. Great teams, and great processes, create great products. Tinkering with those highly established, but very slow processes, is inevitable and new tools are most welcome if they improve the design process. I love new technology and I’m a huge fan of Maya (as I used it every day professionally for many years) but these tools also present risks. The first cars designed with Alias were problematic (lacking “feel” in the surfaces) and often had to be re-designed by hand. Now after more than 30 years of using CAD, we are seeing new issues creeping back in- when teams are so large, and so many fast iterations are needed, “quick and dirty” tools are being used with quick and dirty results.
Great process creates great products. Change your process at your peril….
Spotted in my work car park- in yellow, is my own recent acquisition. A Coupé Fiat, a car that inspired me to want a career in car design. I read in Car Magazine the story of it’s design in 1993, and how Chris Bangle wrestled with this pure sculptural and radical artistic shape (over humble Tipo base!). In front of it is a grey SUV, perhaps a Lexus? Perhaps a large Toyota or Nissan? No it’s also an Italian design… a Lamborghini Urus! I’ve seen these in the metal a few times and they always deeply disappoint in terms of design. Also a pure styling exercise on top of ordinary underpinnings (Audi platform), but even more extravagant than the Fiat. Where the Fiat has slashes that enable a clamshell bonnet, or breaking up a tall rear 3/4, the lines and creases are all over the Lamborghini. To reduce the massive height and imbue some sportiness- Lamborghini designers were allowed to add creases on creases and mouldings on top of metal. The clear difference is one was developed by hand modelling techniques and one was purely digital. The digital process is fast and loose and dirty. The result is messy but exciting. Like an untidy sketch of a car, and perhaps that’s the point. Who needs perfection anyway?
This blog is titled autoSTYLING for a reason. I couldn’t get a car design URL…. but seriously it is important that the word styling was used. I am a design lecturer, but when I started this blog I just wanted to talk about cars as a passionate hobby and only in terms of aesthetics. Car design is a complex process but the members of the team that are called designers mostly work in the area of aesthetics. The design departments that were initiated in the 1950s, were defined by one template in particular, in Harley Earl’s GM “styling” studio. Principally the aim was to sell (and re-sell) similar cars every year, with new visual gimmicks and colours, inspired by the seasonal nature of the fashion industry. This was a clever change to the automotive business, where previously people bought cars that could potentially be fixed and last for many many years. It is something Henry Ford struggled with, once everyone had bought his Model T. They didn’t need a new one.
So we entered into an era when cars became desirable and fashionable consumer products, marketed to us as lifestyle accessories and whimsical statements about our wealth or status. Bachelor? Buy a car with no space for kids! Where do design teams come into this? Well, they are briefed to design products initiated by market research, and possibly years of sales experience feedback. Designers are asked to deliver a product for precisely defined customer wants and desires. We are now so conditioned to this aspect of cars that it’s not something we think about, but some consumers push against the impractical feeling or aura given off by styling. The growth of SUV demand really began with customers buying ex-military vehicles for use on the road. In the UK for example, functional farm vehicles were seen in country villages and the non-farmers who lived there took note. Land Rover had a great idea to combine a road car (Rover)- with their farm work-machine to create the Range Rover. Still this was not quite utilitarian enough for some, and those people continued to buy and use the “proper” Land Rovers on road. The majority wanted the comfort of the Range Rover though.
The Land Rover Discovery was essentially a reverse of this, attempting to cater for utilitarian vehicle customers AND school run urban users with one vehicle spun off the Range Rover chassis. This was in direct response to the popularity of Japanese 4×4 rivals such as the Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun in the UK).
In general though, cars continued their push to be marketed and sold as lifestyle accessories, and the large corporate car producers had the money (and risk aversion) to carefully study their consumers. These companies learned the motivations for customers to purchase a vehicle, and researched niches to be filled. The evolution in customer focused design has led to diverse ranges of cars from most manufactures, and in 2009 Nissan pushed the SUV craze to its’ current situation with their 2WD Qashqai. A very clever, if somewhat unoriginal concept, to merge the on road user scenarios of SUVs with the mechanical economy and low cost of any ordinary road car. The benefits were numerous and despite the usual lack of foresight by motoring press- the car was obviously going to be a huge success. It was. The same old arguments were brought forth for the Qashqai… that it lacked functionality. That customers wanted and needed 4WD, and that they needed utilitarian looks that had been established with actual utility vehicles. They beleived customers only bought off-roaders that could actually off-road, and worse still they seemed to believe that only an ugly non-styled vehicle could ever be capable off-road. All these arguments against the Qashqai were proven completely false, and of course the link to the way a car looks and its function is quite elastic. Nissan knew they were false from their own market research and the relative failure of their previous crossover vehicle (the X-Trail).
