You can’t spend a long time connected with the automotive industry without realising that it stands apart from most other lines of business in the matter of passion. It’s easy to get passionate about cars. Whether it is the seductive styling of cars or their power or indeed the thrill that you get in watching 22 men go howling around a track at strictly illegal speeds in order to prove that their ego is bigger than anyone else’, there is no escaping the element of passion. On the other hand I would think it a bit difficult to get my pulse racing about coffee beans, paint, mortgages and drilling for oil among a host of other vocations, though I am sure that there are many who find their passion in these fields.
I am a firm believer that the field of design has contributed a lot to the presence of passion. As a school child I would sketch cars and other sundry automobiles in the margins of my notebooks, with my teachers giving me a clip on my ears for my artistic efforts. It isn’t as if I became a designer in later life, but the connection stayed on. When I look at a car I see it in many guises; as an idea on the sketch pad, a scale representation that sets out critical ratios like wheelbase, overhangs and height and even as a collage of parts. Yes, we all see what the whole car looks like, but could you salivate over the strengths of a rear three-quarters view over the profile representation? Car designers are my demi-gods in that they do a job that I find impossible. They take four wheels, cabin space, engine, steering wheel, lights and other accessories and manage to produce a unique model that sets itself apart from every other car by just that little bit.
From the basis of that differentiation, we then get the move to homogenise design by various categories. We get the ever prevalent family look of a brand or the adoption of styling cues that appeal to a particular type of audience. How many of us ever cared that the height of a Rolls-Royce Phantom was set at twice the size of the tyres? Or that the front was always higher than the rear, like the prow of a ship? While it is difficult to see its use in the car, I am sure that the golden ratio propounded by Da Vinci and his ilk finds application in the car as well. We even recognise traits like sportiness or utility depending on the ratios between width and height that the car presents to us.
When I know what goes into design, it becomes quite a crime to ask a designer the question I put to Peter Schreyer of Audi and KIA fame. At what point in the design process does a car gain the brand identity? Admittedly that was a cheeky one considering that my dinner table companions an I had just spent a considerable time finding the Audi cues in the KIA car being unveiled. I am sure that Peter’s job was not made any easier by the speed with which the Korean brand was assimilating European overtones.
Finally, despite all the objective analysis of design, good design is about subjectivity. You either know that you like it or not. I have a long list of cars that you love or hate. There is no middle ground in their case. But most cars suffer from ‘acceptable’ design, which serves the purpose yet remains unremembered. Even established design houses have these cars on their lists. From the mouth-watering appeal of the Ferrari 458 Italia you wouldn’t believe that the same design house is responsible for the utilitarian Hyundai Matrix.