e(M)barrassing or i(M)pressive?

When the new BMW M3 and M4 were announced it sent car Twitter into commentary not seen since the days of Bangle Butts. We all know about those massive upright grilles, but those are really not the controversial part of the design. My first instinct was that this felt like a turning point in German car design, perhaps an indicator of the end to its influence. Design paradigms and trends now work from East to West. Or has this been true for some time? Asia dominates, and the world follows. Traditional car companies find themselves in a race to the death. Deathrace 2000, a race against time to keep producing interesting niche ICE products, that will burn up the remaining desire for dino-fuel dinosaurs. Where once we had fanatical attention to surfacing, and products with timeless (often unfashionable) design, refined artfully in clay, we now have panic stricken factories of old metal. Those institutions took the rough ideas of young hormone-fuelled designers, passed them through mature managers hands, and used skilled artisans to model and finesse with highly developed processes. The designs were calmed and matured internally before the public ever saw the “rough cuts” of the process, and the designers themselves were contemplative and considered. The 2020 BMW M3/M4 is not a refined design, and neither are other contemporaries such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA. Is there no time to refine? Products must be rushed, clay must be milled from quick CAD models, quick, schnell schnell! Time is money! The oil runs out eventually! The answer to creating the ultimate emotional impactful design, is to let those testosterone fuelled sketches make it to production unharmed. Nobody draws over a package anymore, because duh- it’ll ruin the character! It will lose the raw emotion! How is this happening? Designers have power.

BMW is now a styling-led company (a SKETCH-led company!). This is unprecedented. Engineers create average products with average components under the skin- and designers must sell using styling. Front wheel drive BMWs are the canary in the coal mine- the indicator that chassis engineers have lost the argument. Bangle talked of his legacy at BMW being the communication of design and engineering, of opening the dialogue. Unfortunately after his departure, that dialogue seems to have turned to domination by the stylists. Engineers have been converted into stylists! Watch BMWs own launch film, where we see Mr M (Markus Flasch) talking about the “dramatic” design elements, and rather laughably claiming the front is minimalist in design style. The bodywork is functional that’s for sure, and the wide rear arches of the M3 are a good example of just not even bothering to integrate them. They are simply just wider. It has been mentioned that this is nothing new for a 4-door M car, but the severity of the highlights is glaring this time.

Horrible vertical video alert!! Because: BMW is young and cool… and uses Insta stories, but on YouTube…. what?

Car design is the history of surface control. From the days when each body was slowly crafted from sheet metal, until now, after investment was made in ultimate stamping technologies. Now the turning point has come for the end of artisanal elegance. Digital and fast creation means no surface refinement- just surface entertainment. Bangle began this, but it was still controlled. Lexus and Toyota broke the rules- Lexus in particular went from copying the refinement of German surfacing (but with even higher production tolerances and quality) to abandoning restraint and throwing shapes! Metal stamping technology seems to have progressed so much that almost any combination of shapes and draw is possible. Steel enables sharper radii than aluminium and Japanese companies never use aluminium (obvious exception of the NSX!). I mentioned in a tweet that Lexus began this lowering of “quality”, but what I meant was the throwing away of restraint. This was fun and modern. Surface entertainment is not a bad thing. The BMW Gina concept, which was not even made from metal, allowed creases to be alive and moving. The early days of Lexus, with the LS400 and GS300 were very European in simple solid (heavy in the case of GS300) surfacing with a fanatical attention to manufacturing tolerances and quality. Toyota wanted emotion for the increasingly Americanised Lexus brand, and they pursued it by messing around with the sheet metal. After 3 generations of Jaguar-like European looking Lexus GS models, suddenly in 2011 the GS had intricate surface “entertainment”. This production car marked the progress of Toyota design making intentional mistakes. The slow burning Lexus LFA project enabled Toyota to gain confidence in developing this unique form language, from 2003 to 2011. Intentionally busy “not calm” design. Flicks, movements, changes in line direction that do not connect. More like a Jackson Pollack painting- vibrant and alive. Vibrations in sheet metal. It was very interesting, and BMW were at it during the same period, with the 2010 5er F10 being a successful evolution from Bangle’s flame surfacing. I really like what Toyota have grown into though, and I own a C-HR which is definitely my favourite in this reckless abandonment of restraint. To break rules, first you must know the rules, and this is what we see with flamboyant vehicle designs.

German style/Japanese style
We have a winner.

The thought of this influencing the big German brands seemed unlikely, especially as Bangle had started the whole idea at BMW… but seemingly they had returned to more traditional forms once he had left. I am suggesting that his legacy was empowering the designers, and perhaps unleashing that power with greater success than even he imagined. The designers are running amok, chief designers have been and gone amidst the chaos? Toyota are also empowering their designers, with other Japanese brands following, and the Koreans are boldly experimenting too. What these rival companies also did, was to shorten the development time and production lifespan of new vehicles. Cars and their design are now very disposable. At first the quality suffered, but not any longer. Toyota have perfected speed with quality, as is “The Toyota Way”. With this speed, design can be fashion-led because it will be changed soon. A return to the original Harley Earl seasonal styling changes. Designs can be rushed to market, signed-off digitally, tooling made from first attempts at surfacing (do they still bother with Class A?). BMW are following Toyota in this process style, but their quality is lagging behind (which is a shock from a German company)

Design sketch by Ann Forschner – with my interpretation of intended surface contours.

