Remember when designers had to draw a side view over a package? The actual production vehicle package? It seems designers no longer do this. Obviously at sketch phase, character is key- but eventually… surely…. one MUST draw the same design over a package? This is what I was taught, but I guess design schools stopped, so design studios stopped? A production car being a disappointment compared to a concept car is nothing new, but these sketches are FOR the production car!! Roof height is a typical “cheat” when sketching and even making a scale mode, but the overhangs? The overhangs are completely different on the production car and I cannot understand who is sketching different overhangs – then just accepting whatever overhangs the production team create.
Consumerism and useless product design…
This blog is title 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.
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).
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.
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.
I was asked my opinions on some current leaders in the world of car design. I actually checked up a little of each designers background, and decided to repeat my thoughts here for this blog. Mostly my educated guess about each person, with some anecdotal evidence. I also know a little more than I am allowed to share regarding some of the names, and I could ask for inside info on others- but I won’t because they have extremely demanding public images to uphold. They all thoroughly deserve their status of course, because none of these people made it to this level without enormous dedication and hard work. I can only imagine how all-consuming some of their careers have been.
1. Jean-Pierre Ploué (PSA)
Ploué made his name in the industry with the first Renault Twingo. A landmark car of characterful but functional design. A truly French car from a truly French thinking designer- and this was exactly what Citroen needed after nearly 20 years of a Brit, then an American in charge. For the new millennium it was time to bring back French thinking. Jean-Pierre Ploué immediately hired some young talent from around the world, and nurtured that talent with a very relaxed attitude to creativity. A friend of mine worked there as a designer, and hadn’t done any work for weeks. Worried- he finally admitted this to Jean-Pierre, who shrugged and said “that’s ok, maybe inspiration will come soon”. A great creative team manager, his people skills have enabled all PSA brands to continue to positively rejuvenate in design terms.
2. Franz Von Holzhausen (Tesla)
Musk grabbed Von Holzhausen from Mazda, when he became unhappy with Henrik Fisker’s outside consultancy design work. Franz was given the task of setting up an internal design studio and fixing what would become one of the 21st Centuries most important car designs, the Model S. Franz and his team (mostly poached from Mazda) decided to play it safe with the styling. Musk was a demanding boss and referenced his own Porsches as the standard to work towards. The foundation of Tesla was a familiar looking sedan, with groundbreaking technology. The recent Cybertruck is another PR masterstroke by Franz. This time there was no revolution in tech, so instead a completely unexpected and brutal design language got the truck noticed. The ripples from the Cybertruck will be seen in car styling for the next 20 years.
REDACTED. Luc Donckerwolke (Hyundai, Genesis)
Luc Donckerwolke is the definitive car designer. Dual nationality, speaking an astonishing array of languages his diversity of culture makes him a perfect recipe for global car design. Famous for re-establishing multiple brands for the VW group. A real darling of the VW board and a pioneering design manager, who established multiple internal design teams at Skoda and Lamborghini, ditching traditional techniques for modern digital methods. After taking over at Bentley there was a surprise desertion of the VW Group, to join Peter Schreyer in his mission to destroy the German dominance of the car industry on behalf of Korea. Luc uses his modernist digital design techniques to devastating effect, now rapidly overtaking the Germans in progressive quality design. His recent Hyundai Prophecy concept car was a very cheeky nod to past Germanic design themes (911 shaped!) but brilliantly moved into the 21st Century.
3. Gorden Wagener (Mercedes Benz)
A company man with 23 years at Mercedes design and the result is total trust by the board. Some might say this trust is his downfall. Wagener often receives ridicule by other designers (not publicly, as that is dangerous to careers). His hyperbole speeches and grandiose influences are cliched and vague. As far as we know, Wagener has never actually designed any cars- but nurturing other talented designers he developed his “sensual purity” design language as a universal styling look, applied to every Mercedes at every price, and every segment – even commercial vehicles. Criticised for shallow, skin/deep only styling- but the sensual part is undeniable and Mercedes is now a strongly customer-led company. Buyers get exactly what they wish for, including strip-club like interiors, and the sales figures prove the methodology. He could be the designer at the helm when the ship sinks… and like the captain of the Titanic he will never abandon his ship.
