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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

What makes good car design? An industry insider peels back the studio curtain | Hagerty Media

Hello there! My name is Adrian Clarke. I am a professional car designer, earning a degree in automotive design from Coventry University and a Masters in Vehicle Design from the Royal College of Art in London. While I was there, one of my tutors was J Mays. (He used to bring in doughnuts.)
https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-design/what-makes-good-car-design-an-industry-insider-peels-back-t...
116 REPLIES 116
hyperv6
Gearhead

What makes for good design is a design that you just see but you feel in your head and heart.

A well designed model gets in you head and makes you emotional. I don't say this in some crazy art way by just how I feel when I see a well styled car.

My favorite all time styled car is a Ferrari Lusso 250 SWB. I would pay money to just wash one let alone drive one. To look at it stirs me inside.

Few cars today can do that. Most are slaves to aero and to budgets that just don't let stylist express their true ideas anymore. Also many stylist have gotten stale and lazy just copying others.

Like a good song you feel it and with a great styles car you feel it when you see it. Lets face it a Taurus just had a good personality.
The other issue today is the SUV/CUV and small cars do not lend themselves to being a great styled model. Sometimes you need more canvas to have a great work of art expressed. The Last Supper is much more impressive on the wall vs a small print.

I feel for the great designers today as ergonomics and Aero has really made it difficult to be original and expressive.

As for the poor designers try harder.
chrlsful
Instructor

I say "don't copy" (another "try harder") so join w/U in all U say. I just add that the "feeling in the heart" is effected by those parameters I listed above (history, culture, family choices, etc).
hyperv6
Gearhead

As Picasso once said “Good Artist Copy, Great Artist Steal. 

What is good is good no matter the artist. But it is the combination and how it is incorporated into a full package. 

Harley Earl went to Paris and stole the grill from a Ferrari at the show to use in a 55 Chevy. No he physically did not steal it but he did take the styling and made the Chevy a major chassis. 

The styling of the Cadillac fin started from a Lookheed P38 fighter. 

The Stingray was stolen from the Fish of the same name inspired by it’s looks. 

Generally most great designs are not 100% original. They are seldom practical. They often lack ergonomics and vision sight lines. 

Yes often you have to pay the price to have great styling. 

Today we are loaded with CUV models snd small cars and with the regulations for aero, crash standards where they have to have crush space between the hood and engine now. There are more issues but it is difficult to build a car today. 

Also to step out to take a risk on a new style can be a very expensive risk. This is why Retro styling took off as it was safe but with no risk there is no gains to create the next future classic. 

The box to work today is very small. Aero is a problem. It eliminates much and with EV coming a small element can cost 10 miles in range. 

Other things today. The green house today has to be wider at 5he front and narrows to the rear. We can not drive with a rear window open on one side due to the air pressure from the aero flow over that window. 

I wish companies would take more risks but will billions at risk the risks will be small. 

OldCarMan
Instructor

The Chrysler LH "Cab Forward" cars had great presence and passenger-centric packaging, until Daimler killed it for their old school RWD. Chrysler managed to pull out the 300 and Charger/Challengers but have been starved for new modern versions by carpetbagger management.
The real problem is timid Planning and Marketing management, forcing bland designs. Assertive car guy management will break the mold and the segments like the tall Neon (PT Cruiser) or the high hood Dodge Ram pickups that everyone else is following. If you can't lead the parade, you will be an also-ran, depending on your dealer body to make sales goals. Aero is NOT the problem. Good aero has some basic tenets, but it is dependent more on design execution than just making it slippery.
You do know it is design management that sells designs to the other departments? If it is timid, or not up for a fight, camels are what you get, instead of horses.
farna
Detailer

