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.

Practical cars. Rationalism, or not.

Consumerism and useless product design…

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.

Model T repair workshop?

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).

An expensive but capable design – which looks rugged, but is it?

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.

https://www.carmagazine.co.uk/features/car-culture/ferrari-to-the-sahara-part-1-car-archive-may-1995/

Above: the original “car out of place” article?

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.

T-Roc design “sketch”
Kings Road SUV soft-top
OFF Road SUV soft-top

LaFerrari evolution

LaFerrari evolution

evolution of the LaFerrari hypercar, from 288GTO