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 that market research, and possibly years of experience have led to. Designers are asked to deliver a product exactly designed for precisely defined customer wants and desires. We are now so conditioned to this aspect of cars, 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 a sort-of reverse of this, with another half-way attempt 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. Enough that they knew the motivations for customers to purchase a vehicle, and researched niches to be filled. That 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