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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...
118 REPLIES 118
AdrianClarke
Detailer

Funnily enough we wanted to remove all the badging apart from the model name. No engine size, no trim level, nothing. Just the badge, and the model name. That's it.
Marketing pitched an absolute fit.
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.
miata93
Intermediate Driver

Don't forget the vast choice of body styles:
1. Roller skate
2. Jellybean
Try to tell the make and model from 20 yards.
AdrianClarke
Detailer

I can't stand black wheels! 

leduced
Intermediate Driver

I'm with you on all the "black" stuff. Must be for lazy people who wash & maintain their cars like dirty sox. My Stand was special ordered with as little black as possible. A Martinezes report puts it as 1 of 136 and I'm proud of it. six trophies and one "Best in Class" so far.
Ranger240
New Driver

It's too bad the writer didn't mention intentionally ugly cars that get branded as "bold" designs.
The lexus black widow butt grill or especially the "bold" 2 door BMW droopy snout oversized kidney grill nonsense come to mind.

It's like BMW had their design evolution cribbed by KIA so they had to go full-ugly to differentiate.

Cop out designers apologizing for ugly cars say good designs are "bold" and aren't supposed to appeal to everyone, they're supposed to be "evocative" or whatever.

Meanwhile 250 GTOs, Cobras, 911s, elans, and other not-bold/ugly designs slink around looking perfect without being aesthetically divisive.
To me proportions matter most instead of specific design elements.

Callum-era Astons will always look good, the new crop, not so much.

OldCarMan
Instructor

Far too many sedans and especially SUVs, are indistinguishable from each other at 200 feet. Even the promising Saturn/Sky Miata-wanna-bes looked like Mr. Potato Head designs, with interchangeable graphic "faces", but the almost-trucks are the worst, in front and side views.
While we are at it, using 6" wide black frits on window openings to hide sloppy construction, should have their knuckles rapped hard! Loses all design intent of the window graphics, reduces visibility, and just looks stupid!
AdrianClarke
Detailer

I didn't want to get too into specifics about individual cars - there wasn't the room! Maybe in future articles.....

SteveNL
Intermediate Driver

This is a very interesting article. It's certainly true that some cars have a style that still looks great after many years, while others simply look out of date. Compare the 240Z to the Porsche 914. Or compare the 1969 AMX to the 1973 model. In each case, one still looks beautiful and the other doesn't.
But as Mr. Clarke tells us, design is so much more complicated. Let me take this subject one step further. While the Audi TT appears to be a beautiful design on the surface, good design goes deeper. A well designed car should be well designed in its bones. That means underneath the skin. A well designed car should be easy to repair. Parts should come off and bolt back on in a logical and easy way. That's become increasingly difficult as cars have grown more complex. My belief is that the Audi TT is well designed in appearance, it is a hard car to service and repair. That makes it a poor design. Accordingly, the late '80's 3.2 911 looks beautiful and is relatively easy to work on, the equally beautiful Porsche 993 is a pain to work on and is therefore a poor design. In fact, almost every German car designed after 1990 is a poor design according to that standard.
OldCarMan
Instructor

You are really confused about the word "DESIGN". What is being discussed here is aesthetic design ONLY. Service engineering is another discipline entirely. No one ever mentions how high or difficult maintenance is, for a beautiful woman!
BMD4800
Technician

Sure they do. You may not hear it.
Beautiful women are a lot like beautiful automobiles.
If they aren’t able to complete the most basic tasks, or worse yet are unreliable and expensive, their worth decreases and you will see folks trade them in for a newer model.
Conversely, the really good, reliable ones age well, and with time the kinks and idiosyncrasies take on a uniquely lovable charm.
Eric
Hagerty Employee

yikes -- call me overly sensitive but comparing women (people) to cars (objects) in this manner doesn't strike me as terribly respectful

BMD4800
Technician

Okay, you’re being overly sensitive and missed the intentionally obvious tongue-in-cheek humor. 

More to that point, while life  experiences vary for many, women and vehicles have WAY more in common than you may realize.  Both are largely emotional attachments.   Sure, many guys could get a younger trophy wife, but if their wife is a great match and a loving dedicated partner, the thought of divorcing her is as foreign as trading in a beloved classic for a practical Camry.  

Conversely, if one is the stone-cold logical type that fights the good fight to avoid emotional attachments with things, plenty of Toyotas and Kias at the dealer.  

