A weekly look at all that sucks in the car industry and some good bits
Designing a car has to be one of the most difficult tasks in the annals of creative engineering. Fresh thinking is frustrated governed by regulation and practicalities. How difficult is difficult? For a special feature, one famous British car magazine put their best auto journalists into a room with an illustrator to design a winning city car and after a month’s collaborative work and pats on the collective back, discovered they’d forgotten to include a petrol tank. That’s how difficult it is.
Once upon a time it was all down to one man. (Later Ford let women in on the act.) Malcolm Sayer, Jaguar’s chief design engineer of the Fifties and Sixties, took his racing designs, the C and the D-Type, and configured them into the Jaguar E-Type for daily road use, all the engine’s gubbings, oily bits, pipes, wires and battery fitting neatly into one of the lowest, thinnest bonnets ever conceived, an engineering marvel. That he ended up creating the automobile as giant penis on wheels pleases men a lot but few women are ever seen gripping the steering wheel.
The open topped E-Type was the first automobile to be exhibited in an art museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art, where it resides to this day an early ‘installation’. Actually, the better looking model is the coupe, its shape far more cohesive, the first designed. The roadster is the cut down version.
You’ll find a few wealthy car collectors add a glass wall between lounge and garage so they can contemplate their beloved one when at home. American post-modern architect Philip Johnson coined the phrase cars are rolling sculptures, and he had a point. (I have no idea when postmodern became post, or where it ended.) Cars are not art. There is art in their design elements, but art they ain’t.
“We developed a wish-list of ten to twelve cars, with the E-type at the top. When we approached Jaguar to acquire one for the collection, the company was very enthusiastic. From a private collector they secured a car that we considered to be in pristine condition and they donated it to the Museum. Because of the E-type’s beauty and sculptural quality, its functionality, and its seminal impact on overall car design, it perfectly suits the criteria of a landmark design object.” Terence Riley, Chief Curator, Department of Architecture and Design.
Designers wrestle with so many imponderables it’s hard not to question why they didn’t become architects instead. How much blank rear end leaves too much negative space? Where should a space be made for the registration plate? Some solve the problem of boring blank areas with overly large tail lights, or a lot of lines and creases. If an SUV, the spare wheel attached to the rear door, a designer doesn’t have much room for other elements, so the spare is placed off centre to accommodate door handle and that bright yellow registration plate. (I have no idea why somebody at the DVLA decided humans incapable of telling which end is which in a car unless the rear plate is yellow.)
Then there’s the absolutes imposed by the company, elements that signify the brand. In BMW look to the famous kidney grille and the ‘Hofmeister Kink’, that slash forward in the rear side windows that must appear in every model, named after its inventor, a director of design, Wilhelm Hofmeister. There’s room for subtle revamps of the grille of the minimalist kind, but the side window Kink cannot be touched.
One of the hardest surfaces to reconcile is the meeting of four planes at the base of the windscreen pillar. A designer solves ways of making that frame meet the bonnet harmoniously with the front side panel and the door. Readers will understand what I mean who have tried to match patterned tiles on the corner wall around a bath where four planes meet at one point. Each car company grapples with the problem knowing they have still to add a wing mirror. Without expecting readers to take on the role of auto anorak, check that area on various parked cars as you walk to work. You’ll be surprised to see how many different solutions there are, some elegant, some ugly.
Designers of modern cars have junked the rudimentary basics of design. It used to be big windows for 360 degrees of vision, wide doors, and a high seating position, like riding a horse. Now it’s all high hip lines where you can’t rest your arm on hot days, slim windows (it removes weight), restricted rear window, and huge transmission tunnels that stop lovers playing touchy-feely.
Cars are made to look cute, a Smart Car, unassuming, a Ford saloon, luxury liners, a Rolls-Royce, or aggressive missiles, a Lamborghini, depending on their role. Some cars look as if designed by Mr Blobby, and some come from the Origami School of Design.
