Auto Design

I may not know art (or cars) - but I know what I like.


Reading the letters to the editors of any car magazine is sometimes the most entertaining part of the magazine. Any editor worth his salt chooses the most controversial letters - it adds zest to the book. Readers are happy to oblige. They rant and they rave. They go on and on about how the cars of the past were so much better and the current cars are garbage. Or they praise the current crop and bad-mouth everything built before last year. Amusing. Entertaining.

Have you ever noticed how many of these letters are about car design? I guess that's understandable, since most magazine readers never get to drive 99-44/100% of all the cars they read about so what else can they comment on? And frankly, with cars as with people, we do make snap judgements based on first impressions.

Surveys have shown that attractive people are perceived as more successful and have better chances of getting desirable jobs. And of course attractiveness influences the attraction between men and women (or whatever.) So why should we be surprised at the focus on car design?

But what makes for an attractive car? What do people really want their cars to look like? In a article about car design by Patrick J. Kiger in the LA Times Magazine, Tom Moulson, former Ford market research executive, was quoted as saying, "The only way to please most of the test audience is to show them a car that looks just like the one they bought two years ago." Accepting that means car design never changes but grows stale.

BMW "bling"

Needless to say, BMW is in the middle of a considerable amount of controversy over car design right now. Factions want to string up Chris Bangle and crew while others praise his modern designs. Walter deSilva is under similar scrutiny at AUDI. To be fair, the "Bangle Butt" is a product of Adrian van Hooydonk at Designworks in California and the "largemouth bass" AUDI nose is a product of Achim Badstubner, who claims it's all about "overtaking prestige" on the autobahn. Maybe the "Bangle Butt" is designed to make a "gesture" when passing on the autobahn, too.


But J Mays at Ford creates equal dissention: is he moving Ford design toward the future or simply returning to the past with a bunch of retro ripoffs? What's Bob Lutz going to do at GM? And Frank Stephenson, designer of the new MINI (retro or no?), is now at Ferrari which introduced the Enzo to decidedly mixed reviews and the new 612 is quite retro. What's going to happen there?

J Mays prototype GT-40

The paragraphs above were only the intro, setting the stage for a lengthy article which is purely the opinion of yours truly, who is neither a car designer nor teacher, just an opinionated web publisher. I am a fan of design and art, know a few big name car designers, have done a little art collecting, a lot of photography and have owned about four dozen cars over 40 years and not too many dull ones ( Over 25 ALFAs, current wheels are a M3 and a new F-150 I use on our farm.) I have a son who graduated from the #2 automotive design school (as an industrial designer) so I got to visit and see lots of the leading edge designs that young, enthusiastic students produce. I even own two books on Raymond Loewy, the designer of the Avanti, not to mention books on other more obscure desgners like Luigi Colani. and Walter de Silva.)
I have basically a scientific background but with enough hours for a minor in Philosophy quite appropriate for an ex-Physicist/Astronomer (who has been called a half-astrophysicist), I think. And it makes me think about subjects in a depth that is sometimes dangerous-especially when I get near a keyboard.
Anyway, this article is wholly my opinion, Parts of it are not politically correct, show personal prejudices and and if you don't like it- well , you are welcome to your own opinion!


Back To Car Design
What makes for attractive car designs? Obviously not all cars are alike and do not follow the same design philosophies. But I believe cars do follow common design types. I'll put them in these categories:




The world's best crumpet catcher

Let's start with what many consider one of the most beautiful cars of all time, the Jaguar E-Type, the car the late Henry Manney of Road & Track described as "the greatest crumpet catcher of all time." No doubt the E-Type is one of the most sensuous cars ever built. Sleek and smooth, easy on the eyes. It's lines flow like a windswept drop of mercury no part of the body is out of proportion. We could say the same thing about the Porsche 911 or the Ferrari GTB4. These designs are timeless; they're basically still used on current models. Consider the Ferrari Maranello and how closely it resembles the company's cars from the 60s. And of course the new T-bird.




ugly mutha

Most of these cars are all about muscle. Start off with the Viper and Corvette. Lambo Murciealago. Cobra. Wide stance, big fender flares, wide tires, big brakes showing through open spoke wheels, prominent exhaust, strong character lines, lots of gadgets. BMW M3 and M5. Porsche Turbo. Mercedes Benz all the AMG versions - too. Power is not all superperformance, it's POWER - the expensive luxury cars people of importance (or who like to think they are important) drive, like RR, Bentley, M-B's AMG cars, S class, Maybach and BMW 7s. BIG SUVs, preferably the rapper versions with giant chrome shoes and spinners. How could we forget the Hummer?



