Trying to define the divine right to automotive attractiveness, Iain Robertson reflects on his personal favourites but also ponders over what makes them special in their own right, during an era of plug-ugliness and some cars that look like a cow’s arse on a frosty morning.
As a fan of progressive rock music, it is the spikey delivery of some of its compositions that has drawn me to bands as diverse as Genesis, Pink Floyd and The Waterboys. Yet, each of them also has the creative power to produce immensely thoughtful and harmonious tunes that have buoyed my attention. Naturally, although several of my favourite artists are now retired, if not deceased, when I was attempting to ascertain a piece of music that I could consider to be beautiful, I settled on mid-1970s Mancunian band, 10cc, and its seminally inventive ‘I’m Not In Love’.
It was a composition that was formed using elaborate recording tape loops, close vocal harmonies and ingenious editing, at a time when recording technology was yet to go digital. I urge you to seek it out via your music app, or even through YouTube. It is a sweet and surprisingly timeless set piece that is now 46 years old.
Modern car design studios boast of their innumerable influences and members of their teams are insistent on formulating ‘mood boards’, like an interior designer, or wedding planner might. However, I contend that such devices lead to a reliance on what can be a very narrow field of perception, often governed by popular shapes, colours and materials, sometimes from other carmakers. Only recently, I enjoyed an excellent discussion with Mr Mike Kimberley, former boss of Lotus Sportscars and also Lamborghini. While my angle was related to car designers, he was very careful to highlight that car company senior bosses ‘design’ the new cars, leaving the stylists to shape and detail them. It was a most valid point.
It is also interesting to note the value that car stylists place on ‘influencers’, which can include ‘lifestyle’ contributors. To be frank, the sort of influence that some silly girl wearing a fascinator, basque and stilettos can add to a new car is exceptionally limited. When Land Rover introduced the new Range Rover Evoque model, it engaged the services of sometime Spice Girl, Victoria Beckham, to influence the cabin design. Short of employing dolphin skin for seats and door cards and Siberian yak scrotum for the gearlever, her involvement did little but add a couple of thousand Pounds to the list prices.
In its own way, car manufacturers reliance on the world of ‘celebrity’ to sell its products is little more than a cash drain…even though very few of them see it that way. The most recent reveal of the Audi e-tron GT involved music pioneer, Nile Rodgers, and British ‘hardman’ actor, Tom Hardy, in its presentation. Yet, Audi is renowned for literally handing out new cars to the glitterati and the aforementioned Mrs Beckham has a garage choice of new Evoque and an Audi RS6 gifted to her husband…ironic really, as they are more often spotted in chauffeur driven Mercs at public events and you will certainly not hear them mention their car suppliers, when they are endorsing other commercial products.
In fact, a music superstar, like J Kay, from jazz-funk band Jamiroquai, was provided with an Audi RS6 for little better reason than ‘he likes high-performance cars’. While I am sure that Mr Kay will drive Audi’s Audi, you have to question when, as he also has a stable of several high-performance cars on his Buckinghamshire estate. When Audi requested his presence at special events, he received additional payments for the P.A., which is par for the course. I am 100% certain that his influences have never had anything to do with new Audi models, unless you enjoy the narcotic whiff of non-prescription unguents.
Nature is said to be a major influence for stylists. Volvo used to talk of driftwood in references to interior wood finishes, even though, like Mercedes-Benz, the wood finish is little more than a very thin veneer on a plastic and aluminium frame selected for its safety not the amount of splinters it can render. A hen’s egg was the apparent inspiration for both Wayne Cherry at Vauxhall (Astra Mark Two) and Suzuki (Swift Mark Two), both resulted in cracking aerodynamic outlines. However, sometime Jaguar Cars’ design chief, Ian Callum, was influenced by a Moulinex electric kitchen carving knife, when styling the metal air strakes in the front bumper of its XF model. True!
The latest Mazda MX-30 electric car uses cork to line the storage trays in its model’s centre console. The temptation to pick at the fibre will be almost as strong as picking a zit. I can hardly contain myself. The more prestigious the car company, the greater its dependence on matching wood finishes and even leather hides, much as Lord Linley, or a designer at McIntosh Furniture might do. Even during an era of reducing CO2 and environmental impact, car stylists resist moving to recycled plastics for trim panels, seats and even floor coverings, even though both the ‘greens’ and company accountants (seldom interchangeable) demand them. The great Volkswagen even built a special plastics moulding machine that it would roll out for motor shows and the like, to demonstrate how old tail-lights could be repurposed as a pen-holder in the shape of either a Golf, or Beetle, without ever introducing the technology ironically on its production lines.
My favourite car design of them all is, surprisingly, neither the Dino 246GT, nor the Lamborghini Muira, both of which I adore deeply, but the McLaren F1 road car. Peter Stevens took Gordon Murray’s concept to production ready status, with a stunning design both inside and outside its mid-engined, mid-driving position, three-seater construction. Looking quite different to any of its rivals in 1992, its styling remains timelessly beautiful.
Conclusion: Modern car design does seem to have left behind many of the elements that constituted beautiful machinery. As a positive means to generate new car sales, car stylists should go with a natural flow and see what results, perhaps reverting to drawing for inspiration, rather than the computer.