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.

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

feeling the pinch

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.

Volkswagen Cross Coupe GTE "pinch"
the “pinch” surface

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!

The pinch I noticed in real life...
The pinch I noticed in real life…

VW cross coupe gte Fender
4 defined ridges, or pinched surfaces.

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.

BMW M5 E28 undercut
BMW M5 E28 undercut

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.

BMW 1-series pinch surface
BMW 1-series pinch surface

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.

Audi A6 Avant pinch evolution
Audi A6 Avant pinch evolution

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”.

audi prologue avant concept Geneva 2015
Insanely sharp surface edges!

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! infiniti qx30 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.

2015 Chevrolet Bolt EV Concept all electric vehicle – ExteriorFinally 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. 

Skoda SuperbWell 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.