Mini & 2CV


Of course the new MINI, Toyota Echo and Prius, the new Beetle. The Deux Cheveau. All the Japanese micro cars. Renault Twingo. Not many big cars get called cute, but some of the smaller SUVs and crossover cars are: RAV-4, PT Cruiser, Saturns. Most have a whimsical look, often stubby with a pug nose or cropped tail. Big headlights like the eyes on those little girls in the black velvet paintings they sell in Tijuana.








Ford Model T

Cars where design was an afterthought - function was the key design element. Today, it's cars designed by committee and market research to not offend anyone. Most 4-door sedans and SUVs fall into this category-certainly all the American designs. From 30 m away (100 feet for you metrically-challenged types), they all look alike, especially the one you rented late last night at the airport and are desperately trying to find in the hotel parking lot early the next morning. Thank goodness for the detailed description on the key tag!

Oh yeah, and you can get it in any color you want as long as it's black.




Countach! Perfect name an expletive in a language most people never heard spoken. The new Ferrari Enzo, of course, along with the F-40 and F-50. The Saleen S7 shown here. BMW Z-4. Exotic designs are not just supercars, but cars of completely over the top designs: The Pontiac AZTEC (howls of protest I can hear all the way back here on the farm!), Isuzu Vehicross and Honda Element. Practically everything built by Renault today. The Fiat Multipla. All the small company supercars and the British kit cars. The design criteria is simple: the weirder and wackier the better.




Who Do These Cars Appeal To?


or ?

Well, my theory expands on the old adage that cars have sex appeal. The immediate conclusion I expect you make is that's appropriate for the "Sensuous" category, but what about the others?

The Sensuous category meets the criteria for conventional sex appeal, mostly from a male perspective. Lots of curves, good proportions, looks good from any angle. The car that likens itself to a Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant, especially in those cool airbrushed PR portraits from the movie studios in the 1930s. The car that you want to be seen in by everyone so they know how attractive you are and what good taste you have.

The Powerful category is more like sex appeal from a female point of view. Women, since the Neanderthal period, have looked for the strongest male, the big hunter, who can protect the tribe or family, provide food and father strong bloodlines. Then there's the ugly old dude with lots of money and power who attracts the young looker. Everybody knows what's going on there.

People who buy Cute cars usually love people and animals as well as design. They love pets and buy cars that look like something you should take home and cuddle with. If they are female, they wear tank tops and designer jeans. Males only wear black, until they can find a darker color (I know that's true, I read it off one of my younger son's T-Shirts.) Some people choose mates the same way, so we need a scientific study to see if they are the same people. I'm sure we can get a federal grant for that study and maybe win a "Golden Fleece" award.

Plain cars appeal to people who are into functionality, not very interested in design or appearance - and keep their opinions on sex to themselves - or at least well suppressed (right Dr. Kinsey?) Ever hear someone rave about the distinctive fender lines of their new Camry or Civic? They get their car information from Consumer Reports, not Road & Track or Car & Driver. (My God! I drive a Consumer Reports Best Buy - A BMW M3!)

Ah, Exotics. Exotics appeal to the avant garde. They have the strong character (and $$$) to drive around in whatever the hell they please, thank you, but you damn well better notice. They exude sex appeal - or think they do like Paris Hilton. If young they may have a strong attachment to members of the opposite sex (or some indeterminate sex) who have multiple body piercings, spiked blue hair and suggestive tattoos. Older ones choose plastic surgeons if they want to make modifications to their bodies. They attend art shows to ogle strange objects floating in bottles of bodily fluids or paintings done with a paintball gun, while sipping neon green martinis.


