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.
Continue reading Book club for car designers part 2: book recommendations.

Book club for car designers: book 1

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 Press reached 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

of trust with the marque, especially in terms of

reliability and continuity.

Bruno Sacco

Links to buy: