Convergence.

The release of the latest Mercedes C-Class design got me thinking. It got me thinking ‘that looks like a BMW’. The knee-jerk reaction would be to scream ‘rip-off’. To wade in and lambast these lazy designers. Being a designer myself I simply don’t believe that these highly trained, highly skilled teams of professionals, working for extremely focused car brands, would do this. I think something more complex is happening here, something I’m calling ‘convergence’.

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To explain what I mean by convergence in my experience every good designer I’ve worked with is like a sponge. I don’t mean soft and lifeless. Far from it. I mean a sponge in the sense of being able to absorb information. In fact designers are pure input-output devices. Not quite a photocopier (they live at Audi) but something close. Everything that goes in, and I mean everything, comes out through their pencils, or touch-screens or magic markers or whatever else it is they have at hand. Everything they see, smell, touch, dream, hear or are told influences what they create, and they don’t even realise it. At the most corporate level designers are like sausage making machines. Pour decent enough meat in (please avoid horse meat) and you get lines of perfectly formed, decent, sausages.  At the high end, catwalk fashion say, designers are like a Michelin starred chef. Select only the finest ingredients, hang out at the coolest restaurants and shops, be-friend supermodels and mix all this together with the utmost care and attention and what do you get? Beautiful, innovative, crazy catwalk designs of extreme expense and extravagence.

So what happens when the same things are ‘put in’ to completely independent teams of designers? The same market research, of the same market. The same focus on the same consumer. The same requirements for the performance and functionality of the product. Well you get convergence of ideas. I believe this is what we are seeing, and always have seen, with the design of  the small executive saloon. Brands try hard to be different but in the end the market speaks. The market, the consumer, draws them to the same conclusion.

You can see it happening in phones.

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It’s happened before with cars.

Coupes

And not just recently.

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I work in footwear design and it happens in my world all the time. We all look at the same trend predictors. The same websites, the same boutique stores in London, the same ‘street trends’ in Tokyo, the same catwalk designers, even speak to the same ‘trend agencies’ (yes they exist) or colour agencies (yes they exist). We all research and target the same guy, the same consumer. So we all draw the same conclusions. Which is why, put very simply, Top Man end up having the same desert boot as River Island, at the same time.

Now rewind and put yourself in that meeting, the one where the design director briefs his team on what is needed for the new C-Class. Which incidentally happened way way before the new 3-series was released. What goes in? The market research (BMW is outselling you by a long shot), the consumer’s taste (people like the M Sport BMWs), motorshow visits (where your pal from BMW is also wandering around looking for ideas for the new 3), walking the streets of Stuttgart (BMWs parked everywhere), driving your car to work (possibly, if you can get away with it, a BMW). Can you see where this is going? It’s inevitable. It’s convergence.

Sci Fi Dreams Do Come True

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Last month I was lucky enough to head to the Geneva Motor Show. Lucky enough to head there with a good buddy of mine who’s a Lotus designer and lucky again to chat at the end of the day to his colleague Russell Carr, who was behind the beauty of the Lotus Elise S2 and Evora. More on that later but for now, what was it like?

Well it’s cheap to get in (£15) it’s attached to the airport (just turn left) and it’s small enough that you can see it all in half a day. (My buddy and I were done and wondering how many beers to consume by 2pm.) It’s also full of all the eye candy you could ever wish for as a car nut, promo girls included. (Alfa was the best if you must know.) What were my overall impressions? Well, the notes I made on the plane home all gravitated to one thing, Sci-Fi really does come true.

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Let’s do exactly what we did when we walked through the doors of the show. Let’s go directly to LaFerrari. It looks absolutely, jaw-to-the-floor stunning. If you ever see one on the road brace yourself. Every surface. Every line. Every curve. Every tiny detail is breathtaking. We stared and we stared. It is art, sculpture. So we stared some more. The only fault we could find, after a lot of that time consuming staring, was that someone at Ferrari clearly forgot about the rear number plate slot (Issa go where?). Otherwise it’s a perfect study in vehicle styling. Not radical, arguably predictable even (it’s what every designer has been drawing for years) but boy is it beautiful. It is exactly what the public, the consumer has been dreaming of . It reminded me of those crazy cars that drift by in the background of Back To The Future Part II, but made real. A million quid? Pah. No problem. Even sat in a glass box and never used it’s worth every penny. 900bhp? Don’t actually care. Stood there looking at it it could have had a 1.0 litre turbo and still taken our breath away.

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So what about Ron’s car? The yellow beast sat in another hall. Frankly the P1 ain’t all that when it’s right in front of you, and static. Technically I get it. It’s an awesome ‘bit of kit’. Design wise, styling wise, it dissapoints. Here were two trained car designers staring again, but this time straining to see the drama, the beauty, the detail that just wasn’t there. To make it worse Mclaren had sat an F1 LM by it. As if to highlight everything that was right about the styling of that car. What the P1 did say however was ‘this is the future and you can buy it, and rag the arse off it’.

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The VW XL1 was the other car that gave me that same fizzing excitement inside as LaFerrari did. Almost. Why? Here were those Back To The Future Part II cars again. Here was a Syd Mead sketch. Here was the flying cars from The Fifth Element (ok so it doesn’t fly but you get the idea). It’s a scissor doored, faired wheel slice of a 260mpg future. Except you can order one right now. The lines are clean, they work neatly, and the form is lovely, the details exquisite. Just like the Ferrari, sorry LaFerrari, it is also slightly predictable. Cars like this were drawn over and over in the 80s. Some were attempted (remember the Ford Granda Scorpio). A lot graced the movies. VW made it finally happen.