4. Klaus Bischoff (VW)
Bischoff is another German company man who, like Wagener, has dedicated his life to one company: VW. Since 1989 he has designed only for VW group, and has had many management roles and mostly worked as an interior designer. His name was not widely known, so we can assume this is a modest designer perhaps. A true inside man. VW clearly have huge faith in Bischoff and the quality in the design language of VW brand in particular is mostly thanks to Klaus. VW generally manage to avoid fashion, or extreme design trends, but recently have become a little formulaic. Klaus and the VW board really believe in this formula, but corporate scandal has made things tough for the brand. Design must be even more conservative in order for customers to trust them again.
5. Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW)
Once again we see the loyalty to German brands, but a Dutch designer this time who has been with BMW since 1992. Adrian made his mark with BMW in California, working for and eventually becoming president of DesignworksUSA. Thanks to his advanced work at Designworks, Von Hooydonk became the protege, and successor of Chris Bangle. Bangle revolutionised the very traditional BMW, and in turn shook up the entire car design business. Hooydunk was the driving force behind the design and styling ideas that Bangle made famous. Designworks laid a lot of the groundwork for BMW design as it is today. Unfortunately since Bangle’s departure, the strategic management of BMW has been messy and design has suffered. Bangle dealt with this aspect well, Adrian does not. A true artist like Adrian just wants to create. Currently his handling of the BMW grille design, insisting Chinese customers demand it, seems lacking in vision.
6. Thomas Ingenlath (Polestar)
Volvo regrouped itself after Geely investment, and decided to take stock of what it wanted to be and what it didn’t want to be. Ingenlath is a great example of what can happen when taking a risk and changing company. A German designer, who worked for VW for 20 years and ranked very highly- he joined Volvo and eventually brought some of his VW friends along too. Volvo spent time to work on strategic design and research of their brand (from outside consultants) and this foundation work has been spectacular in its success. Ingenlath was allowed, as an outsider, to distill Swedish design principles and core Volvo corporate values such as safety and quality into a pure aesthetic depiction in 3D form and materials. This is high operating level, holistic vehicle design which only very few companies achieve. So far Volvo design strategy has been perfect. Now Ingenlath is concentrating on the EV and performance brand Polestar, which perhaps gives us a clue to his own thinking about the future of automotive transportation.
7. Gerry McGovern (Land Rover)
A very interesting and eccentric character… Gerry is an enigma of his own creation. Fantastically talented, but from a working class background in Coventry, it all seems so unlikely. Apparently his learning curve never ends, constantly intent on self-improvement, he now presides over a kingdom of his own creation. Famously blunt and sharp with employees, but ruthless in his passion for design. He only left Coventry briefly, in the late 90s, to show Lincoln exactly what they should be doing- then returned to continue his life’s work in Coventry. Along with Volvo design, Land Rover are leaders in consistent brand identity. Gerry became obsessed with mid century design during his time at Lincoln, and continues to pursue a minimalist and timeless aesthetic. There are aspects to McGoverns plutocratic management style that I cannot repeat, shared with me in confidence by insiders, but his troops are loyal and you can be sure of one thing: that he will always push for absolutely the best quality of design in every detail.
8. Ikuo Maeda (Mazda)
The designer’s designer. Respected as an artist, and responsible for renaissance of beautiful emotional design. A strategy he implemented by returning to traditional artisan routes, using hand sculpted clay extensively again, just as other studios are abandoning it. The seeds of KODO design language began with Franz Von Holzhausen and his preceding Nagare design aesthetic, but Maeda has steered Mazda design to be more than surface styling. His aim was to bring life to industrial products, and he has succeeded in the ultimate vision of emotional automotive design. A stark contrast to functional product design which gives humble Mazda’s a value beyond their price. Who could’ve predicted 20 years ago that a Japanese company would be the one to keep the heart and soul of beautiful car design alive? Alfa Romeo and Mercedes design departments wish they could achieve this level of sensual design.