The Buick and my wife have a lot in common.  The biggest-both are for life.  

your results may vary.  

leduced
Intermediate Driver

Sounds like you are mixing up styling and engineering. I remember reading that the styling people would get a design approved and hand it over to the engineers to " make the running gear fit".
AdrianClarke
Detailer

I'd love to know where you read that, because it's totally wrong. It's never worked like that! It's always been a side by side process with engineering. 

AdrianClarke
Detailer

Ease of repair is not really a consideration - and you are right modern cars are so complicated and tightly integrated and packaged it's not really possible to design this in. 

jaysalserVW
Detailer

There is more--what about the person who is "loyal to the death" for a certain brand--and there are a lot of us out here. Let's say, as the author relates, that due to constraints of chassis design and attempting to stretch this and pare that--in the end, a line of cars emerges from t he assembly line. Guess what! The die-hard "loyalist" is going to buy from his favorite Maker, no matter. He just shrugs off design. It was going to be his car no matter how it looked. Am I wrong--I think not. Personally, I see VERY few cars emerging today which will ever be looked upon as "classical" from any point of view. A lot of them are just plain UGLY! Whether we want to admit it or not--the other BIG selling point is all of the electronics INSIDE the vehicle. Forget engines, transmissions and mileage--LOTS of people are buying electronics. You could put electronics inside a duffel bag and call it a car and people would buy it. LOL
DavidHolzman
Detailer

The trouble is the post millennium cars from any particular maker have nothing in common with the cars of the '60s, or often even the cars of the '90s. I retain particular affection for '60s GM, and while I have not so much for the '70s and '80s, the '90s GM--the Caprice in particular, captured something of the old spirit.

Today's Chevrolets have completely lost it.
RussBrasher
Pit Crew

I tend to agree. I had a 1996 Impala SS. The fit and finish sucked, by man, what a cool-looking car, and one of the best interstate cruisers ever!
BMD4800
Technician

You should have seen it in the 76 Caprice. The 96 was pure craftsmanship in comparison.
BMD4800
Technician

3rd generation die-hard GM family. My HD IFS pickup failed miserably with very low miles, so I switched brands. 20 years later, haven’t bought a (new) GM product since. Sometimes all it takes is one.
MATTMERICA
Technician

The fiat 500 did awful in the states b/c it was a shoddy product, it felt unsafe at normal highway speeds, and they had a crappy marketing effort. It was not "context" that killed the fiat, it was that it sucked. Stick to talking about design, and maybe actually list some "well designed" vehicles instead of copping out wit the atztek comment. Weak.
audiobycarmine
Instructor

A FIAT 500 is even unsafe parked.
AdrianClarke
Detailer

It's been selling extremely well in Europe since it was released. It was just the wrong product for the US. 

DavidHolzman
Detailer

Great article.

"Go crazy, adding lines that go nowhere and serve no purpose and the bodywork looks like it’s gone ten rounds street parking in New York before leaving the showroom."

This sums up the problem with so many cars from the '10s--the worst decade for automotive aesthetics ever. And I would include the Lexus shown at the top of the article in this category.
deckerbilt
Intermediate Driver

"Go crazy, adding lines that go nowhere and serve no purpose...". Agreed. For me, form follows function. Wheels are round so wheel arches should be round (I hated the rear wheel skirts that some 60's-70's American cars had).

Many cars pull off a decent front end but very few master the tail panel. Taillights often get overdone; I like ones that stretch all the way across the back. The back of some Prius' somehow remind me of an Edsel.

Now with electric cars and no real requirement for a grille, we'll have to see what works and what doesn't.
Reinhold_Weege
Advanced Driver

I kept hoping there would be some explanation of "1979 Ford Thunderbird", since that was easily the best looking (if not efficiently packaged) of all the vehicles mentioned.
AdrianClarke
Detailer

I was a style outlaw even back then! I was young, the car was cheap and I love American cars. Was it practical? No. Was it sensible? No. Was it easy to repair, comfortable and outrageous? You bet! 