Innovation is often suppressed in preference for the conventional. We buyers are supposed to be very conservative, shy of cutting edge design. Elon Musk, boss of Tesla electric cars, demanded his car designs were to look like ordinary cars. Others are given more freedom. Should it be quirky like lots of Citroens, ot ultra-practical, door hinges on the outside, wide wheel arches, over-riders, side steps, all the visual appurtenances of a tractor? Those are the cues designers have to accentuate if the car they are working on is to become instantly recognisable, a bestseller.
Computers have helped reduce the pain of going through lots of sketches and drawings, and multi-models, bucks they’re called. A body edge, a headlight, can be altered in a second, the designer standing back to see which works. Modern digital technology is freeing designers to create shapes our forefather could never have dreamed of.
It is not well know there is a team of designers working on any one car, one main team for the exterior, and another team for the interior, usually with one person specialising in dash design. Creating an attractive dash, the bit drivers see most, is a nightmare, but as electric vehicles become mainstream dashes will become simpler, their lines softened with LED ambient strip lighting and instrument illumination. That’s a good thing. In a cab into New York from the airport I counted 182 switches in the Mercedes taking me to a meeting. That’s 182 moving parts costly to install, destined to wear out, each given their own space and position in the vehicle.
The old habit of submitting a new model to a car clinic is still a thing. A near finished design is presented to invited members of the public asked to tick boxes on a list stating which bits of the car they like and which they don’t. Had that been suggested to past midnight worker, sleeves rolled up, Jaguar’s Malcolm Sayer, a group visit to his studio workshop, he’d have barred the doors to one and all until he’d finished his design. And to think his boss, founder and owner of Jaguar, William Lyons, thought the E-Type would never sell when he revealed it at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961.
We the buyer, are the final arbiters of design. We choose cars that we are comfortable to sit in and comfortable to be seen in. The latter is not always a conscious consideration but it does influence our choice, and our choice influences designers.
GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS
Volvo what done it
Another month and another car manufacturer is forced to recall models because of a serious fault. A constant gripe; too many cars tested too little, churned out in thousands. Volvo is recalling 219,000 cars globally because of a potential fuel leak. 30,777 UK cars are affected. Volvo will contact owners. Readers who own a Volvo can check affected models here: diesel-engined models of the Volvo V40, V40CC, S60, S60CC, V60, V60CC, XC60, V70, XC70, S80 and XC90, built between 2015 and 2016. In affected cars, a faulty fuel line can develop cracks, allowing fuel to leak into the engine bay. Nasty if the engine is hot. Maybe it’s time the MOT was linked to recalls – not had a fault fixed? No MOT!
The Ghosn of Christmas past
Architect and former boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance is still detained in Japan, facing charges of serious financial misconduct. He’s accused of not making known a greater salary than he was declaring. Police keep finding a new excuse to hold him just as he’s on the point of getting bail. How anybody manages to keep a few million pounds off one’s monthly pay slip is a craft beyond my ken. My daughters can find my last pound hidden in my cap band when I’m not looking. Frivolity aside, Renault is also holding an emergency board meeting where Ghosn is expected to be replaced, coming a mere two months after his arrest and subsequent dismissal from Nissan. How the mighty are fallen. One day the most powerful car boss on the planet, the next waiting for your meat and two chopsticks slid through a letterbox panel in a Japanese cell door.
Everyone a winner
The Kia e-Niro has been named the What Car? Car of the Year 2019, becoming the first electric car to win the award. What Car? editor Steve Huntingford said the e-Niro stood out because “it addresses the key issues of cost and range that have traditionally prevented many motorists from taking the plunge into EV ownership”. He added that it was a “spacious and practical family SUV with few compromises”. Last year’s winner, the Volvo XC40, was named Family SUV of the Year for the second year running, while the Skoda Octavia reclaimed the family car award. The sports car award went to the Alpine A110 and the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio was named Performance Car of the Year. There is no category for Bargain of the Year but their ought to be. And one day I expect to hear auto journalists take bungs from car companies to promote trash, just like every other profession. Some past choices beggar belief.