9. Flavio Manzoni (Ferrari)
An Italian car designer who interestingly worked for VW rather a lot, at a very high level running advanced creative design teams. The combination of his long experience in Italy for Lancia and Fiat, combined with extensive experience in the dominant VW group means that Manzoni was uniquely placed to bring Ferrari design into the 21st century by setting up an internal dedicated design team. Manzoni proved his abilities by developing the stunning La Ferrari production car. The sensational design, and more importantly the delicate design process that produced it, has let Ferrari controversially abandon its relationship with Pininfarina. Critics have argued that Ferrari in-house designs are unrefined- but the pace at which they are now being produced is the reason perhaps. The relentless product updates and modern sales tactics at Ferrari are generating profits, with cars that are exciting and dramatic in styling. In response to critics, Ferrari have even created a less flamboyant design with the new Roma model. Design strategy and future thinking is a core skill of Manzoni and we can be sure that his tactics have been well thought through.
10. Laurens Van den Acker
edit: Luc Donckerwolke abruptly left Hyundai/Genesis in 2020, so this addition was drafted to replace him in the printed article.
Laurens Van den Acker is one of the world’s leading experts of advanced vehicle design. Laurens’ career took him from Europe to America and back. His experiences were transatlantic and international. Incredibly he has worked in Italy, Germany, USA and France. This global experience meant he became uniquely placed to understand a vast majority of the car buying planet, excepting perhaps Asia- but his long tenure at Mazda must have filled that gap quite well also. This moulded him into the global visionary he is now (despite working for a seemingly very French and European brand), and his time spent with J Mays at Ford clearly helped his genius to shine. Van den Acker came to fame with an astonishing series of concept cars, while working with J Mays. The Ford 24/7, 427, Model U and the Ford GloCar. These were all so ahead of their time in ideas concept and user sentiment, that any car company wishing to be successful in future clearly had to hunt down Laurens for their own good. That is exactly what Mazda and then Renault did. There is a connection here with Franz Von Holzhausen – for they both worked on the Nagare design language at Mazda, but those visionary Ford concepts were what caught the industry’s eye. The Ford 24/7 from 2000 was the key to Acker’s success. This car predicted the customisable App grid interface, 7 years before iPhone, and predicted user’s wishes for connectivity and configurable dashboard/screens that we see on every concept and future production car 20 years later. Van den Acker set the user template that the entire industry is working to now.
Thanks to Hans Dierckx of Auto Wereld magazine, Belgium, for asking my opinion on 10 current car design leaders.
The Range Rover Evoque is supposed to be posh… so in 2012 it was launched by Posh. Posh Spice of course, the infamous Victoria Beckham. At the time the event and project that was organised by JLR to launch the car gently raised a few eyebrows when Mrs Beckham presented a special edition of the new Evoque ‘designed’ by her. Little did we realise that one of the very people who orchestrated this event, and this special edition, was not particularly happy at the time. Quite strangely this story has resurfaced 5 years later, with comments from design director Gerry McGovern.
Mr McGovern said at a publicity event last week: “She didn’t design the car… I’ve forgotten more than that woman will ever know about [car] designing – to be a car designer takes years.”
