Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Roadwork Gripe #1 2012:- "Me-too" Styling.

My time with the Nissan Qashqai was brief, but was enough to remind me that, more than ever before, cars are becoming amorphous, photo-fit facsimiles of each other. I sound like one of those past-dwelling denialists who complained that “they all look the bloody same”. I am my own Grandfather, and I claim my £5.

I fear it may be the truth, though, but for very different reasons now to how it was in the 1940s. Towards the end of the ‘30s, and in that immediate post-war era progress was priority number one and the old-look of separate fenders and coffin-style engine compartment was consigned to the dustbin of the past. It was replaced by all-encompassing bodywork so the whole was more cohesive. It was this styled-by-the-wind new order, and the fact that everybody was chasing the same ideal that “lost” the quirkiness and “individuality” that cars had enjoyed since Mr Benz first motorized his tricycle. It happens every generation, and it’s happening again now.

Truth is, I find it hard to tell one vintage car from another, unless it’s something steeped in legend like an Auburn Speedster or Bentley Speed Six, Model T or Austin Ruby. But there are an awful lot of Singers, Hillmans, Buicks, Chevies that I wouldn’t be able to identify unless I was given substantial and obvious clues. It’s one of the things that deny me true standing in the pantheon of motoring “experts”. It’s even worse when I admit that part of my ineptness in these matters springs from the fact that I just don’t really find cars from that era particularly interesting.

No, that’s a lie. I could happily browse a museum full of Morrisses and Studebakers, revelling in the smell of oil and leather and marvelling at those details and forms that are forever lost in time. It’s the same as how I can appreciate a steam locomotive for its power, grace and majesty, but I’m more emotionally affected by the thrum and thrust of a big old diesel. The cars are fascinating historical relics; but they just don’t relate to me in the same way as post-war stuff does. And that’s mainly because vehicle styling is one of my deepest interests.

Styling started to become so much more important after matters of basic functionality had been sorted out once and for all; it had taken the industry until 1916 to get the basic pedal arrangement right (Cadillac, Type 53. Thanks Top Gear...). And although coachbuilders could provide elegant or outlandish bodywork to he with a heavy enough wallet, the rest of society had to do with simple, sparse styling that just got the job done.

It was in the post-war period that the industry really woke up to the fact that style sells. Notable visionaries like Raymond Loewy set about re-shaping the technological world around us, and then people like Harley Earl aligned the wheeled world with these new conventions and began to sell it to a society who previously only got to choose a car on cost, equipment and performance. Now they had the choice of not only which shape, but which image to go for.

I’m massively over-simplifying things here, any automotive historians reading must grant me a little lee-way in condensing the story into so little space and time-frame, but the fact that cars developed stylistically at a hugely accelerated rate immediately before and after the war is incontrovertible. The old-car look was dead and buried. Futurism was on its way.

And so it has been ever since then. The major manufacturers all take it in turns to lead the way forward as fashions come and go. In America fins were in before disappearing overnight, fuselage bodies came afterwards but bigger remained better, then came a spate of downsizing as one fuel crisis followed another. In Europe and Asia we didn’t have the great land yachts of the colonies, but we did still have our share of fashions; many of which were cribbed from our American cousins. The “Coke Bottle” hip made it onto Fords, Vauxhalls and, you could argue, even the Jaguar XJ.

In the early 80’s came the launch of the “jellymould” Ford Sierra which re-introduced the world to the idea of aerodynamic styling; and this was well timed, coming as it did soon after a major fuel crisis. Before too long, big, vertical front grilles were disappearing from cars all over the world, even though America found it a difficult habit to kick; the Chevy Caprice, Ford Crown Victoria and their related models soldiered on with old-school snouts until the very end of the ‘80s and beyond.

It only takes one brand to catch the imagination of the public and then the entire industry follows suit by running along decidedly similar lines. It was no coincidence that, after Audi launched the C5 generation A6 in 1997, that Ford should release their Mk 3 Mondeo with styling that, if not directly cribbed, certainly shared some footnotes with the Ingolstadt machine. Difficult to recall now, I know, but back then there were raised eyebrows over the Audiness of things.

And then, later in the first decade of this century we had Chris Bangle with his flame-surfacing. It wasn’t universally loved, that’s fair comment. The Z4 was an acquired taste (which I acquired rather quickly), and after the conventional yet strangely elegant cars that went before them the new five and seven series were a shock to the system. But still Bangles legacy lives on.

While no car at present specifically resembles any of the machines he had a hand in, it’s still clear that designers across the industry took note of the sort of things that he was asking sheet metal to do. Linear surfaces took a back seat, replaced by complex curves and interestingly contrasting shadows. And that pretty much brings us up to date.

While there are still plainly presented cars out there, the ones that the baying crowds hold most dearly to their bosom are bedecked in either swooping, muscular curves or impenetrable corporate armour. The Audi range has such a strong family identity that every car in the range looks like an enlargement of the model below it. It’s as if the company exists on its own, away from the orbits of innovation or fashion. Fortunately for them, the public seem to love the Audi uniformity; but they still stand out as the exception to the rule that fashion sells.

Elsewhere, the same formula of massive wheels under gaping arches under muscular shoulders underpins every fashionable car on the market. Certainly every soft-roader you care to mention could have issued from a single design studio; Rav 4, Kuga, Antara, BMW X1, the whole bloody lot of them. And this includes the Nissan Qashqai, the car that pushed me over the edge, the car that inspired this whole screed.

The car design world needs a sea-change to prevent things getting rather depressing. It happens in other industries, witness the small electronics market in the late 90-s to early 00’s. The MP3 player. Whether made by Sony, Phillips, Creative or Microsoft, none of them stick in the memory. They were all much of a muchness, varying sometimes in colour, shape and featureset but all rather lacking in identity. That was until the iPod came along.

The colour, white, was radical enough on its own. Just as, earlier in the decade, the Hi-Fi industry had suddenly rediscovered silver, all of a sudden Apple brought white to the table. White was a colour that had rarely been used since the ‘60s. Choosing it as the signature colour for your empire was a very brave thing to do, and one that paid dividends.

Until iPod there was no go-to mp3 player. Not only was the iPod brilliantly named and styled, but it was a pretty damn good product, too. We no longer say mp3 player, we colloquialise to iPod, just as how for upmarket 4x4’s the world and his wife say “Range Rover”.

Car design needs an iPod. It needs somebody to shake the industry by the lapels and say “look, this is all very nice, but what about if we did it this way?”

Only then can we move away from the blind leading the blind, with everything looking like a variation on a theme. The danger here is that, if done badly, such a move could end up with your company looking silly and having to eat its words. Sometimes it’s sensible to stand in the shadows and follow the crowd, and that’s what everybody is doing at the moment; it minimises the risk of failure at a time where survival hangs in the balance.

But somebody out there needs to be brave enough to make the first move. To come up with something that shrugs off the fashions and expectations of the impressionable and conservative. 

(Photos stolen from somewhere on the internet; thanks. Please contact if this is unnaceptibke)

1 comment:

  1. Your comments about Audi are interesting. Where they once embodied understated style, they now appear to have been styled using the same stencil and scaled down for each market segment.
    Ford has made some brave style statements that have worked (current Fiesta when new) but they ruin things by making their entire range look the same.
    One company still sticks in my mind for their own unique look and style....Volvo. Perhaps not the best design, but you always knew what it was...