Later I found that lots of design sketches/renders were released by BMW relating to the design, but these have no signature. We can trace the author through Instagram, so I can name the designer. A truly talented young person, who we can be in awe of… but, these sketches feel critical to explaining the rather typical design process that is happening.

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We can examine the power the designers have- from just a sketch. It is clear that these sketches are respected, they are perhaps worshipped and followed right to the end by an unquestioning team. Is there no room for questioning why the designer didn’t match the angle of the headlamp corner, to the surface angle of the grille form? Who didn’t speak up about this? On analysis, the drawings are superb, and if they date from before any 3D models were created they show the designer is remarkably skilled in rendering surface forms. We also cannot blame testosterone as the designer was female in this case. If we look at the production car surfacing, we can see that the designer’s intention has not quite remained intact. There were as usual, many ambiguous areas on the sketches, which needed careful control and additional work to transition in 3D between major surfaces. Nothing new there. Edges change from soft large radii, to razor sharp, or vice versa. This is impossible in real life, in real clay/metal/carbon. Sketches are often like Escher paintings, because they are 2D in nature. Optical illusions and trickery taught in design rendering YouTube tutorials, but the well developed design processes brings multiple talents to refine those sketches and resolve the design. The bright yellow launch colour hid the contours well, but I took a look at the M3 and it reveals soft areas where the modellers simply had to “fudge” the result to try and resolve where and how all those surface ideas ideas meet. In particular, check the area in the corner of the headlamp and nose.

Strange mixture of soft “fudges” to try resolving 3D Surface changes, and severe, sharp features such as the grille.

Probably the most poignant images that the designer created- were the head on renders. This is where we see the USP of the design, the focus of extreme DRG (Down the Road Graphic) that BMW wanted to achieve. This car needs to be noticed, and we can also see the bold simple shapes the designer intended. The intention is clear, but what about details? The way those nostrils join the lower part of the front valance for example, was not thought through and the result was clearly whatever hack the production CAD engineers could make do with.

Let it sink in.

Well, the length of time taken to work on this blog post has helped me learn a little more that might inform my thoughts. This section was written much later than the earlier paragraphs. There has been interesting commentary on this design by other professionals. One of the most diplomatic examples came from Ian Callum, during a long chat with the YouTube/TV presenter Jonny Smith, he picks up the BMW question around the 16min mark of the interview. Other avenues were explored by the contributors team at Road Rat Magazine, which were not so diplomatic let us say, and you can find those in comments on their Instagram.

“Where on earth this obsession with putting all the design effort into these monstrous front ends when the designers have lost control of all the surfaces is a bit of a mystery to me.” 

@peterstevensdesign

I learned something very important from the amazing new podcast by Sam Ofsowitz, which is called “Crown Unfiltered”. According to his contacts in the CAD business, BMW are using poly meshes (using Autodesk Maya) for sketch modelling and speed in the design process. This is not uncommon now, and the evidence can be seen in cars on the road. The significance here is in process, and is all about the philosophy of design at BMW. Speed is now taking precedent to surfacing and transition quality, or finesse. The obsession with Class A, G2 curvature or any other buzzwords regarding pure quality of transitions seems to be over. This change from using Alias NURBS modelling is a huge shift. Design is always a result of which tools are being used, right from the early days of using clay to Magic Markers for flat renderings. The change in fast and “loose” modelling tools is evident in the instinctive reaction I had to this design- where the lack of finesse to the final results is evident… but clearly an intentional process change. I may not have worked on many production vehicle concepts, but in my own career the quality of any product is down to the quality of it’s creation process. Great teams, and great processes, create great products. Tinkering with those highly established, but very slow processes, is inevitable and new tools are most welcome if they improve the design process. I love new technology and I’m a huge fan of Maya (as I used it every day professionally for many years) but these tools also present risks. The first cars designed with Alias were problematic (lacking “feel” in the surfaces) and often had to be re-designed by hand. Now after more than 30 years of using CAD, we are seeing new issues creeping back in- when teams are so large, and so many fast iterations are needed, “quick and dirty” tools are being used with quick and dirty results.

Great process creates great products. Change your process at your peril….

Can you spot the very subtle tangency (lack of continuous surface) problem in the middle of this 2002 Vectra? A lot of Opel press shots tried to hide this… design intention apparently, but it looks like accidental (too subtle perhaps?). The edge is visible the entire length of the car (except the roof) not just on the hood.

2 thoughts on “e(M)barrassing or i(M)pressive?”

  1. Well. My lack of Vauxhall design history knowledge seems to suggest that the bonnet centre line is a Vauxhall (not Opel) feature from pre-CAD days and therefore not an accident…. just convenient perhaps even before CAD, to avoid tangency.

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