This could be aimed at boosting current Range Rover publicity? Who knows what Gerry’s motivation is to appear in The Sun, but it’s currently being reported by the British tabloids such as The Sun and The Daily Mail, who call it an “extraordinary row”. It is certainly unusual, especially as the main complaint is coming 5 years after the incident. It opens up a debate around the attributing of design originality to specific designers. Credit for certain designs is a complex issue and 7 years ago I wrote a post here on this subject. Design Directors and chief designers are the public face of any car design story, and often they seem to be claiming work they didn’t do as their own. They are of course responsible for an entire design department and must take the good and bad comments about any design, sometimes directly. The headlines and articles from the tabloids contain very inaccurate (as usual) statements such as a claim that Gerry McGovern MADE the Evoque. The Sun journalists seem to think that a design director gets out his spanners and welding equipment, to personally construct every one of the 1000s of Evoques that the Range Rover factory turn out.. Terrible lack of expert knowledge or research. The reality is of course, that even Gerry McGovern did not design the Evoque. His very talented and large team of exterior and interior designers, plus clay and CAD modellers, colour and trim designers and even digital GUI designers DID. The teams that work together to create any vehicle are large, and that is simply the design stage. Then there is engineering teams that number in the 100s sometimes 1000s to get a vehicle ready for mass production. finally the factory starts production and another entirely different set of robots, and people, begin to bolt the cars together at astonishing rates. Design leaders protect their hard-working teams from negativity, and we might suggest that McGovern is annoyed in this instance for Victoria Beckham claiming credit for his teams work. Victoria Beckham has her own fashion label- and therefore counts herself as a fashion designer. In this capacity she ‘designs’ clothes and accessories, and that process involves zero engineering – but it does involve design decision-making. When she was asked to create a special edition Ranger Rover she of course contributed in a way that she was familiar with, and one which she has learned to call ‘design’ (because it IS design). She choose unique colours and material choices for the factory to piece together into her limited edition Evoque. To all intents she was right to say that she ‘designed’ her VB edition car, that she then stood in front of in 2012. It is of course, almost impossible for the depth of the automotive design business to be explained in a simple soundbite or tweet- to enable JLR to explain the difference between what Mrs Beckham did, or what Gerry McGovern did, or what his fabulous design team did. Words should be chosen very carefully, and indeed, Gerry is upset that she went off-script at that time- when we can imagine that the word ‘collaboration’ was something the Range Rover team had in mind? Much like Gerry’s own design collaborations… with the fashion world.
Well this debate began over on Twitter, with some other working car designers being quite vocal on how bad this new Lexus LS design is. I think it has problems, but I am willing to accept some progressive experimentation. Lexus in particular has been heavily experimenting in various styling and surfacing ideas, some good some bad. The LC coupe is particularly nice, but has gone through many iterations and concept cars to come out the other side. It still has some odd design details, but for a sportscar it is important to grab the viewers attention. The LS on the other hand, is intended as an executive model, with luxury in mind. It has traditionally appeared as quite a conservative design. The surfaces and design ideas are chaotic and a little messy, which is something designers have noted. The strangest thing is the proportions, with a great emphasis on cab-backward proportions. It is almost unique in the way that the peak of the side DLO is in the middle of the rear door. Similarities to other sedans (saloons) were noted, and similarity in supposed “bad” design. The new Civic sedan is something that I am not impressed by, for example. The most similar proportionally, and a possible clue to Toyotas intended rival and benchmark design, is the Tesla Model S. I decided to put together an image comparing lots of current sedans on sale now. Looking for that strange proportion (which must give great rear passenger headroom?). Maserati Ghibli seems a good candidate.
Well this year has been incredibly busy, especially with my job where I’ve seen progress on my Vehicle Design course connecting with the industry. Meanwhile Twitter seems to be a place for my connections to grow and this led to a very fun situation where I was asked to be interviewed by Andrew Clews of The Motoring Podcast. Andrew managed to draw a lot of personal history from me, over the course of 3 hours chatting! A very pleasant experience, it was split into two instalments due to length and I can part 1 and part 2 with you all now. Part 1 is about 1 hour, and covers similar topics to this blog. Part 2 is 2 hours talking about my own car ownership history!
Sadly I have not visited a motor show myself for many years, and Paris 2016 is no exception. I have of course been closely following coverage. The French are truly stealing the show, with the Renault Trezor concept an outstanding example of showmanship and the Citroen C3 proving to be the production car highlight of the show. The Germans seem a bit lost, especially Audi. Reveling in their tiny advances in production techniques (see an earlier post) is not something the public can appreciate easily (Apple have similar issues) and the visual language seems to be moving backwards. Skoda now appear to make and design better Audis than Audi. So this post is titled because of the small cars that are making big news at this show, one of which was underwhelming! The Volkswagen I.D. Concept is a little bland and ordinary, but such is the way at the conservative manufacturer of the Golf. Compared to sticking with their 1974 template, the I.D. concept was clean and smooth and tidy, but uninspiring. Three newly launched production cars impressed. The Opel Ampera-e is a very tidy little electric car design, with outstanding technical features. The Nissan Micra has suddenly been dragged into fashion with Infiniti brand-esque curves and swooping surfaces, a real shock! Finally the Citroen C3 takes cues from the outstanding Cactus C4, with its air bumps and urban utitily chic. So Parisien! I include these rear end comparisons though….. just look at that lower bumper area. The Opel seems to have parts stuck to it from a 1994 Corsa. Why? What are these multiple extra (cheap) lights for? Is this US regulations? It’s also sold as a Chevrolet. The rear ends of Micra and C3 are minimalist and quite wonderful in comparison.
