Beautiful or boxy, all cars are products of serious research

Designing the car of the future by looking at the past part 3: Design

“Take a good look as it passes you,” advised the advertisements for the new Jowett Javelin back in 1949. The advice was good; among the traffic scattered on our roads then,composed largely of spavined family fugboxes that had been due for superannuation when sixpenny Penguin books were still new and left-wing, the Javelin was quite out of the ordinary. To a nation unfamiliar with the Lancia Aprilia or the Fiat 1100, the notion of a streamlined and roomy family saloon capable of 80mph under the impulsion of a 1.5 litre engine was amazing. – Setright, 1996

Take a good look as a car passes you. What do you see? Depending on where you stand, you might see a variety of things. You might see the positively angry face of an Audi R8, or the wide-eyed, empty, unintelligent gawk of the bug-eye Impreza. You could see a car with a sleek profile and steeply raked A and C pillars, a car so flat and smooth as to almost whoosh noiselessly and imperceptibly by, not disturbing the air around it one bit, such as a Jaguar XJ saloon. But then again you might see a  a car hacked out of a metallic cube and the edges not smoothed over, a shape that takes breeze-block aerodynamics (or the lack thereof) to the extreme  of nonexistence,  such as the now-dead Land Rover Defender.

You might see the narrow, tapering boot of a Peugeot 504, or  the  enormous rump of a mid-90s Volkswagen Polo. Some you might like, for instance any of Jaguar’s new saloons such as the XF. Some you might not like, for instance one of Jaguar’s old saloons, the O-mouthed S Type.

Those prone to abstract thought might ask themselves, if they are meant to serve one purpose — transportation — why do all these cars look different?

If you visit a random city in the Fatherland and observe any number of compact or midsize saloon cars trundling about like a pack of motored briefcases, the question might as well be: If they were designed by different people in different companies at different times, why do all these cars look the same?


The reason all cars look different is because car design is an art, subjective and subject to the whims of the artist as well as the jaundiced, judgmental glare of those viewing it. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. We have the strange, loopy scratchings of Pablo Picasso on the one hand (Ford Edsel), and  the mechanical, modernist digital herald that was the ruler-drawn, first-generation Rover 600. In between is the manifestation of Bauhaus themes in the form of the original Audi TT and the complete lack of bother as is evident in the Toyota Probox.  The first and last work as displays of what can go wrong when the artist wakes up on the wrong side of the bed: the Edsel is a favourite topper of world’s-ugliest lists while the Rover is so boxy, it is unmemorable. The Probox is offensive because it is worse than the cat in the Animal Farm; it not only fails to sit on the fence, it sidesteps the argument entirely. The TT, in turn, was a design triumph and is now one of the most iconic silhouettes of the 20th Century. It was also oversteery because of science — or the lack thereof— as I shall outline below.

The reason all cars look the same is because car design is a science; objective and the object of much research and investigation. There are no grey areas, nor are there divided opinions: a car is either aerodynamic or it isn’t. A car will generate downforce (McLaren F1) or it will generate lift (the TT). A car is either safe or it isn’t, although in the interest of fairness, if a car crashes hard enough, the outcome is constant – fatality. Please drive carefully.

In this era of safety regulations, fuel economy tests, class-action lawsuits and massive recalls, science plays a lead role in determining the outright shape of a car. Science leads to flat, wedge-shaped low-slung sports cars; it creates muscular, massively winged-and-spoilered compact road-going rally cars and egg-shaped people carriers.

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Wherever there is number, there is beauty – Proclus Diadochus, 5th Century CE

Modern car design is like a maths problem. You could let the facts and figures dominate, such as asking, “What is 5 + 3?”, and the answer is 8. However, some questions are dressed up to look like comprehension tests and instead of teaching maths, only serve to confuse the person it was directed to. Back in high school, some classmates of mine were stumped by a physics quiz from a foreign textbook because of use of the word “unbeknownst”, which was completely irrelevant to the larger problem. Our sum up there can thus be bedazzled like this: “Three Roman merchants in purple habiliments threading their chariots along the Appian Way are joined by five ladies of questionable repute on their way to an orgy at the Domus of Marcus. Disregarding whether patrician or plebeian, how many citizens of the empire are headed to the house of Marcus?”

The answer is “Ferrari 488”. Let me explain.

In the early days of coach-building, some cars were available as a bare-bone chassis, upon which the  client would place a body fashioned by skilled craftsmen into epic works of road-going art. The car make and model was the same, but Clark Gable’s car would not look the same as Fred Astaire’s. In those days, aerodynamics were unknown, safety measures involved pedestrians jumping out of the way and fuel economy was… a pair of random words from roughly the same area in the dictionary. Men could go all out in their artistic expressions, and among them  (and/or their enterprises) were Sergio Pininfarina, Giuseppe Bertone, Gioto Bizzarrini, Sergio Scaglietti, Giorgetto Giugiaro and other artists with equally Italian nomenclature. Revered and respected, these are the hands behind the glorious shapes of Ferrari cars from days past. Once given free rein over how to craft the Italian supercars, they are, nowadays, strangled by function and regulations. The best example is the two GTOs in Ferrari’s lineup: the original 250 from 1962and the latest (and now defunct 599).

