From the archives: Driving back to the future

During our pause, we’re re-publishing the occasional article from deep in our archives. This March 1990 column by our founder, Jeremy Myerson, discusses how car design can look backwards and still bring something fresh to the market. It’s particularly prescient in highlighting the Mazda MX-5, which was doubted by many at the time but has since become a hugely successful model line that remains popular today, a quarter of a century later. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about the article and how car design has moved since then.

The unveiling of a speculative prototype Jaguar designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at this spring’s Geneva Motor Show has once again revived arguments over the soullessness of modern car styling. Giugiaro’s company, Italdesign, wasn’t asked by Jaguar to give its familiar, time-honoured visual motifs a more overtly-modern shape. But, having failed a few years ago to win the contract to design the current Jaguar XJ6, Giugiaro — the serious car designer’s designer — decided to go it alone.

The result can be criticised for diluting the rich visual culture of the traditional Jaguar with the latest Japanese-influenced styling trends, but Giugiaro was at least addressing the old-fashioned issues of using styling cues to give cars a distinct and individual personality — something largely missing on today’s roads.

I drive a Volkswagen Golf, one of Giugiaro’s best-known designs, but my choice is still a compromise in a mass market of lookalike vehicles. I can barely tell cars apart these days; so amorphous and anonymous has car styling become. It is a case of world economics and technology leading design into global blandness, which holds dangerous lessons for other product types.

Some time ago, fashion designer Katharine Hamnett wrote an article in the Mail On Sunday suggesting that the Rover Group should comb through its British Leyland back-catalogue and re-issue classic cars from the Fifties and Sixties for the mass market. However, as with reproduction of famous furniture, the latest technology should be employed, with the incorporation of more advanced features than were originally available to the customer.

Mazda’s two-seater Miata, just launched in the UK and closely resembling Lotus’ original Elan, is an indication that somebody, somewhere, was listening. However, the general reaction at the time was to laugh the idea out of court. “What the public wants now is the future, not the past,” argued the car manufacturers. This thinking is reflected in the two main training schools for auto stylists — the Royal College of Art in London and Art Center in Pasadena, California.

An original Mazda MX-5 (Miata) set in front of wind turbines
The original Mazda MX-5, known as the Miata or the Eunos in some markets, with the design led by C. Mark Jordan. Image credit – Mazda Press Office

I always search in vain at their degree shows for styling exercises which incorporate culture and history and react to the growing consumer need for diversity and individuality — rather than trotting out the well-worn streamlined, aerodynamic, gull-wing-door ideas. But Hamnett’s proposal to recycle history does have appeal. So much so that the Japanese are now designing retro vehicles which are modern versions of old, bulbous 1950s cars. The Nissan S-Cargo is a good example — it is very much in keeping with the current nostalgia in design. Odd, isn’t it, how the true progressives are the ones looking back?

If you asked Stephen Bayley — the car fancier’s car fancier — who he’d most like to swap places with in twentieth century design, it would probably be Harley Earl. Earl, the subject of Bayley’s Dream Machine book, headed the Art and Colour section at General Motors between 1927 and 1959. He was responsible for the look of some 50 million cars, introduced the word ‘Styling’ into the auto vocabulary, and invented all those visual clichés — tailfins, chrome, two-tone colour, wraparound windshields. Harley Earl started his career in Hollywood, which perhaps explains his love of ritzy, lustrous styling. His indulgent work is now probably anathema to an energy- and environment-conscious era, but he nevertheless struck a chord with American car owners.

Nobody today is coordinating a love affair with the car in quite the same way. The realities of auto manufacture are such that the body shells are now developed on computer to be produced in Europe, the East, or the Americas — wherever labour costs are cheapest. There may be some tweaking or refinements of interior specifications for individual markets. But within a certain price and performance bracket, cars all end up looking largely the same. The close collaboration between manufacturers makes this so. Rover and Honda are a good example. The new Rover 200 and the Honda Concerto, both sold in the UK, are essentially the same car.

Small, expensive manufacturers are still doing innovative things in terms of design: one immediately thinks of ideas by Peter Stevens at Lotus, who designed the new Elan, or by RCA tutors Ken Greenley and John Heffernan for Aston Martin. But where is the mass market styling flair which transformed Henry Ford’s rugged invention into the symbol of lifestyle this century? Given current efforts, I remain in the lobby which argues that more fiscal measures should be introduced to actively discourage car driving, and that city centres should ban them altogether and bring back trams.

Header image source: Italdesign media centre.

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  • Carl St. James June 26, 2024 at 3:19 pm

    “Given current efforts, I remain in the lobby which argues that more fiscal measures should be introduced to actively discourage car driving, and that city centres should ban them altogether and bring back trams.”

    Quite a prescient thing to say 35 years ago, not least because many large UK cities brought back trams and we’ve had decades of the congestion charge.

    Modern car design is an interesting place.

    Electric models have managed to straddle futurism with tradition; the Polestar models are lovely to look at but BMW went a little bit too ‘Hot Wheels’ with its Z-range. Tesla continues to look like off-brand Lotus cars, not suprising considering their original Roadster was a Lotus chassis with Tesla gubbins. Not a fan of the spartan interiors.

    Smaller cars are perhaps the most interesting. BMW skipped the dictionary when redesigning the Mini but the Fiat/Abarth 500 remains a design classic that is also fun to drive.

    Many decade-old dinosaur-powered cars seem to have had the same designers as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Not nice.

    • David Coveney June 26, 2024 at 4:18 pm

      I have a Honda e and honestly, it’s wonderful as a small car, and my wife and I fight over the keys for it rather than the more comfortable faithful old Volvo. Small cars are a delight for 90% of use – being easy to manoeuvre, and the handling is usually more fun. The only downside is that our increasingly lanky children are complaining about the lack of space. But who can complain at doing a u-turn in a drop-off car-park.

      BMW’s i Vision Dee concept looks wonderful, and electric should allow for some more experimentation in shapes as there’s no longer such a big lump of engine to accommodate up front.

      Of course, if public transport could get better that would be nice too. Far too often I think I’ll take the train then I realise I’ll lose an hour and a half from my day. That’s a big ask. Too infrequent, too slow, too likely to be cancelled. At least around here.

  • Jeremy Myerson June 27, 2024 at 11:27 am

    Thank you to new Design Week publisher, David Coveney, for delving into the archives to republish this article from half a lifetime ago. In 1990 we were just on the foothills of globalisation and its effect on all types of design, but lookalike cars were clearly the canary in the coalmine. Loss of national identity and authenticity remains an issue across design today. As for fiscal measures to reduce car driving, road pricing has been around a long time although I note that New York has just suffered a loss of nerve over introducing London-style congestion charging. So some things don’t change.

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