By the time you read this maybe this car has actually been launched, or maybe not. I suspect not. It’s vapor in my opinion, which will never be put into production (mostly because it can’t be engineered as it is). The design is a mess, poorly photoshopped together based on other mid-engined designs (Bugatti) and the packaging has been ignored in terms of driver/passengers visibility. This design could work perhaps, with some tweaks and development carried out by a trained designer (please speculators, hire professional car designers!). I couldn’t resist very quickly showing a few form tweaks that improve the design instantly. See my hastily hacked together GIFs below. The proximity to April 1st launch date is the biggest clue on this however…. so let’s see in a few days if it was all a hoax. Oh and this is how to design a proper hypercar.
edit: So the New York show has been and gone, and this car did not of course appear. Meanwhile, here’s a scruffy mechanic in a shed- who has bashed together a supercar. Styling was “a little bit ‘o this, and a little bit ‘o that” in the mans own words!
2015 is the year that our first Vehicle Design students will graduate. To showcase their skills they collaborated on a project led by a professional car designer. The project gained recognition in the automotive design world, being featured on Auto&Design Facebook page and kickstarting a lot of local press attention too.
Time for some design trend analysis. This started as a small observation of a certain car, but as usual the observation seems to apply to so many new cars this post has expanded hugely. Trends spread fast in the automotive design world, and when one large corporation owns many brands it can infiltrate across the range very rapidly. In 2014 VW showed some design concept cars that exaggerated a styling theme developed by more than just their own brand. Then in 2015 we have seen ever more extreme versions, but Audi seem to have slowly grown into this particular theme, only to abandon it perhaps with their latest styling statement. Brands such as Infinity and VW are using it to maximum effect, but who did it first? The usual answer applies here and that is BMW of course. Let us start to analyse the technique I am writing about.
The VW Cross Coupe GTE concept displays a large number of pinched feature lines among it’s surfacing design. Around a similar time, a chance encounter with a new model VW Passat spurred my interest in this design detail. I noticed that the Passat had a very pronounced pinch shaped feature line, but the Cross Coupe has 4 of them along the front wing!
So this got me thinking about the history of this feature, about it’s function. The technology involved is fairly new (in car design terms) and involves a deeper draw for the steel stamping tools that make car panels. The stylistic function is to create a shadow, and of course a strong highlight, to clearly define the shoulder of the car. The reason this feature has become popular I believe, is because cars are getting larger and customers demands are for more interior space. Cars must be packaged to be squarer (with less 3D form) but aesthetic demands are high and customers want drama, speed or just that difficult to pin down “sportiness”. A blocky shape gives limited scope to “sculpt” the surfaces inwards, to design broad shoulders. Any angled surfaces reduce interior space, or make a car wider (too wide). Good car styling has come to rely on great light/dark contrast. A flat sided car panel does not offer this. Early days of using an undercut gave a subtle clue as to why this feature has made a comeback. A VW Passat is a great example as it has class leading interior space, simply huge, but has fairly ordinary external dimensions. To maintain a pleasing design, the designers must deploy some tricks.
BMW established a long tradition of very handsome saloon cars, the E28 5-series is a great example. On this car we can see a small, but very effective undercut. This is the early days of the pinched bodyside feature. It gives a nicely angled (to the sky) upper shoulder, with a shadow emphasising the lower bodyside, and of course a strong horizontal feature that lengthens the whole car, adding elegance.
Fast forward 20 years or more, and BMW under Chris Bangle really set the formula for current car design, so of course the revival and exaggeration of that undercut began with his BMW 1-series of 2004.
This has been much copied… but let us move along to where we are now, with the help of Audi and their slow evolutionary approach to design. This helps us see progression, in one vehicle.
