Can Truly Beautiful Car Designs Even Exist Anymore?

Despite overwhelming constraints, great automotive design still exists and not all cars are dull Soviet monstrosities.

Kailah Ogawa

From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.

Imagine if Jaguar unveiled the E-Type this year. But not a bloated, modernized version of the classically beautiful 1960s automotive icon, akin to the rebirth of the Dodge Challenger, say, or the Ford Mustang. Those vehicles just vaguely echo the shape and spirit of their predecessors but possess nothing that remotely approaches their actual visual or visceral experience.

No, picture Jaguar literally coughing up the original E-Type on the podium in Geneva, with its wistful lines, diminutive presence and soul-enriching ride. Sure, it would have a modern suspension, finely tuned carbon brakes and an efficient engine that will turn over instantly 30,000 times in a row — but generally the same car.

Could they build it? Could they generate something so simple, elegant and purposeful, a vehicle that seems to have bent the world to its will? Chances are no — but the reasons are more complex than you might think.

First and foremost, you have the U.S. government. Beginning in the 1950s and then accelerating in the ’70s, government regulations have forced carmakers (necessarily, thankfully) to make their vehicles safer and more efficient. They’ve achieved this via thousands of rules and regulations mandating everything from bumpers to airbags to anti-lock brakes to levers you can pull to pop yourself out of a trunk and regulating such minutiae as headlight placement and the field-of-view in rearview mirrors. The regulations also go into great detail about crash-worthiness, requiring manufacturers to design steering wheels that won’t impale drivers during a front-end collision and glass that won’t turn into sharp flying daggers when punctured, among many dozens of other rules.

This alone has changed vehicle design drastically, to some extent homogenizing it by stipulating various minimums and maximums, but also dulling it thanks to prohibitions against, for instance, shiny chrome bumpers that can slice and dice pedestrians in a collision. Over the years, we’ve thus been left with vehicles that have grown larger, heavier and more complex, with fewer and fewer possibilities for truly creative design work. So producing a Jaguar E-Type, or something like it, in the same approximate packaging as the original would require herculean engineering prowess.

Such purity of design is also frequently stymied today by the many masters of modern vehicle production, which go far beyond even the government’s regulatory requirements. Designers must answer to the practical needs demanded by a given vehicle’s category — comfort, visibility, storage and other factors. They must also yield to — or at least do battle with — the accountants over the cost of their grand visions, the customers whose whims can make or break even the most brilliant and bold visions and the engineers who ultimately determine the manufacturing feasibility of a given component or entire design.

For instance, while it’d be lovely to have a full electrochromic glass canopy enveloping the entire passenger compartment instead of a boring roof with A, B and C-pillars, producing such a thing would be outrageously expensive, if not impossible for safety reasons alone. The same is true for many such fantastic visions recently exhibited at auto shows — from the massive gullwing doors in the Lincoln Navigator concept to the 49-inch display screen in the dash of the Byton electric crossover. Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean you can make it, too.

Despite overwhelming constraints, great automotive design still exists and not all cars are dull Soviet monstrosities.

Finally, new challenges tend to spring up in the wake of design flourishes, insofar as they demand further modifications elsewhere in the vehicle to accommodate them. For instance, massive 24-inch wheels look wonderful when artfully integrated into a design, given their ability to instantly bump up proportionality to intensely satisfying levels. But big wheels can be heavy, take up space in the wells and limit turning radii — so they require larger, more expensive and heavier brakes, more complex suspension systems to accommodate all of those enhancements and compromises elsewhere to accommodate them spatially.

Once you’ve fit them, you have to beef up the chassis to deal with the extra ballast at the corners and the unique performance dynamics of larger wheels and, finally, ask the consumer to pay over and again for wildly expensive tires to fit. In the end, seemingly simple changes can propagate across the entire vehicle and beyond, so designers today must defend and negotiate every stroke of their digital pens.


Photo: Bugatti

But all is not lost. Despite overwhelming constraints, great automotive design still exists and not all cars are dull Soviet monstrosities. Somehow, ultra-functional if visually bland Avalons and Impalas occupy the same roads as Aventadors and Chirons — machines that manage to wriggle through the government gauntlet and deliver startling, utterly magnetic compositions. Even vehicles in traditionally formulaic categories can hit you like a visual sledgehammer, such as the Range Rover Velar, with its subtle sculpting and masterful control of proportion and shaping.

The future may hold even more promise. As we draw nearer and nearer to the steady hand of autonomy — and even its precursor, augmented driving — our collective grip on design may loosen.

“By 2035, the things that we have to do now from a structural point of view might not be necessary,” notes Oliver Heilmar, the global head of Mini Design and the former head of BMW Designworks. “As cars are able to avoid crashing altogether, you’re freed up to design more and more as you wish. Vehicles can weigh less without all the reinforcement and because there’s less weight, you won’t need to have these heavy brakes. Lighter cars also waste less energy, so the motors don’t have to be as strong and are themselves lighter and smaller. All of that opens the door to new, exciting designs.”

Imagine, then, setting off for work in something with the style and grace of that old E-Type, or the simple utility of an old-school Land Rover Defender, with all the benefits of modern engineering and safety, but none of the added bulk. Or imagine something new and completely different, the likes of which we haven’t seen before, made precisely as the designer envisioned.

Read More in Gear Patrol Magazine

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Seven. Subscribe Now: $39

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