That doesn't always work. Sometimes when you "break the mold" and get too far away from trends the others are following you lose horribly (money, mostly) even if you have a superior design. The Chrysler Airflow is probably the best example. The AMC Pacer *almost* fits, but it was a success in the first year. The fuel crunch hurt it more than anything else -- most people don't seem to realize this. They just see it as way different from everything else in the mid 70s and assume that's what killed it. The fact that it was unique and futuristic looking (that description is highly subjective, I know, but look at some later cars...) actually helped. The fact that it had a lot of safety features increased weight, and the reality is that it got about the same gas mileage as the much bigger Matador. THAT killed sales just 18 months after introduction when the first gas crisis hit and everyone wanted a small car with relatively (for the time) good gas mileage. Concord (the upscale Hornet) sold like hot cakes, Pacer like a brick sinking in a pond.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Chrysler was on a massive roll in the early to mid nineties - they were probably the coolest mainstream manufacturer out there. The LH cars were truly revolutionary, there was the Viper, Ram, Prowler, even the minivans were the cool for what they were. People knock the PT Cruiser now but forget it sold and sold when it was first released,
With regard to management forcing bland designs, it all depends on the company and how it is structured. Companies that prioritize good design will have senior designers at or around board level. Those that subjugate design as a non priority won't and as a consequence there's less scope for anything daring.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Aero is critical for modern cars, but as a known science is doesn't drive the overall shape as much as it used to. Cars that 'look' aero (Prius etc) actually don't NEED to look like that. But it looks efficient and for a car like that, that is considered important.
I disagree small cars and crossovers can't look good. The Fiat 500, Suzuki Ignis/Jimny, Volvo XC40, LR Evoque (off the top of my head) all look terrific.
You are right in the a larger canvas gives you more room to work - this is a mistake a lot of manufacturers make - trying to do too much in too small a space.
Maestro1
Instructor

Adrian, well done.
A few of my favorite American designs are the '57 Thunderbird, the '53-4 and 7 Corvettes,
'53 Studebaker Starlight Coupe (actually a hardtop) and an '81 I think, Ford Durango, actually a Fairmont of that era as a pickup truck. very rare and once again integrated restrained and tasteful styling. I may have the wrong name for the Fairmont. They are very rare.
Stay well.
61Rampy
Advanced Driver

You are correct on the Durango. A friend of mine had not one, but two of them. Both 6 cyls.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Those original '53 Corvettes are lovely, they have a real purity and delicacy about them that was lost on later models (not saying I think later ones don't look great, they do!).
Rick2
Detailer

I know the stuff they try to sell us is constrained by aero but I for one would give up that last 1/2 mpg for something that looks good. And lets face it copying ugly is rampant. There are very few affordable vehicles that look good. Designers, please tell your bosses to back off a little to give us something we will be proud to but and be seen in.
OldCarMan
Instructor

Government Regulations for high mileage conflict with everything else. Aero is the cheapest and easiest way to more mileage, but has to start very early in the process. Have you EVER told your boss they are wrong? I didn't think so... They usually are more concerned about sales volume and not making waves. No balls, no glory!
Rick2
Detailer

Yes I have told several of my bosses over the years that they were wrong. Most of them understood when I explained it to them. Not guts no glory or continue to work for a jerk. 

AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Actually aero is incredibly difficult to improve past a certain point. It's a known science, but it's about lots of small gains over the entire car rather than the overall shape. Things like door mirror size (look at the Polestar 2 to see it's frameless door mirrors, which is about improving aero), underbody shape, hood sealing, glass flushness are the sorts of areas that make a difference, and they are very hard and time consuming to optimize.
On an ICE aero makes up a smaller percentage of the overall efficiency (an engineer will come along and correct me, but from memory it's something like 30%). Obviously on an EV it's a much higher percentage.
JG1
Pit Crew

Excellent comments...........a pleasure to read............Ford Thunderbird in London?

I am English, and can only feel for the cost of "petrol" with that beast............

............I have a Maserati......beautiful Italian lines.......stunning.