As is the way with Audi design, the technique here is subtle. You may need to zoom or enlarge the image above to see the profile shapes that the green lines describe. I have used the Avant version of the A6 to show more clearly a horizontal shoulder, without a c-pillar to blend into the rear wing. We can see from the very first A6 that the high and solid shoulder feature is part of Audi DNA. The surfacing is very simple, and quite soft in radii at changes of direction. See how the upper facing shoulder blends into the main door profile, then it very steadily curves towards the sill. The only negative curvature comes where the flared wheel arches extend from the main body surface. Next (silver car) we can see a small but significant tightening of the radii and surface definition. The 2nd generation A6 shows a sharper shoulder edge, and slightly more flare to the entire body (flare, like flared trousers). The sill position is further out, and the wheel arches have grown wider too. This car shows exceptional definition of the previously developed form language. A minimalistic and sharply defined design. Onto the 3rd generation and Audi are at this point trying to inject a little more dynamism and sportiness into their cars (oh dear..). They do this by going wide and low. The 3rd gen car is very wide and surfaces flare a lot towards the lower body. The door protecting body side strip is now out of fashion (and we all end up with dented doors?) and the sill is emphasised by being body colour (glossy, not matt) and the door surfaces actually waist inwards. The really significant, but very subtle update here is the “pinch” or crease, or more accurately an undercut appearing on that core shoulder transition line. Can you see the very small undercut there? A negative curvature surface, under that main shoulder surface change. The wheel arches are getting very flared now, like a sportscar. So this is the fashion, across the entire VW group in fact, for emphasising surfaces and their transition points (light/dark highlights concentrated) with a “pinch”. The latest Audi A6 is again evolutionary from the previous version, but the key part that has grown, is the pinch! That undercut has grown from being not just under the shoulder line, the radius has been drawn out from the bodyside because the shoulder surface above it is now negatively curved. The surface flows negatively (concave) into the base of the windows. This 4th gen (and 3rd) also has a subtle trick on the wheel arches, where the edge is again pinched to emphasise that edge as “sharp”.
The Cross Coupe at the top of the post has so many of these as I mentioned. Other car companies are doing this and using it to very dramatic effect. Meanwhile, Audi chose Geneva to continue previewing its future design direction with a Prologue concept car. This features razor-sharp surface radii, which seem to have backtracked slightly by using the “pinch” technique very very subtly in order to express sharpness. Concave or negative surfaces flowing into those edges are very subtle too. We don’t yet know if Audi will be able to mass-produce (metal stamp) these insanely sharp creases. Let’s hope so, as it’s a very nice feature.
So to talk about other companies following the form trend of BMW, Audi and VW we can take a look at a few concepts recently displayed by Infiniti and Chevrolet. Infinity and Lexus/Toyota are using sharp creased surfaces as important parts of their design language. The Infiniti QX30 concept crossover coupe is the latest (and almost production spec) design that shows their designers love affair with the very sharp body crease or pinch as we are calling it here. Just look at that edge that runs through the door handle. Amazing! Here is Detroit’s latest design that uses the same surface treatment. The Chevrolet Bolt electric plug-in hybrid vehicle. The pinch line forms a strong part of the cars shoulder line, as it does on the VW Passat but this time the form continues on into the rear lamp shapes.
Finally we can return to a VW group design product, which was announced in 2015. The new Skoda Superb. It demonstrates a dramatic example of the concave, negative shoulder surface (looks nice above the front wheel arch) that pinches into a sharp crease, with very strong and deep undercut for the side surfacing. The aim here from Skoda seems to be about giving the impression of flat surfaces that intersect sharply. They are aiming for a “creased” look to their cars and non-design savvy public are picking up on this prominent design “message”. This use of concave surfaces reminds very heavily of Bangle’s E61 BMW 5-series, from 10 years ago!
(EDIT) Some industry insider info has been passed to me recently- and it is a fact- that this very sharp crease (or draw in the panel stamping) is patented VAG technology. No other manufacturer currently has this extreme level of sharpness available to them. Very interesting, and no surprise that all VAG brands are making use of this design advantage.
Well there we have it, watch out for the “pinch” effect on other cars. It really is very common, across cars from all brands and all market segments. To end I will add a gallery of images that formed the basis for this article.