This story came out of yesterdays SMH Prestige drive lift-out. It makes interesting reading..
Car styling used to be driven by independent body designers - particularly the Italians Pininfarina, Bertone and Giorgetto Giugiaro. But that's no longer necessarily the case. By Bob Hall.
What's the single biggest desire driving most car buyers?
A lust for luxury? The never ending quest for kilowatts? Nope to both. What most car buyers want, whether they're shopping for a $14,990 econo hatch or your common garden variety $350,000 luxury yacht, is style. Admit it or not, most of us are fashion junkies when it comes to cars, and style is just as important as power, fuel economy and even price. That's why car companies take design quite seriously.
We've all heard it before: good design costs no more than lousy design. Just because a car is cheap doesn't mean it has to look like it was skimmed off a slag heap at the local smelter. Designing small, economy cars takes particular design skills, especially in getting the proportions just "right". Former General Motors vice president of design William L. Mitchell said that doing a really good small car is like tailoring a suit for a dwarf. (Mind you, Mitchell's initial and most formative design work was styling 1930s and '40s Cadillacs...)
As car companies become more successful, they want to move into upscale (read "higher profit") sectors of the market, leaving entry-level stuff to newcomers. But the design experience they have gained making economy cars doesn't always serve in the prestige market. Japanese car makers who went this way when they came of age in the 1960s (and the Koreans who followed in the 1980s) needed a real commitment to design - as well as a budget to call in outside help.
From the early 1950s to the 1980s, the Italian design houses were the people to call if you wanted the ne plus ultra of automotive fashion. Long-established Turin carrozzerie - coachbuilders - such as Pininfarina and Bertone had honed their skills on sporting and luxury machinery from Italian and other European car makers. The highlight of any major European motor show between 1955 and 1985 would usually be the exciting reveals from the likes of these houses, more often than not on chassis supplied by Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. Though the show models only occasionally made it to production (and usually in pretty limited volume), the Italian carrozzerie led the automotive design world in the 1960s and 1970s.
So Italy was where the Japanese manufacturers headed when they wanted to narrow the style gap between themselves and their established Western competitors. In the 1960s, Mazda signed Bertone to design the 1500 and 1800 sedans, Isuzu contracted Ghia to do its pretty Type 117 coupe and Nissan used Pininfarina input to sort out the
411 sedan. And rumour has it that when Giorgetto Giugiaro left Ghia in 1967 to form Ital Design, he had a contract with Suzuki signed and in his pocket before he cleared his desk and well before Ital Design opened for business.
While Pininfarina and Bertone had decades of design work under their collective belts and could sell their reputations with ease, Ital Design had no such pedigree, despite Giugiaro having done a great deal of utterly brilliant work for his two previous employers, Bertone and Ghia.
So he hired a sales manager to sell Ital Design's services to Japanese manufacturers, and the plan worked - perhaps too well. By 1988, Giugiaro's company had been contracted to do design proposals for every Japanese car company apart from Toyota and Honda.
Haven't I seen you somewhere before?
While Japanese companies were at the start of the learning curve in the 1960s, by the 1980s they were doing a pretty good job on their own. Many Japanese firms contracting with Ital Design were reluctant to publicise having sought outside input, and for others it was hard to justify the average Ital design-proposal fee of US$1,500,000 a pop when you had your own design department (or departments, since most of the Japanese had overseas studios by then).
Then Giugiaro started coming up with a design theme and sticking with it through a number of projects instead of doing a unique theme for each client. Ital Design pursued this philosophy well into the '90s, with the SEAT Cordoba, Daewoo Leganza and Maserati 3200 Coupe all derived from a theme Giugiaro first showed with his Jaguar Kensington show car of 1990. If the designer's name alone is enough
to sell a car - like a Zegna suit, for example - that's great. But if you're not exactly enthralled about your prestige car looking like something downmarket, it makes sense to go elsewhere for ideas. Which is what Giugiaro's best clients ended up doing.
Though they have the highest profile, the Italians don't have a monopoly on independent car design firms. There are independent design companies in Japan, the UK, France and Finland. For that matter, there are a pair here in Australia: Millard Design and Radial Pacific, both in the greater Melbourne area.
While the Italian coachbuilders seem to have stepped out of the show-car spotlight, their position has been neatly filled - and then some - by the major car manufacturers themselves. Where Pininfarina or Bertone might be able to do one or perhaps two show models a year, the GMs, Fords, Toyotas and DaimlerChryslers of the world produce these things by the dozen. While many of the concepts shown have no more link to reality than a politician's promise in an election year, they make good sounding boards for new (and potentially jarring) ideas.