JAG
Detailer

I worked in and around GM design staff during the Aztek years, and yes, at the time if failed for exactly what Adrian said. Forcing a new product from an existing platform. The short wheelbase van (yes GM and two wheelbases in FWD vans) could not accommodate what Pontiac envisioned with four hinged doors and no sliders. The Buick Rendezvous was more successful because they did not over reach.
Every car in design staff starts out stunning and slowly evolves as compromises are made. Engineering and manufacturing either run into legal specs or no build conditions. Wheel openings can be driven by tire chain clearance, and make a car really ugly. When they are done most of the time the vehicle has little resemblance to the originals. Even when the great looking vehicles get through design the don't make it because of market dynamics. Look at the Buick LaCrosse. Maybe one of the best looking cars Buick has made in 20 years, but its a car not an SUV or crossover. End of the day car companies need to be profitable....compromise usually means don't take chances...be mundane.
drhino
Instructor

“The following things are necessary: The right platform, great proportions, good stance, strong feature lines, and considered details—each one building on the other in turn.” Precisely.

Clean lines (whether Pininfarina flowing or Bertone angular) devoid of add on crap and discord are key. It shouldn’t look like a Summit/J C Whitney catalog threw up on it. Keep away from current fads, it just makes the car look ridiculous later. (Remember the clear taillights that dominated the “tuner” cars— Lexus incorporated that into some of their offerings. With terrible results.) I keep waiting for the extremely small sidewall tire trend to go away. Maybe I’m the only one that isn’t a fan.



Truthworldwide
Intermediate Driver

Lexus (and in actuality, Toyota, with the Altezza) essentially started the clear-lens trend with the IS300. It wasn't just "tuner" cars that used that graphic, even macho pickups like the second-generation F-150 Lightning got "clears" from the factory.
drhino
Instructor

Didn’t say tuner cars were the only ones using it.
drhino
Instructor

Are you saying the Lexus (in the US) use of those clear taillights predated the aftermarket proliferation? Not being a Toyota or taillight expert; I would swear that I saw thousands of ‘99 Civics with them before any Lexus wore them. But, I’m wrong a lot. Ask my wife.
Sajeev
Community Manager

Well those clear lights are called Altezza lights, after the 1998 Toyota Altezza whence they came...and where the Lexus IS came from. 

Truthworldwide
Intermediate Driver

I am; it's where the aftermarket got the inspiration.

Some posit the A80 "Mk. IV" Supra was the first, but as Sajeev correctly pointed out, they're called "Altezzas" because of that model's popularization of the look.

Very dated now, but I'm certain they'll be back.
Truthworldwide
Intermediate Driver

As a senior engineer that was trained in automotive design (and served as a lead industrial designer for over a decade), this article had me nodding along as if I was listening to a solid 4/4 backbeat.

It astounds me how many people here conflate design with engineering. These are two different things. I don't call my plumbing "framing" because they're in the same house. My dog is not a cat because it has four legs and a tail.

Design is about packaging and aesthetics, proportions and ergonomics. Engineering is about construction and materials, assembly and cost. Believe me when I say *every* car designer out there would love to bring you the next 250GTO or XKE, but in the real world airbags, pedestrian safety, and LIDAR sensors all compete where in the '60s was an oil cooler (maybe not even that). (Every engineer would love to hand out Toyota 2UZ-FE V8s too, but there's prices to be paid there; figuratively and literally). These are all a balancing act and nothing in the automotive industry happens in a vacuum.

Looking forward to the next installment.

BMD4800
Technician

“ It astounds me how many people here conflate design with engineering.”

With all due respect, there is a reason - engineering often takes a back seat to design and accounting.

So the engineering department is watered down by folks who’s passions are for anything else and see no elegance in fine engineering.
Truthworldwide
Intermediate Driver

Design, engineering, and accounting aren't stand-alone. Think of the "recycling" logo of arrows cycling towards each other. In design, you are bound by hardpoints - you can't arbitrarily cut humans in half to get them to fit your sleek roofline - engineering still needs a package to build towards, and accounting ensures that each unit doesn't cost you and I around $1.75M each.

Like a good marriage, all parties need compromise.
Bertone780
Intermediate Driver

Take BMW as an example of "progress". 20 years ago Bimmers had IMHO just about reached perfection in elegance of design. Then came Bangle. Now we have the exagerated rabbit teeth grilles of the modern iterations and abominations such as the X6.
hyperv6
Engineer

BMW is faced with the same issue as Mini, 911 and Jeep. They are forced to keep a general look that boxes them in good or bad into a style that is difficult to evolve. Worse yet like at Jeep it creates a design with issues like aero drag, wind noise and stone chips. 

 

These designers are damned if they go damned if they don’t. 

