Doodles on wheels

After many years in the wilderness, John Stones discovers that art is backon the move as car graphics get a modern makeover, with manufacturers including BMW and Renault making a virtue out of a range of colourful,highly decorated vehicles

How do you want your car? With colourful circles or zebra stripes? That’s how Renault is pitching the Twizy, its forthcoming micro-electric city car, or ’quadricycle’. As part of its promotion, punters can sign up and choose between 12 bold exterior graphic treatments, winning themselves a car and also determining a special edition featuring the most popular design.

If Henry Ford was famous for offering the Model T in ’any colour as long as it is black’, today car buyers largely make a banal choice between metallic silver or dark blue. But after some 30 years in the lock-up, exterior graphics are staging a return.

It all started in 1951 with intrepid American racer Briggs Cunningham, who painted his race cars with stripes – not so that they would go that bit faster and win Le Mans, but to make them instantly recognisable.

As raciness became the main tool with which to sell cars (however humdrum), these graphics were increasingly found on factory-new cars and added to secondhand cars that sat forlornly on dealership forecourts. They came to be derided with the ironic moniker ’go-faster stripes’. The taste for graphics reached its apogee in the 1970s, with cars such as the Fiat X1/9 featuring intricate ladder stripes, before fading away.

Could the Twizy do for the automotive world what, once upon a time, the iMac did for the home computer?

However, graphics have never entirely gone away. The BMW Mini very profitably tapped into a widespread desire to customise with its Cooper model. This has since been aped by Fiat with its 500. Meanwhile, Porsche has been willing to compromise its obsession with perceived quality by slapping vinyl graphics on some of its very finest products, such as the original 1973 911 RS and its recent reiterations, as well some rather dubious black-on-black stripes on the ’Design Edition’ of the Cayman. Smart owners can go to various third parties to customise their cars, including one in the US that offers an eye-watering total leopard-skin wrap.

The most ambitious examples of graphics are found on the BMW Art Cars, last year’s version of which was designed by Jeff Koons and features a 3D explosion of colourful stripes. Seventeen Art Cars have been produced since 1975, but the Bavarian car-maker has no plans for them ever to be more than one-offs, and the next won’t be released before 2014 at the earliest.

’BMW is not an art dealer and the moment you do editions you cross over into that world. The artists creating Art Cars are represented by the biggest international dealers and we do not wish to interfere here,’ says BMW’s Thomas Girst.

The Koons Art Car relies on a modern vinyl wrap that can easily be applied and printed. The wrap is also easy to remove, which has given rise to a craze among footballers to change the colour of their cars on a whim, including to a stealthy matt black. Companies such as Avery Dennison are busy touring the world with master classes on how to design and apply graphics.

Although there is a wait for the next BMW Art Car, the Twizy will hit the streets of Europe by the end of this year. Could the Twizy do for the automotive world what, once upon a time, the iMac did for the home computer?

Renault is coy about who is responsiblefor its eye-catching graphics, and is only willing to say that they have been devised by graphic designers within and outside the company. But by tapping into the zeitgeist of customisation, clearly Renault wants to make the Twizy a cult item rather than a worthy, but dull environmentalist gesture.

With the Twizy, exterior patterning is subsidiary to the original brilliance and daring of its overall design, but even if the go-faster stripe is being replaced by the go-slower doodle, automotive graphics are back in a big way.

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