No manufacturer gambles $billions before finding out even a little about the likelihood of success or failure.
So this leads me to a recent tweet- and the basis of this post, regarding the press getting things wrong yet again. Since the Range Rover Evoque convertible we are seeing a new breed of seemingly implausible vehicles- in the eyes of the myopic motoring press. The convertible Crossover/SUV. What all commentators on these designs forget- is that the original 4x4s were ALL soft tops. The Jeep, the Land Rover. The lack of roof was an essential part of any lightweight versatile military vehicle. On the farm, the Land Rover Series II developed to have a warmer cab enclosed on 3 sides, and even 4 sides in pick-up form, but still a canvas covered rear. The VW T-Roc cabriolet continues a time honoured tradition of soft tops on off-roaders. What really struck me was the wording of a Top Gear Magazine tweet, to say that designers of the VW had “strayed from the mission statement of an actual utility vehicle”. There are so many things wrong with this statement, but of course TG are joking, much like it’s comedy TV show format. The new Ford Bronco clearly defines itself as a functionality-led design exercise (using it’s aesthetics) and it comes with many options for removing the roof on 3 and 5 door models! So what exactly is the problem with the T-Roc?
I will confess. I do not like the T-Roc convertible, or the very similar Range Rover Evoque Cabriolet. There are aesthetic reasons for this, mostly the very short but tall proportions combined with a full convertible providing no B or C pillars. The short square shape plus canvas top- is too close to a baby pram/stroller look for me, or perhaps even a skip. For the same reason, I don’t think the Mini Convertible is visually successful either. This is aesthetically opposite to the utilitarian or military design aesthetic of nearly all off-road vehicles. Roll-over in a T-Roc convertible? Dread to think what that would be like, it certainly looks less safe, and as for flexibility of the monocoque? Engineers are shuddering across Wolfsburg. The “joke” that TG are attempting here, is that this car is NOT designed to be an off-roader. Well yes, that is patently obvious. The design team have made no mistake at all, and were well briefed by marketing on exactly who the target customer was. Those customers would have bought a convertible Golf GTi 30 years ago, or a BMW 3 series convertible maybe 20 years ago. Today’s urban upmarket small but classy vehicle of choice is: yes the baby crossover. The amount of drivers that want to experience sunshine on their heads is significant. Range Rover pioneered, and upwardly mobile VW followed. The trope of “wrong car in wrong place” was created by innovative Car Magazine a long time ago, and to be fair, it can still be very entertaining. It’s definitely a reminder that Top Gear is not about sensible automotive journalism and that’s fine. What is clear is that people need to face up to reality, and that is: nobody buys any vehicle for truly practical reasons, with truly rational and logical selection criteria. Brand and image and styling all affect us subconsciously. That skill of manipulating the observers thoughts and emotions, is exactly what excites me about car design and why I started this blog about styling.
Car Magazine have a great history of this, and the above link shows a classic of the genre. Top Gear TV series took these odd juxtapositions to extremes. Mostly they adapted this style of article into long distance adventure drives, sometimes with the ideal (but old and broken) machinery, sometimes with the opposite- such as an Esprit V8 across Argentina (attempted… because: Clarkson). The new Ford Bronco has been accepted with huge praise, and of course this is exactly because it is much more capable than it needs to be in terms of off-road credentials, and the styling aligns with the implied functionality. In design language, we call this over-specification and this type of product is all around us. A certain demographic tends to favour over-specification. Wearing all condition trainers/sneakers that were designed to hike up Everest, cycling 2 miles across London on a 6kg carbon road bicycle that was designed to win the Tour de France, while wearing a 1000m water resistant divers watch (yes these exist, 1km under water where you will be crushed to death!) in case there is a brief shower. All of this over-specification leads to some impractical cars… in the “wrong” scenarios, and in another post maybe I will need to address the Ineos Grenadier vs Land Rover Defender debate (seems relevant to this post). To summarise for now I will simply suggest that the reader demographics of TG Magazine do not match the buyer demographic of the T-Roc cabriolet, and the result is ridicule…. which precisely none of it’s buyers will ever read.