John.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

I was a style outlaw even back then. Luckily I didn't need to drive to work!
930Flachbau
Intermediate Driver

"Win this fight and you get an Audi TT. Lose and you get a Pontiac Aztek." Man, I'd call that fight a draw if those are the prizes. lol
61Rampy
Advanced Driver

Thank you. I find the Audi TT to be totally unattractive, but not ugly. The Aztek is just UGLY.
BiffNotZeem
Pit Crew

The Aztek creates an emotional response (of revulsion), so, per the article, it is an great design.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

It was an idea ahead of it's time, but boy did they fumble the execution....
chrlsful
Instructor

Unfortunately this article is abt "Car Styling" (industrial arts?). I was hoping for "Good Car Design" as in engineering for sales, use, maintenance, repair, recycling, etc. I was going to put in my 2 cents from a mechanic's &/or owner's perspective. THAT would be a useful essay.

Here, "Fashion" is abt art, beauty, the opposite of function ( yes, the twain can meet). There is a highly personal element with this consideration. It is effected by history, culture, etc. It runs in 'approved' cycles just like the music and other arts in society (length of skirt, flow of pop music, automotive style, interior design). "Everyone" (the big 3 effected international design) went w/the try-five. "All" followed the tatra of the 30's (SAAB, volks, etc). The square lines of early 60s were seen broadly just as the feminine (my description) of the Italian 50s/60s (in Jag, the 300SL, 503, nash, etc) and returned in the 'square' 80s. Just as the A'n R man controls the genre in the music game, the board room controls the (in these wrds here) car design - a purely personal "fashion statement" ruled by (current) era... I think we are still in the coke bottle era of the mid 80s tarus (altho influenced some w/suv and more "space travel' super cars designs). Take a look and decide your self. It only personal after all, anyway, on the one hand ~
Truthworldwide
Intermediate Driver

"If you want to draw a designer’s ire, call them a stylist"
"Unfortunately this article is abt "Car Styling"

Nothing unfortunate about this article. This article is about, as stated in the title "car design." You are discussing "engineering for maintenance" and design packaging as if they are interchangable; they are not.

Everyone loves the "styling" of vintage cars until they get in a frontal offset with a 2500HD (and this is coming from a long-time '68 fastback owner). Designers are trying to take everything the government, safety agencies, and consumers want/need, put it into an attractive shape, and not make the engineers want to kill them too badly.
farna
Detailer

Which is why until the 60s styling was part of the engineering department. Even I can draw a good looking car design, but it may not be practical to build, and after necessary engineering has been applied it probably won't look the same -- may be totally different.

Platform makes a huge difference! This is one area that EVs have more flexibility. It's far easier to make an electric motor and battery pack fit a given space than an ICE drivetrain -- fewer restraints. A Subaru flat engine makes it a lot easier to make a low hoodline, but if you're designing for Chevy that's not available. An electric motor is much more compact, just got to package enough battery. I'm still waiting for an EV with a small APU to charge batteries. Doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but a small ICE running at a constant speed is a lot more efficient than one powering a car. Would be more of a range extender, not enough to completely charge. Ideally it would be enough to supply all voltage while cruising (where the least power is needed), just using the battery pack for acceleration and starts. Also needed is a "universal" rear connector so a trailer with extra batteries and maybe that APU on it for long trips. Then one-way rentals would be practical, at least to larger cities. A new deal for U-haul and/or car rental companies (who already have the infrastructure).
Tinkerah
Technician

Both of your ideas, which I haven't heard anywhere else, seem worth exploring to me.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Styling is only one part of the design process, engineering for production/packaging/repair is done by the relevant engineering teams (but designers do have an input where it affects the appearance of the car - later articles will get into this).
There is of course a fashion element - it would be dull if we all dressed the same wouldn't it?
Flashman
Instructor

Yet another window into the word of automobiles. Thanks for the variety.
JohninNC
Advanced Driver

Regarding design, the Countach is it for me. I know, hard to get in and out of, terrible blind spots, plus insane costs to buy and maintain.... but it's the poster you had to have on your wall, and still gets my heart pumping.
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

