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Designers have feelings too...

2010-02-01 07:58

Lance Branquinho

Ferraris are pretty, because, fundamentally the people who own them are too. In the real world though, do we often enough understand the relationship between design and utility?

In a market society, like South Africa, the most significant financial outlay you’ll make is the house you choose to live in, and the car which sleeps in its garage.

Unfortunately, the more mobile of these two chief assets is a dastardly depreciator in the medium term. So although your house is an investment for life, your car is either a utilitarian or comfort purchase of sorts.

Let’s not kid ourselves though, cars are not utilitarian. If they were, there would be none of the luxury and leather-clad excess, or the need for anything producing more than 100kW.

Cars are image machines, mobile Rolexes (or four wheel Prada handbags if you prefer the female metaphor) which announce to the world just how successfully the promise and expectations of your youth have been fulfilled.

We love them. Covet them. Steal them (well not me, but in South Africa many do).  Compare them. Drive them with enthusiasm and wash them lovingly with a special sponge.

We even wake up in the middle of the night to go marvel at them in the garage all lit up by cascading moonlight. All very much like the spouse then.

Tasteful cars. Regal home. Debonair blokes. Indeed, very much not suburban South Africa.

Think before you talk

Considering how smitten South Africans are about cars, I have always found it inexplicable how undiplomatic individuals can be in polite company about other peoples’ cars.

If you were to meet somebody at a braai and tell him his wife’s bonnet line was completely of proportion with her Bauhaus rear architecture, you’d be beaten half to death with bottle of Jimmy’s braai sauce. Quite rightly so too, which is why nobody ever does.

Move into a new suburb with a late model Audi, for example, and before pleasantries are exchanged the neighbours will sarcastically remark they’d like their dog back. It was allegedly last seen in your A6’s path before being hoovered up into that oversized excuse for a grille.

How glorious is the front third of this original Maserati Quattroporte sketch? Final result looked a lot different, thanks to engineering input and EU safety crash regulations...

Source quality control…

What amazes, and frustrates me even more, are the questionable credentials of these bogus styling critics.

Often I find myself as the UN representative at social occasions, trying to broker peace between parties who have broached the topic of somebody’s car with rather harsh utterances. The staple accusation is usually a simple,"Jeez, it’s ugly, that car of yours."

Try and get the accuser to actually point out what he or she finds such an aesthetic affront and they regurgitate "I don’t know, it’s just ugly man." Ridiculous…

Curiously, these ubiquitous critics can’t tell you anything about proportions, visual tension, converging lines, clean surfaces, thirds, or even the golden mean. Bit of quandary then - if you feel so strongly about something - yet lack a considered fact sheet of issues waiting to be verbalised…

Every day I look at comments online, peruse the letter pages of motoring magazines, canvas opinion socially, and it’s uncanny how tactless and devoid of fact some people are in their aesthetic criticism of cars.

The disarming simplicity of the original Mini. Sir Alec Issigonis did not much have to bother about how wayward pedestrians would rollover the Mini’s stubby proportions. Today though…

Have a point? Well, point it out

Simply saying a car is fugly isn’t good enough.

It’s like trying to calm your sobbing girlfriend in a public place by telling her she looks fat when she’s crying – it works, but hardly apt, now is it? Shock therapy is usually a rather dead-end short term solution.

It’s amazing how cars – like people – can grow on you in the fullness of time. I though the original BMW Z Coupe was an unmitigated disaster when it was released. Honestly, it looked like a 1.5ton sheet metal ankle boot.

A decade later, I find myself pulling into the left lane to allow Z Coupes to pass, taking in the design, which has grown appreciably on me. Legendary Mercedes-Benz designer, Bruno Sacco, once decreed any car which looks immediately right, will age almost instantly - words to heed indeed.

Of course there are aesthetically challenged cars – sure.

Yet there is a monumental difference between an odd looking SUV, with seven-person portable utility, and Ferrari designing a dog of a car.

Styling is of no consequence with SUVs, it’s the raison d'etre of any Ferrari.

Ssangyong's Stavic. Not pretty. Then again, does it really have to be?

Defending the indefensible?

Ssangyong’s styling staff should probably be brought to trial for designing cars which make little children cry in shopping mall car parks. Let me assure you though, have dinner with one of Ssangyong’s stylists and your designing worldview will change.

Let him tell you how he spent the last few years of his life working 14 hour days. Over the starters you’ll learn how hundreds of styling changes were overruled by accountants, the company's board and management.

As you’re tucking into the main course he’ll tell you about the engineering department. They would not accept the new headlamp supplier, whose headlight units would have made a significant difference to the car’s appearance.

After dessert, over nightcaps, you’ll become privy to the nightmare EU crash safety regime and how engineering changes were made to ensure pedestrians roll over the bonnet harmlessly when impacted.

Consider all these tings and then tell him his Stavic is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen. You simply won’t have the heart, trust me.

Ssangyong's C200 concept. Shows what can be done without constraint.

Look. Learn. Think. Comment.

I think it’s time motoring enthusiasts got a little more design literate again, detail critical if you wish.

It’s odd. Walk into a Tuscan Villa worth millions of Rands and nobody says a word about it. This despite architects (even those who draw them up) admitting Boere Tuscan is Dante’s missing eight’s circle of design hell.

Pull up in a Triton bakkie at the selfsame Tuscan house though, and nobody at the braai will stop espousing just how ugly your bakkie is.

Perhaps one person at the braai will have the wherewithal to conjecture how someday all bakkies will look futuristic, like the Triton, which is (quite simply) an inevitability.

Soon commercial vehicle pedestrian crash safety standards will start mimicking passenger car requirements, which means no more chunky-bakkie styling.

Makes one think a bit, perhaps?

Times make all things pretty?

It’s a rare thing, somebody with a considered styling criticism.

So, although we don’t criticise our primary possessions – those houses, most genuinely awful, which litter suburbia – we’re quite content denigrate our (and others) most important secondary purchases – cars.

Just like you’d never call your visually impaired eight-year old niece four eyes because she wears glasses, next time you’re about to call a newly released car fugly, think about it for a moment first. You might end up falling in love with it in the long run, like the geek in your matric class who blossoms into being elegance personified at the 10 year school reunion.

Which is why, despite my initial horror when it was launched more than a decade ago, I’ll defend BMW’s Z coupe to death these days. Ten years hence, which of the current crop of 'ugly' cars will become the object of your furtive affection?


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