Who Designs Cars?
To let the secret out of the bag, car companies know all this and design cars for these groups. In addition, car designs sorta mimic the culture of their countries of origin.

The Brits


British cars, for instance, are designed by blacksmiths. A bit of this off that shelf over there, a bit of that, heat it up and hammer it a while and out comes a car. Most of the designs are dreadful, like the TR3 (which owed tractors for much of it's mechanical bits), but occasionally a really nice design comes along, like the Jaguars and Aston Martins, and they keep building them forever.

Remember when it comes to sex, the Brits invented "kinky."



front porch

German cars are designed by engineers. Once the car is engineered, stretch the body over it and smooth it out. Sometimes it works great, like the 356, 911 or 3 series BMW, and sometimes, well, do you remember the VW 411?

Germans - SEX? Ever watch German TV? Sex tutorials during prime time!






Alfa 6c 1750

Italian cars are designed by artists. Everything in the car, from the engine block (like the ALFA 6C1750 from the 30s shown) to the overall body design, is a work of art. Nothing is missed. Sometimes the designs are a bit avant garde for the masses outside of Italy, but so are many of the designs that walk down the runways in Milan fashion shows.

Nobody knows sex appeal like an Italian. Watch the infomercials for hookers on Italian TV.


American cars are generally designed by accountants. Profit margin is foremost, so cutting corners is acceptable, even if the car loses some flair in the process. Badge engineering is back at GM big time. American car companies have learned that most of their customers are not going to accept anything but plain cars or powerful cars, and most customers care about as much about automotive design as they do about a lawnmower or washing machine, so why bother?

American sex is --- well we create a ruckus about Janet Jackson's boob but all watch Sex In The City. Sex sells, as the accountants would say, but we gotta keep it in the closet.




Other nationalities are harder to figure out. Japanese design, as interpreted in California, can be pretty cool, like the 350Z or the Miata (owned two of those too.) Domestic Japanese designs are like tofu - some love it, others claim it's a Japanese word for "whale snot."

I remember watching what my American friend called the "Nudie Gong Show" on Tokyo TV - just plain weird.



The French autos may be designed by disciples of the Marquis de Sade - sexy but prefers to torture you. Remember the Citroen SM? Or was it S&M? French cars would be right at home in the Musee d'Orsay with the sensuous impressionist art and voluptuous statues.



Oh, yeah, yeah, I nearly forgot this was inspired by all the controversy over the Bangle BMW designs. If you analyze the explanations above, you can figure out which car and which writer of letters to the editor belong in which of the groups.

For instance, the new 7 is a "powerful" car. Not only does it have an imposing presence, it has the go and the gadgets to impress and deliver the goods. No wonder it outsells the previous "plain" model by two-to-one. On the streets of Beverly Hills, new Sevens outnumber M-Bs by at least 3:1. Tuners love them cuz the cool dudes pay big bucks for mods on 760s. Check out the bling spinners on the 7 at the LA auto show above.

The Z-4 is an exotic design which seems to appeal to stylish females more than males, which makes it a fashion item that can quickly go out of style. BMW could get on with the M version for the guys so it moves to the powerful category. But it still makes a dandy movie star.


The MINI is terminally cute. But why did I own two of them? My wife claims it's because I like other MINI drivers waving at me especially since a lot of them are cute females half my age! But it is an embarassingly fast "stealth" car, that like the Miata, seems to never get the attention of the authorities, no matter how hard you drive it.

BMW owners raging against the designs of Chris Bangle are perfect examples of the comments of Tom Moulson quoted above don't give me anything but what I bought two years ago. Never mind that BMW designs of a few years ago looked like Ramblers of 30 years ago.

And no, the best view of the new M5 is not the one in the photo at the right, taken at the BMWCCA convention in Pasadena this past summer.

So draw your own conclusions - don't just accept mine! Remember the old adage " I may not know art, but I know what I like."


And never forget the paraphrased words of Kurt Godel, " All generalizations, with the possible exception of this one, are false!"

BMW design from a CCS student 2004.


 (C) 2005 jim hayes