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Here PDL AE rant of the week www.autoextremist.com
Editor's Note: As we await the all-EV future, the designs of today continue to be less-than inspiring. For an industry that prides itself on design (and that certainly has the talent), the current vehicle offerings leave a lot to be desired. This week, The Autoextremist reprises his discussion of this sorry state of design affairs in the auto industry. -WG

By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit.
As longtime AE readers know, design is my favorite part of this business. There is nothing like being in one of the design studios and smelling the clay, seeing future vehicle explorations on wall after wall, and, of course, seeing advanced products up close and in the flesh.
The design function is one of the most creative parts of this business and, I would argue, probably its toughest. Designers inhabit a strange Twilight Zone where they’re touting upcoming product introductions with the media that they’ve been living with for four years or more, while at the same time they’re working on products that won’t be revealed for at least four (or five) years down the road.
It has been put forth many times that automotive design is a fashion business, and in many respects that is very true. In the 1950s, the great Italian design houses had tremendous influence on the automobile business. In fact, GM Styling legend Bill Mitchell would often park the latest Ferrari in the design courtyard at the GM Technical Center so his designers would be inspired. It often worked, too, because during Mitchell’s reign GM Styling burnished its reputation as creating some of the most influential mainstream – and successful – vehicle designs in the world, including the Corvette Sting Ray, Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Toronado, several Pontiac models and many, many more.
Design is still very much a fashion business, but like everything else, today is markedly different. There are design schools all over the world churning out gifted future designers who have been given the kind of depth and breadth of experience that in past eras was very hard to come by. To say that today’s young designers hit the ground running is an understatement. In fact, many are able to make meaningful contributions right from the start of their careers.
As in past eras, trends come and go, but it is amazing to see certain design “signatures” – whether they originated in Korea, China, Japan, Europe or the U.S. – sweep the business all over the world seemingly at the same time. Much of this can be attributed to the similar teaching methods and influences that young designers are exposed to coming up. The other reasons have to do with the fundamental parameters of the design package itself, meaning the specific drivetrain requirements, the passenger accommodations, the vehicle segment, etc., etc.
That all seems rational, right? I would agree that packaging dictates much of the look and feel of today’s vehicles, at least up to a point. But then again, how do you explain the look and feel – and the design sameness – of the vehicles below? What, do designers plug the parameters into a computer and out pops the basic shape and they go from there? Because that’s what it looks like to me.
I mean, really, how can designers stand behind this work and call it… good? I can just hear them now… “Ahem, given our Belchfire EV’s advanced powertrain and the passenger and cargo packaging requirements, we feel this ‘four-door coupe’ design presents the finest expression of our brand, blah-blah-blah…” Or something like that.
Ah yes, the “four-door coupe.” This is the design trend originating in Germany that emerged from a battle of one-upmanship between BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And in design terms: it sucks. There is no such thing as a “four-door coupe” of course, but thanks to those two German luxury manufacturers we’re all stuck with this design abomination until further notice.
So, take a look at the cars below – forgetting the price points – and revel in the relentless sameness and the blandtastic design executions.
 

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Styling may be revolving around range and efficient aerodynamics, which is what everybody is gunning for. Competition in a sense breeds sameness.

All hail to the red barchetta.
 

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This has been going on since America's love affair with SUV's took over the landscape.

Maybe 10% of all the SUV's are anything to get excited about and most of them are over $70k. That makes for an inordinate amount of bland, boring vehicles everywhere you go.
 

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This has been going on since America's love affair with SUV's took over the landscape.

Maybe 10% of all the SUV's are anything to get excited about and most of them are over $70k. That makes for an inordinate amount of bland, boring vehicles everywhere you go.
I disagree and in the 60 - 70s most sedans looked the same and when one had a NEW design the others followed
but now the regulations and other required things are forcing makers hands and "global" design schools and companies having design studios in every market removes a LOT of the reginal designs that we used to have IE Japanese cars well looking Japanese
 

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I disagree and in the 60 - 70s most sedans looked the same and when one had a NEW design the others followed
but now the regulations and other required things are forcing makers hands and "global" design schools and companies having design studios in every market removes a LOT of the reginal designs that we used to have IE Japanese cars well looking Japanese
In the 60's you could remove the badging and know exactly what car was what. Its still possible to do today, but in some cases the differences are pretty small. Not sure where I read it, but someone referred to current design influence as a "melted bar of soap" which isn't too far off the mark. Don't get me wrong, I think they look great, the performance is great, and they are efficient, but I think thats why I really liked the retro look of the newer Mustangs, Challengers and Camaros...Everyone knows exactly what car it is when you see one on the street.
 

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This has been going on since America's love affair with SUV's took over the landscape.

Maybe 10% of all the SUV's are anything to get excited about and most of them are over $70k. That makes for an inordinate amount of bland, boring vehicles everywhere you go.
The new Hummer can't be confused with anything else. The same with the Tesla Cyber truck....it may be ugly, but you know its a Tesla and theres no mistaking it for anything else.
 

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I'll read his column when I have some time to kill.

I heard this complaint from every generation starting in the late '50s, the '60s, etc. "Whaah, Orville, these new cars all look alike! Not like In My Day, by jingo! Why, these dadblamed whippersnappers, they don't know nothin' about style! Why, back in my day..."