An early LP400 for me please, in black!
TRAGAR
Pit Crew

Thanks for sharing your insights. It would be interesting to hear from you about pedestrian safety and other government constraints that impact style. For example, are small side windows a reaction to safety regulations, or is this just a trend for aesthetic reasons? Btw, I tend to agree with your comment that great design is not as subjective as one would expect, but then you held up the Audi TT as an example of a successful design. Unique, yes. Attractive or appealing, sorry. So maybe there is more subjectivity than we may want to acknowledge.
DavidHolzman
Detailer

I think those small side windows are ugly, and they sure don't help visibility. I suspect they're a reaction to safety regs, but with the lousy visibility, they may hurt safety as much as help it.
Oldroad1
Advanced Driver

The Audi TT? All I see is the Beetle's more handsome brother.
RichardD
New Driver

And the Karmann Ghia was the Beetle's older sister you lusted after.

AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

Someone up thread commented about the Audi TT. Consensus is (full disclosure, I drive a MkII TT!) that the original is an absolute copper bottomed design classic. When it came out it was a sensation - there was simply nothing like it. I prefer the MkII (obviously!) as I think it's a lot more dynamic and aggressive, and the less said about the MkIII the better (some extremely questionable surfacing around the front and the DLO kink in the C pillar looks out of place). 

 

Small side windows are for aesthetic reasons, but it can be taken too far. Designers always consider bodyside to glass ratio - too much body will make the car look heavy and slab sided. There's a lot of regulation around glass area and visibility, mirror sizes and viewing angles etc. 

 

The main way impact regulations affect appearance is hood height, as there has to be a certain gap between the hood and any hardpoints underneath (in case pedestrians end up on the hood of the car), and the size of any vent openings (so they don't break legs). Things like grill inserts have to be plastic so they will break, but this is more of a perceived quality issue than an appearance issue (press the grill on a Bentley and it's plastic...).

Caprice81
Intermediate Driver

The most unique automobile design of the ages has to be the 1961 Jaguar XKE. It is instantly recognizable and has stood the test of time for freshness compared to the majority cookie cutter modern designs copied by the designers of today. If you don't see the nameplate it could be Toyota, Nissan or even a Honda.
Tinkerah
Technician

Owing largely to the universally accepted requirements of aerodynamics.
MrKnowItAll
Detailer

The old saying that "style sells cars" has been turned upside down. If styling sold cars than Toyota would be in the last place. People buy cars fir perceived value, and status- not necessarily style.
Jay Mays in my opinion is only good at retro mobile's. I thought the Audi TT looked like a cross between a step down Hudson and a cartoon car when it was introduced. I don't think it's a particularly fine looking car. Styling is subjective...and it's always easier to make sports cars attractive.
The Pontiac Aztec now blends into traffic because nearly everything contemporary looks like it ...and nobody talks about the Buick Rendezvous; basically the same car that was more conservatively styled.
Styling goes through fads; spoilers were the tailfins of the new millennium. Now it's excessive character lines… So many character lines it could be in a comedy review. Yes it's true that you have a basic layout that you have to design around, and today everyone buys "station wagons" or what they're called- SUVs crossover's etc., they're all station wagons… And tall squat ones to boot. It's pretty hard design a good looking four wheeled bowling ball.
deckerbilt
Intermediate Driver

Wow, I'm glad somebody agrees with me that Toyota styling is gross. For me, that includes the Lexus grille.
leduced
Intermediate Driver

I agree, those huge frontal openings are "Super Ugly", ugly enough to stop me from wanting to be seen in one of those, never mind to buy one. YUCK....
DavidHolzman
Detailer

So many character lines that that element looks like it was scribbled by a fourth grader on most teens cars.
Utopia1
Detailer

