“Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” (~D.Hulme 1742)
As someone who was brought up to believe it rude to stare, there are certain instances where I find myself in total conflict with this train of thought, and it usually involves cars… Or Cameron Diaz.
I can happily report that, as far as cars go, I’ve squandered years gazing at every curve, crease and contour of some truly beautiful pieces of automotive art, from the simply humble Morris Minor to the truly hedonistic Maserati A6G Frua Coupe. I find pleasure in attempting to understand what the designer was trying to achieve, how this influenced the cars ability or vice versa and what suffered as a result on the journey from drawing board to driveway.
Yet recently, as I muse through the archives and compare, I can’t help feel as if the evolution of man and machine has put pay to the future of car design as we know it.
The principle purpose of design, in this form-follows-function world, is to define character, uniqueness and recognisability for both model and marque, to create a connection between consumer and product and to enhance our engagement with, emotion for and experience of driving, the basic function of any car, right? But car design is increasingly influenced by technology, from the limitations of manufacturing to the time-starved-always-on expectations of the consumer. It’s subject to boards and budgets, safety committees, statutes and directives, not to mention if it’s creation in some way affects the inevitable demise of the polar ice caps.
And it’s this ever changing and increasingly complex melting pot of demands on design, combined with society’s requirement for us to ‘fit in’, that makes me feel that manufacturers for the mass-middle are giving up.
The car remains, perhaps due to its mobility, one of the most prominent conduits of our status, eccentricities and individuality, more so than any other possession we own. It’s the last bastion of ego and free-will in our eco-centric and socially responsible society. So why are manufacturers intent on steering us down a path of insipid Insignias and characterless Clios?
When I pull up next to you at the lights in your VW Polo* I remain blissfully unaware that you own a Porsche designed toaster, live in a seven-bedroomed house named ‘Orchards Reach’ and regularly share the sauna at your local spa with a member of One Direction. Instead I base my entire perception of you on the car in which you sit. Had I pulled up alongside the latest creation to be poured from the Callum chalice or the Italian equivalent of Cameron Diaz in a storm troopers outfit, aside from pretending that I never intended to set off at anything more than a leisurely rate, I would credit you a person of means and unquestionable taste.
But the F-Types and Aventadors of this world are out of reach for most of middle earth and therefore I’d afford you almost the same level of deference if you were sat in a Nissan Juke or Abarth 500.
My point is that, excluding the bourgeois brilliance of the Nakamuras and Giolitos of this world, the rest are seemingly in a fight to create a utilitarian utopia where everyone conforms and goes with the flow. I’ll go out on a limb and say that mainstream car design is becoming more about self-park, pedestrians and passengers than it is about the purpose and passion of driving.
And talking of pedestrians, ignoring all today’s nonsense about increased bonnet height and rounded edges, my dad used to warn me as a kid to look both ways when crossing the road as [verbatim] “If you step out and there’s a car coming you won’t know what hit yer!” Back then, as an aspiring petrol head, I was flippant in my response, sure that I’d be able to tell Sierra from Scirocco, Manta from Montego, a response that would be tested years later in a battle between a boy, his bike and a caravan-towing Volvo 740 on the B6138.
But, always ahead of his time, I fear my father was right in that most people today, even a would-be petrol head, wouldn’t know if they’d been run over by a Honda or a Hyundai, an A4 or an A8. And if it’s hard, save for the shape of the lust emitting diodes, to tell which Audi you’re about to be struck by from the front, it’s equally as hard to tell if it was a 3 or 5 series BMW that took you out as it heads for the horizon. In fact, the only way they could help to identify the perpetrator would be if the driver had reversed to finish the job, leaving an imprint of the model badge in the victim’s bruised behind.
It’s not just the odd case of vanillarism either, the back of the new Clio looks strikingly like that of a Seat Ibiza, the back of the new Honda CR-V like an XC60, Kia Carens – Ford C-Max, Honda Civic – Toyota Auris… The list is endless and I’ve not even got started on joint design and shared platform initiatives that are harder to tell apart than Jedward or the Olsen twins.
What’s worse is that, just as there will always be Veyrons and Vanquishes in the world (which the modest man will continue to view amongst the pages of motoring magazines or from behind the roped barrier at some fielded ‘fest), thanks to developments in modern materials, it’s likely that there will always be a raft of mundane modern ‘classics’ around too, more so than for any decade to date.
Art was never a democratic process, love it or hate it, art doesn’t care, and it should be this way for car design, whether you’re a midwife, middle-manager or millionaire.
And perhaps in saying that I’ve extinguished the whole point to this article, after all it’s been said since the dawn of time that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Perhaps today’s ‘matrix brown’ cee’d will turn out to be tomorrow’s equivalent of a Mk I Caspian Blue XR2, I just somehow doubt it, just as I doubt future generations will reminisce about their journey to school in the back of grandma’s Chevrolet Spark or Vauxhall Mokka.
The more we design cars for the masses, the more we extract the life from our long term love affair with the motor car. I don’t want a laptop on wheels, I want a car that stirs my emotions when I catch a glimpse of it in the high-street windows, I want a car that makes me feel different and my kids want the same thing too. I know this to be true because currently on my drive sits a brand new BMW 3 Series Sport, behind which sits my 1983 Reliant Scimitar and my seven year old chooses the Scimitar every morning to take him to school because the BMW’s ‘boring’; it’s the same for my 16-year old too.
As it happens, we usually walk, we’ve polar bears to save.
Cameron, if you’re reading this, call me.
*It’s worth noting that I know two high-net-worth individuals who chose to drive round in silver Volkswagen Polos which confirms this comment. Thankfully they’re both devoid of life.