Audi's TT started out like this (people at Audi felt the TT was cool, but possibly too weird for its own good), as did the Porsche Boxster. And some have suggested that the AU Falcon should have started out as a concept car to give Ford a better idea of the vox pops before the tooling bill came in.
Nothing looks older than a four-year-old concept car from the Tokyo Motor Show. Concept cars are often densely packed repositories of what's cool in design at a particular moment, and since design tastes and fashions change, putting too many trendy ideas in one package is a great way to ensure the design won't age gracefully.
Ford's Probe and the final Mazda MX-6 are good examples. Both cars were built on the same floorplan and shared mechanical components, but the Probe was chock-a-block with the latest design ideas when it was launched in 1994, while the MX-6 was, well, pretty. But when the pin was pulled on both cars a bit over three years later, the Probe looked really tired while the MX-6 was still, well, pretty. Maybe even a bit prettier than when it was launched.
The differences were myriad, but the relative simplicity of the MX-6 design is one of the major reasons it aged so well. The MX-6 design team had paid close attention to the car's overall proportions.
Fashion: it never goes out of style
You can make similar comparisons between the current Ford Cougar and the Nissan 200-SX (especially in wingless 'S' spec). The Nissan is driven by proportion and form, while the Cougar relies on the graphics - body sculpturing, daylight opening (the window area), grille and lamp forms - for its identity. If you compare cars to people, you could say that, while hairstyles (graphics) change, the basic, ah, shape tends to stay the same and there's a sort of, well, classical proportion that is seen to be attractive.
This difference between graphics and proportion is also one of the reasons Ford's AU Falcon has had an uphill battle against the Holden Commodore. The Commodore derives its visual impact from its proportions, while the AU - in keeping with Ford's corporate design philosophies - is driven by graphic impact. Since taste is a very personal thing, it's not really just a matter of the Commodore being better than the Falcon: it's all about fashion. And however good or bad the AU might be, it's not exactly seen as the height of fashion by the people who count: the buying public.
The whole business of car design has become much more international than it was when the Italian coachbuilders were calling the shots. French companies used to have French designers, British firms British designers, in just the sort of provincial circumstances you'd expect: none of those distasteful foreigners influencing the product.
National borders now mean as little to design as they do to travel: Chris Bangle, head of BMW's design group, is from the United States; Mitsubishi's chief of design, Olivier Boulay, is a Frenchman. When you move down the food chain, the influence of international design talent becomes even stronger. Even Australians are making their presence felt: Peter Arcadipane, an Aussie then working at Mercedes-Benz (he's now with Hyundai), penned the sexy - and exy - CL coupe. The days when you had to go to Turin to get a stylish design are well and truly gone.
ALFA ROMEO GIULIETTA
If there is an emblem of Italian motoring in the modern era, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta must be it. The Giulietta first appeared at the 1954 Turin motor show as a rather delicate Sprint coupe, marking a change in fortunes for the manufacturer as Alfa and Italy rebuilt themselves from the ruins of World War II.
Building on the success of the 1950-59 Alfa 1900 ("the family car that wins races") Alfa Romeo aimed at the masses with the Bertone-designed Giulietta Sprint, offering its trademark combination of inspired looks, unique character, first-rate roadholding and sparkling performance from the lightweight and lively 48-kilowatt 1.3-litre twin-cam engine. The Sprint was a huge hit, breaking records with 27,000 sales and spawning the Berlina sedan, the Pininfarina-designed Spider convertible, a featherweight 67-kilowatt Veloce sports coupe and convertible, the TI sports sedan, the Promiscua station wagon, the Bertone-bodied 75-kilowatt Sprint Speciale two-seat tourer and the radical, race-oriented Sprint Zagato. Total Giulietta production passed 176,000 during its nine-year reign, taking Alfa into the big league and etching the brand onto mainstream consciousness.
ASTON MARTIN DB5
Few movie stars have had the international influence of British secret agent James Bond. Women swooned, men admired - and car companies courted. Dollars have done most of the talking here, but Aston Martin's DB5 earned a place in popular culture thanks to its perfect pairing with the 007 character and its appearance in Goldfinger (1964). Bond pushed the DB5's appeal well past its standard 210-kilowatt 4.0-litre straight-six engine, with Q branch extras including twin machine guns, passenger ejector seat, hydraulic over-rider rams, bullet-proof glass and equipment for projecting oil, nails and smoke. Even without the Bond association, the 1963-65 DB5 was a beautiful car. It was based on the Touring of Milan-designed 1958 DB4 and drew on motorsport victories dating back to the 1950 DB2, the first Aston to bear owner David Brown's initials. The "Q" DB5 continued into Thunderball (1965); other JB Astons include the DBS in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and the V8 Volante in The Living Daylights (1987), complete with rocket engine, missile launchers, retractable tyre spikes and auto self-destruct.