The 250 GTO was the handiwork of Bizzarrini and Scaglietti. These cars were hand-built, quite literally: artisans beat aluminium panels into shape over wooden moulds for each car, with the result that no two cars were quite the same. In fact, no two panels were ever the same: the driver’s door was 1cm longer than the passenger door on this homologation special. Undeniably, the car was an artistic masterpiece, if somewhat an aerodynamic fiend.

Enter the 599. The car was designed at Pininfarina with modern demands in mind. That means it had to be slippery enough as it cut through the air and belted past 100km/h in about 3.5 seconds (200km/h in 11 seconds) as well as have downforce to keep it on the ground as it soared on to its top speed well over 330km/h. The enormous brakes required cooling, necessitating ducts in its countenance and… and it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t even good-looking; it followed its pig-eyed sibling the 612 Scaglietti into the history books as one of the ugliest Ferraris ever made.

Ferraris are supposed to be stunning, which is why the early ones looked so  beautiful. Ferraris are also supposed to go fast while keeping their sometimes inept owners/drivers out of trouble, which is why Pentium processors superseded the traditional pad and pencil in designing a car. What to do?

Simple. Combine both.

The results vary. One can have the stunning 458, a perfect gelling of art and science into a package that not only pleases the eye, but goes and handles like something from far into the future. Alternatively, one can have the 488 Tipo, successor of the 458 and styled by Ferrari themselves, a car that makes the discerning observer go, “Well, it’s not ugly per se, but something seems a little off”. It is slightly confusing, what with the two upright members in the cavernous front bumper and the vents on the rear haunches. This is where art and science start to clash.

So, in summary, cars were first art, then they became science and now in some companies, they try to be both art and science. In other companies, they are neither art nor science, and this is where Toyota comes into the picture.


What do you give a man who has everything? How about a car that can do everything? To see the future, we have to look at the past. There exists the concept of the “skateboard” car. What one does is buy the chassis then opts for whatever body one fancies.

The vehicle body could vary: this week one might opt for a sports car, next week a saloon car, the other week a van. These different shapes/bodies could either be bought or leased from either the manufacturers themselves or from a coach builder. The best manifestation of this idea is the General Motors Hy-Wire. The original intention was to create a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells (see part 1 of this series on propulsion, April 20) with the conventional mechanical linkages for the steering column, pedals and transmission eliminated (see part 2  on control surfaces, April 27) in favour of the surfboard layout, where everything is built into the flat platform.

The result of pancaking all the major systems was that the engineers discovered they were free to arrange the seating plan of the passenger compartment whichever way they saw fit. This, in turn, gave room for a variety of body styles to be mounted on the same modular chassis, and unlike the current highly complex monocoque metalwork, the skateboard makes for easily accessible hitching points with which to attach/detach the various bodies. The crumple zones, similar to those of “ordinary cars”, are integrated into the skateboard itself, giving these various body styles the same safety rating across the board, so to speak.

BMW does one better: buy one car with one body and never bother shopping or leasing a body because this car is a shape-shifting wonder. First seen as the GINA (Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations) Light Visionary Model concept car, BMW’s take involves a car that reskins itself on demand, and “reskin” is the correct term to use here because rather than bodywork, what this car has is an elastic skin and a frame that is both flexible and dynamic. The “skin” is a flexible, elastic, hydrophobic and translucent Spandex coated in polyurethane, and it neither swells nor shrinks; nor does the stretching weaken the fabric. Besides being adaptable to the driver’s demands, the skin also reacts to the prevailing environmental conditions. The frame itself is an aluminium wire skeleton with flexible carbon struts where movement is required. Electric and hydraulic actuators are used to shape the frame and control movement, such as the headlamps, whose “skin” is pulled back when put on. The GINA has only four panels: bonnet, boot and two side ones. A spoiler “grows” out of the skin when needed and to access the bonnet area, the skin splits open like a well executed dissection.

In both instances, the owner/driver does not have to worry about driving dynamics. The skateboard chassis can have its wheelbase and overhangs adjusted, while suspension settings can be  downloaded content from the manufacturer’s website. That means much as one uses the same frame from before, driving it feels completely different, depending on what software is coursing through its electronic veins. One could have a low-riding RWD-biased Track Pack (sports car), a FWD-biased Comfort setting for normal road use (saloon car or family van), and maybe an off-road setting where ride height is increased along with suspension travel.

In the early days of this column, I did a listicle of the ugliest cars on the road and it was dominated by the Japanese carmaker. Visual aberrations such as the Will and the Verossa starred in this ignominious ranking.



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