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The Pininfarina Sergio was another gem of the show. It proved that while they may be a little haphazard when it comes to politics the Italians absolutely positively still know vehicle styling.

At the end of the day I waited for my flight home. Camera memory strained. Feet strained. Imagination running riot. We hung at the airport with the Lotus guys. So what did Russell Carr think? What did any of them think? They seemed lost. Lotus is a company in trouble but the guys themselves seemed in design limbo – their mojo deleted. They seemed lost amidst the design language they talk when they present the latest sketch to management. Caught up in the every day detail of their job they appeared confused as to what the consumer actually wants. It happens to us all. I know it does when I create my shoe ranges. We don’t see the wood for the trees. Russell wondered out loud what was the exact appeal of the VW XL1? “Is that what people want?” “It’s a bit predictable”. I replied yes on both fronts, and damn it’s got cool doors! It got me thinking. Sci-Fi told us that the consumer dreamt of a car like this. They wanted this product. The iPad was predicted by the film 2001 A Space Odyssey back in 1968. It was a dream back then, a want. Did that make it predictable? Maybe. Did that make it wrong when Apple finally cracked it? Apple lovers would sternly disagree. I remember seeing an alien pilot (yes really) run through his photo collection on a small hand held ‘screen’ in the 80s film The Last Starfighter. Was this the smart phone predicted? Or a consumer dream later spotted by smart phone designers. Whatever it was, it looked cool. Gattacca, a more recent Sci-Fi effort, ‘predicted’ classic cars humming around with electric drive. Now we have re-engineered classics like the Singer 911, Eagle E-type and MG LE50 running on modern mechanicals. How soon will it be before someone makes them hybrids? On an even more practical level Toyota created the GT86 from the consumer asking ‘can I have a real sportscar that is cheap to run and costs the same as a Golf to buy?’. Sounds like a fantasy. Toyota made it happen. Back To The Future Part II (again) featured laceless Nikes. Would the Reebok Pump have been developed if it hadn’t been for that film and those Nikes?

The conclusion of my day at Geneva was that if we embrace our imagination. Embrace our dreams. Embrace Sci-Fi. We might just find the ‘next big thing’ and take the world by storm. Hoverboard anyone?

An Evo experience.

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Hello again. Another guest blog from me Ronnieretro.

January saw a very surreal experience for myself. Now have you heard of this Evo magazine? I have read and later subscribed to this outstanding petrol head magazine for many many years. I read it most evenings before turning in for the night. It is, in a word, brilliant. I have read fantastic articles about every performance car you can imagine. In 2010 it led me to draw up a shortlist. A special shortlist as I was in the position to buy one of these ‘dream’ cars. I took the plunge and became the proud owner of a 1997 Porsche 996 Carrera. What a car. Simply awesome. It really did answer all my dreams.

Fast forward to Jan 2012, and following Evo on Twitter I see a plea. A plea for owners to come forward. The cars? Honda NSX, Maserati, a TVR and 996 911s. I replied and heard nothing for a few weeks. Until one Friday. “Hi this is Peter Tomalin from Evo, can we borrow your car? For the day? Tomorrow?”. Wow! To say I leapt at the opportunity would be an understatement.

So that Saturday morning the journalist David Vivian arrives on my doorstep. I had got up at 7am to clean my car (in the dark) but even in my hazy state I recognised him straight away. David didn’t offer any ID, no reassurance of insurance (to be fair Peter had done this on Friday) merely a stiff handshake, a polite British hello and a few questions about the health and history of the car. My car. After putting his Suzuki UK lent Swift Sport on my drive I handed the keys over to David… my keys… and with the words “Look after my baby” off he went.

I should add at this point I had planned to be away for the weekend, at a hotel, so couldn’t join David on the jaunt. I couldn’t even be there that night to see what damage he had done to my car. The plan was for him to return it and put the keys through my letterbox. For my collection Sunday evening. The hotel was great, the weekend amazing, but I didn’t sleep very well!

Alas the rest of this story resides in the article. I urge you to read it. Even though David only had my car for 12 hours he got every word, every detail, every feeling about this wonderful vehicle absolutely spot on. And yes, my baby came back in one perfect piece. In fact it felt in better health than ever. The only thing missing? My tank of petrol!

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XJ – Jaguar’s finest.

I’m a new addition and contributor to this blog. Call me Ronnie Retro. Having worked in the fashion industry for 10 years now my obsession is brand DNA, brand identity and brand reputation. Design is only a small part of the fashion (and automotive) business. In my job I always end up asking “but is it COOL?”

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First post is this comparison of the current XJ and the original. The new car may look avant garde and unrelated to historic Jaguars at first glance but closer analysis shows the designers have done their homework and paid their homage. They balanced this beautifully with the need to create something fresh, modern and striking. The current XJ looks the business, especially in black and slinking through London in long-wheelbase guise. Mercs and BM’s pale into insignificance next to it (somehow looking way too mafia or corporate) and only a Rolls can outshine it at red carpet events. As for Maybach… the less said the better. Well done Jaguar. This car has single handedly answered a big fat yes to my first question. It’s COOL.