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.

Practical cars. Rationalism, or not.

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.

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