Styling is subjective. I for one think that the styling on Toyota's - and Lexus for that matter - looks great. I like the character lines versus the bland, slab-sided European cars as it adds interest and catches the light at different angles. They can't be doing too badly as the top-selling automaker in the world. And please, save the comments of "people don't care", because everyone cares. While styling may not be the top priority everyone, NOBODY buys a car they can't stand the look of regardless of how practical it may be. The Aztec is proof of that as it was a sales flop - but surprisingly nice to drive and very practical.
RussBrasher
Pit Crew

“Slab sides”? But the ‘61-2-3 Lincoln Continentals are one of the most beautiful, classic designs of all time!
Oldroad1
Advanced Driver

Once again someone misspelled UDOPIA!
AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

The Lexus LC500 is probably one of my favorite designs currently on sale. It's proof what they are doing can work, it just needed the appropriate canvas. The rest of the line up is an overwrought mess of too large grilles, clashing feature lines and twisted surfaces. 

AdrianClarke
Intermediate Driver

I would say styling is not the only thing that sells cars. Toyotas and the like have a lot of other qualities their customers appreciate (reliability, value etc), even if their appearance can be challenging. 

 

You're right in that a lot of mainstream manufacturers tend to follow each other in terms of design. I think that's due to the fact the margins are so slim and the need to sell cars so great they have to play it safe and do what everyone else is doing. 

TIJERANDY
New Driver

I have been a lover of Cars and Car Design since I was 16 - I'm 74 today. I sketch and draw and paint car ideas all the time; considered a career in my 20's but could not afford it. My lust for gorgeous cars started with the 1961 GM line - Impala, Bonneville, LeSabre etc...then came the 63 Vette...OMG. Whatever their mechanical/practical imperfections may have been, these cars remain examples of beautiful styling and design. My first real owned was a 67 Riviera. Then a 1968 GTO. To me, these cars were almost 'sexual' in their appeal. Since then, 1997 TransAm, 2007 Corvette C6 which is still own. My other car is a 2020 Silverado RST. And, in my opinion, the Fiats were ahead of their time (for American tastes) and quite visually appealing. On the other hand, the Aztec has been surpassed in ugliness by the Juke, which is an offense to the eye. But the dumbest trend today has to be BLACK WHEELS, which are always dirty, and become invisible at a distance, and the profusion of BLACK INTERIORS, where every piece of lint and dust become stand out...is it any more expensive to make red, green, blue interiors? And a Black C8 with black wheels and black interior is just depressing. Of course, just my opinion!
OldCarMan
Instructor

If p[eople only had a bit of appreciation for all of the time and effort that goes into product identity "badging", they would be ashamed to black all of the badges, trim, and wheels out. Problem is a new generation thinks that all black is bad, or menacing, or looks tough. This is such a bad cliche', but supposedly, marketing thinks it is the way to go.
I hate black interiors, also, as they feel like caves and don't lift your spirits by use of color and brightwork. (Won't mention stupid fake wood.) Ever since the Japanese went to 2 interior colors for simplicity of manufacture, all of the other OEMs followed suit. The most daring ones might put a dash of red stitching on a premium package, but colorful interiors are a thing of the past!
There has been a big shift in car selling, that sticks dealers with inventory they pay taxes on. So they have no interest in selling anything "off the rack", that isn't white, black, or grey (silver). That is why OEMs sell 8 out 10 "colors" as those, plus blue-black, green-black, burgundy-black, or other neutral non-colors. They will give you a choice of 1 red and maybe another odd color. The exclusions are little cheap cars or small SUVs/CUVs.
BMD4800
Instructor

I really don’t care how much time the stylists spent trying to make theirs unique. Once I own it, it is mine. I’m the guy who removes excess badging.
miata93
Intermediate Driver

Why not remove the excess badging? That way my Kia looks just like the Mercedes down the street. It makes sense to me.
leduced
Intermediate Driver

We bought a small import recently to use as a run around "Grocery Getter" and the first thing I did was take it to an auto upholstery shop to get rid of as much of the factory black interior as possible. The seat surfaces are now a medium blue paisley center surrounded with a matching blue herringbone pattern. I get a "WOW" from all who see it.