Road works

The car’s most definitely the star at an exhibition to celebrate 30 years of the RCA’s celebrated Vehicle Design course, says Matthew Valentine

It could be argued that Moving Objects – the exhibition at the Royal College of Art to celebrate 30 years of the institute’s Vehicle Design course – is long overdue. Cars are definitive 20th century objects, and a large proportion of the vehicles we spend our time in have been designed by RCA graduates.

But a 30th anniversary does have the benefit of making available a large pool of graduates who have had the opportunity to climb to the top of their respective careers. The impact their work has had on everyday lives – in the form of more efficient, more attractive and more affordable cars – can be charted. At the end of the millennium, it also gives visitors a chance to see what car designers are planning for our future.

It is not only the RCA which has something to say about vehicle design. Next week the exhibition Reinventing the Wheel opens at Coventry School of Art and Design, and marks the start of a series of collaborations which will try to answer the question, what is car design?

A list of former RCA students, modified to show their current job titles, illustrates the high regard the course is held in by motor manufacturers. The first two graduates from the course wound up at Porsche and Lotus. Their successors have worked for employers as diverse as Rover, Land Rover, General Motors and Aston Martin. According to the RCA, 98.3 per cent of its graduates hold positions regarded as “important” in the worldwide motor industry. The models shown at the RCA end of year shows always provide some insight into what we will later be driving, even if often they are conspicuously ahead of their time.

The exhibition, directed by style guru Stephen Bayley and RCA Vehicle Design course director Ken Greenley, and designed by Land Design Studio, is sponsored by Ford. While there is a high concentration of work from Ford-owned brands, such as Jaguar, Aston Martin and Mercury on display, other manufacturers get a look in too.

The exhibition takes visitors from a traditional, but increasingly redundant part of car-making – a wooden buck or mascherone used to shape body panels for the 1954 Alfa Romeo Guilietta Sprint – to a selection of modern concept cars. These are the often outlandish vehicles shown at international motor shows to gently introduce the motoring public to features they may see on road cars in future years. Increasingly, as with the Audi TT, the concept cars prove popular enough to go into full production.

The examples present include the Volkswagen Noah from 1996, a bus-like people carrier with vast, upwardly hinged doors, and the Mercury MC4, a high-tech saloon from 1997. Most of the features on the vehicles have shown up on previous projects by RCA students.

The journey through the exhibition to the concept cars illustrates how cars gain the shapes and personalities we attribute to them.

Visitors can try for size seats from a Ferrari Mondial, a BMW Seven Series and a Rolls Royce, and make their own judgement on the type of cars they come from. The minimalist Ferrari seat is firm and supportive and, subjectively, the most comfortable of the three. The BMW seat is large and well padded. The huge, wide, Rolls Royce seat feels designed to cope with the weight of the average Rolls Royce owner.

A wooden model of a 1966 Lamborghini Muira, created by Italian design house Bertone, is displayed without wheels as a piece of art in a glass case. It is followed by an illuminating selection of objects which influence the choice of shapes used when designers create a car. There are cars here: a shapely Forties Cadillac coupé and the prototype Chevrolet Corvette Stingray created by Bill Mitchell. But a P38 Lightning fighter plane, a Colt.45 Peacemaker revolver, the skull from a bird of prey, pebbles, a Fender Stratocaster, Nike trainers, an American football helmet and film of a shark are given equal prominence.

We see how such shapes transfer to vehicles in the next room, where boards show the passage from initial sketch to finished prototype for a number of vehicles, from a racing Porsche to a Mazda 241 sports car.

Individual components of car exteriors, from shapely Alfa Romeo door mirrors to filler caps and headlight clusters, show how strong details are used to distinguish individual models from one another. A Jaguar’s rear light cluster is obviously from a Jaguar, even when it’s attached to a wall. In an age of corporate convergence, when cars are built on shared platforms – Volkswagen owns Seat and Skoda, General Motors owns brands such as Vauxhall, Opel and Saab, Ford owns Volvo – such “badge engineering” is increasingly important to car makers’ identities.

Throughout, the exhibition makes the point that the RCA’s course, the first of its kind, has changed the way cars are designed. Previously dominated by sensual Italian design houses like Pininfarina and Bertone, or US characters like Bill Mitchell, the motor design industry is now an international business with accepted standards and methods. The one dominant presence in modern car design now seems to be the RCA, where most of the designers trained.

Moving Objects at the RCA, London SW7, runs until 19 September. Reinventing the Wheel runs at the Lanchester Gallery, Coventry School of Art and Design from 21-24 August

Success stories

A selection of RCA Vehicle Design graduates, their graduation date and current jobs

John Hartnell, 1970, Ford US design manager

Paul Gebbett, 1970, Ford UK design manager

Graham Hull, 1971, Rolls Royce and Bentley chief stylist

Peter Horbury, 1974, Volvo design director

Peter Catignani, 1976, Saab chief designer

Keith Helfet, 1977, Jaguar principal designer

Pinky Lai, 1980, Porsche design manager

Luciano D’Ambrosio, 1981, Bertone design director

Ed James, 1984, Peugot Citroën deputy chief designer

Tadeusz Jelec, 1988, Jaguar principal stylist

Nick Talbot, 1988, Seymour Powell senior designer

Stefan Sielaff, 1990, Audi design director

David Woodhouse, 1992, General Motors assistant chief designer

Steven Crijns, 1994, Lotus design leader

Jonathan Dale, 1995, Ford designer

Matthew Hill, 1997, Lotus design engineer

Per Ivar Selvaag, 1997, General Motors UK designer

Jordan Meadows, 1998, DaimlerChrysler US designer

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