That said, yes most utes and most sedans look similar. No tailfins, no big chrome grilles, all headlights similar. A couple of days ago I saw an unusual looking bright white car, Tesla? No, it was a new Elantra, the sun was shining and I didn't see the H emblem at first. The new Elantras have quite a bit of style baked into them.
 

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The new Hummer can't be confused with anything else. The same with the Tesla Cyber truck....it may be ugly, but you know its a Tesla and theres no mistaking it for anything else.
Exactly the problem. You could come up with two vehicles that might raise someone’s blood pressure and both are way over the $70k I mentioned.
 

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The only truth is that what enrages car fans about mass production/consumption’s
perceived bland design and lack of personal connection is just that, perception.

Most normal people don’t have an overly strong bond to what is just functional transport.
What affects us mostly goes whoosh over the heads of owners with no emotional investment.
 

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The only truth is that what enrages car fans about mass production/consumption’s
perceived bland design and lack of personal connection is just that, perception.

Most normal people don’t have an overly strong bond to what is just functional transport.
What affects us mostly goes whoosh over the heads of owners with no emotional investment.
We also see this in architecture where buildings have become "appliancized". Think of all the millions that live in tract housing and tower blocks.

I find it pretty sad.
 

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I agree with the above, go to any generation of cars, even the 1920's and they all tend to look pretty similar.

Question - I've heard the phrase "styling costs nothing", is that really true? Does anyone know how much more, if anything, it takes to design a highly stylized vehicle and then produce it? I'd assume more equipment is needed to bend sheet metal into distinctive shapes, or make complicated cut outs and other details we tend to see more on luxury cars. But I don't know if those are negligible costs or substantial costs. Does it only take a day or two extra to make a detailed, interesting car design vs. a bland one? Or does it take an additional month, etc?
 

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I heard this complaint from every generation starting in the late '50s, the '60s...
Sincerely challenge that statement. Cars in the late '50s and into the '60s never looked more dissimilar. This is an era where one can ID the corporation a windshield came from, never mind the entire cars looking 'similar'.
 

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Sincerely challenge that statement. Cars in the late '50s and into the '60s never looked more dissimilar. This is an era where one can ID the corporation a windshield came from, never mind the entire cars looking 'similar'.
That statement is not an opinion, it's my recollection of history as I heard people, older people who had been around for a while, talking about cars. I do not dispute that fitties and sixties vehicles were almost all unique and readily identifiable.
 
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I agree with the above, go to any generation of cars, even the 1920's and they all tend to look pretty similar.

Question - I've heard the phrase "styling costs nothing", is that really true? Does anyone know how much more, if anything, it takes to design a highly stylized vehicle and then produce it? I'd assume more equipment is needed to bend sheet metal into distinctive shapes, or make complicated cut outs and other details we tend to see more on luxury cars. But I don't know if those are negligible costs or substantial costs. Does it only take a day or two extra to make a detailed, interesting car design vs. a bland one? Or does it take an additional month, etc?
Complicated question. The actual design process is no more or less costly in designing complex vs simple shapes. The selection process winnows down the available proposals to get the design where it needs to be.

The production process however can be more costly if additional details, chrome, complex stamping shapes, etc. are part of the given design. But I would argue the incremental costs are not usually prohibitive one way or the other. A great deal depends on the vehicle architecture, the manufacturing facilities, the engineering costs, production/fabricating costs, etc.

But beauty vs ugly is a decision made by a large team. No one comes into work one day and says: "Hey, let's do an ugly car." Someone, somewhere in the organization wants the vehicle to look the way it does. The designs don't fall out of the ceiling overnight. There are conscious decisions made during the entire process that make a vehicle look the way it does. And, no, the wind tunnel does NOT design or dictate the look of the vehicle. Nor does the computer. They are all just tools used in the design process.
 

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Complicated question. The actual design process is no more or less costly in designing complex vs simple shapes. The selection process winnows down the available proposals to get the design where it needs to be.

The production process however can be more costly if additional details, chrome, complex stamping shapes, etc. are part of the given design. But I would argue the incremental costs are not usually prohibitive one way or the other. A great deal depends on the vehicle architecture, the manufacturing facilities, the engineering costs, production/fabricating costs, etc.

But beauty vs ugly is a decision made by a large team. No one comes into work one day and says: "Hey, let's do an ugly car." Someone, somewhere in the organization wants the vehicle to look the way it does. The designs don't fall out of the ceiling overnight. There are conscious decisions made during the entire process that make a vehicle look the way it does. And, no, the wind tunnel does NOT design or dictate the look of the vehicle. Nor does the computer. They are all just tools used in the design process.
Thanks for the thoughts!

Question on the wind tunnel not dictating the look, I'm interested in your thoughts on this: Do you think the results of the wind tunnel have more sway on a mainstream/high volume vehicle vs a low volume vehicle due to the impacts on the corporate average fuel economy requirements? Meaning a manufacturer needs to have those high volume vehicles have a great coefficient of drag to help with fuel economy and therefore tends to give high volume vehicles a more similar overall shape?
 
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