BMD4800
Technician

You’re talking wrangler here. Yup, lots of folks like to blast them for the design. I’d rather deal with wind noise and rock chips than drive some Tupperware Star Wars character.
hyperv6
Engineer

There is not right or wrong on these things as it is a Jeep Thing.  

 

Same with the death bobble. That is still a Jeep thing. 

 

Every model has its cross to bear and owners who chose to go with it. I have done the same. 

 

My point is that imagine what Jeep could do if they could start new. Ford in a way is getting to do that to a point with the new Bronco. 

 

GM really could have done that with a small Hummer but failed to do it.  Better to have done than not at all. 

 

 

Tom9716
Intermediate Driver

So, you’re saying that the Fiat 500 had good design in Europe, but bad design in the U.S.? I don’t think good design is based on location. Good design is timeless; it looks as good (or as bad) today as it did 10 or 50 years ago.

Some people thought that the Aztec had good “design” so they bought one. Just saying.
archmark
Pit Crew

For me, the Series I & II XKE's & the '56 & '57 Continental Mark II epitomize the ultimate in timeless automobile design & styling. While the XKE is considered a success and the Mark II arguably was not, either one of them, when placed side-by-side with any of today's wundercars from any of the "design studios", win hands down IMHO...
OHCOddball
Detailer

Good design means different things to different people. Rarely does a car maker hit it on the head with BOTH good visuals AND mechanicals. Visual is in the eye of the buyer. A designer can think his vision is what people wants is great, but it might not sell or if it does may be panned as the ugliest thing on the planet. There are lot of those out there. Early 60's Mopar comes to mind. I can appreciate them now (Edsel too) And a good looking car, the Vega GT for example, looked sporty and hot, but poor engine design and poor quality control ruined it. The best looker with poor mechanical design is still a turd just as the greatest running, most powerful, economical and good looking engine in a lump is a waste.
vweals
Pit Crew

Great stuff. Recently read a typical EV offers the option for a "cab forward" design to provide more interior ceiling-to-floor and front-to-back space. Automotive design is high art in my book. Thank you, Adrian
MeJ
Detailer

Good article. To start I'll mention my two all time favorite car designs: The A/C Cobra 427 and the Lamborghini Miura.
That said I'm not sure how you mention the Audi TT as a good design. I think it looks okay at best.
While on the subject of bad design, why do you think Bmw went with that atrocious front end? I mean what were they thinking?
I was also wondering what your personal favorite car designs are. As a designer, what car or cars stir your soul or make you go: I wish i designed that.
Thanks.
carguyjim
Detailer

As a certified/certifiable? car guy, I always feel free to re-imagine the emblems on my cars. I don't believe the designer of the car affixes sometimes ugly and clunky logos, names, etc. no matter the design. The logo's are applied to marketing department specs.
Case in point, my Audi A3 tdi had these big (ugly) chrome rings I removed, also removed the tdi logo and replaced with a "S3" emblem. Looks "factory" but MUCH cleaner! I also removed grill decor and emblems and replaced with a California Flag enamel badge, euro style....
Folks ask me often what kind of car it is. Also, emblems "date" the vehicle and a cleanup mod can help a well-maintained ride look newer!
okfoz
Detailer

I have never understood the appreciation for the Audi TT, it looks like a Beetle, very blah to me, to me the Mini is almost as attractive. The lines are plain, it looks rushed to production honestly.

I think the pinnacle of Automotive design was around 1967, by this time they really had a good grasp on what looked great... But that is my opinion.

For me the Polestar is a great looking car, it is something I would drive...
RoadDog
Intermediate Driver

Great article. I can't help but make a few observations about car design (my take in it, anyway), sticker price, and public taste. First, when the original Scion Xb came out (the boxy one), I thought it was a fantastic design for an inexpensive runabout. They seemed to sell just okay. Then Kia came out with the Soul, which to me looks like they asked Homer Simpson to copy the Scion. Crazy trapezoids everywhere for no apparent reason. But you see them on the road everywhere, they are much more common the the Xb. Is that due to price difference, or indifference to style? Also, when Mercedes came out with the first-generation CLS 4-door coup I thought it was a great design, and so did many other people. But here in Lala land, so I've been told, many well-heeled folks walked into their friendly Mercedes dealership to buy one, then backed out when they discovered it wasn't the top-of-the-line Mercedes. It didn't cost enough, so they balked! Funny word!