Styling? What’s that again?

Posted on September 24th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar


When I think back to all the cars I have owned, appearance was always near the bottom of the list.

My first car – a tiny 1973 Honda Z – was the only one available on my limited student budget and came courtesy of my mother. My first real car – a ’77 AlfaSud – was bought because at the time, it was regarded as one of the best handling cars around. My next car – a ’77 BMW 3.0si – was regarded by some as the very best sedan in the world, and the next (while regarded by most as nowhere near the best car in the world!) had better steering, a smoother engine and much better NVH than the BMW. It was a 1986 Holden VL Commodore Turbo.

The Commodore was replaced by a Liberty RS, the Liberty by an R32 Nissan Skyline GTR, the GTR by an Audi S4, the S4 by a Lexus LS400, the LS400 by a tiny Honda Insight.

Yep, full circle.

But in this list – which excludes lots of peripheral purchases – the appearance of all the cars was way down the bottom of the priorities. If in fact it was there at all. After all, the Honda was cute but weird, the Alfa pretty bland, the BMW conservative even for the time, the Holden nothing special in appearance, the Liberty boring in looks, the Skyline (IMHO) quite ugly, the S4 well proportioned but no looker, the LS400 rather awkward and the Insight, well, again cute but weird.

But none of that worried me one iota – I was interested in handling, brakes, steering, power, grip, torque, economy, body design. All are engineering facets; appearance (except in aerodynamic efficiency) played little part.

That’s not to say that I don’t consider how cars look. I like elegant and effective industrial and engineering design; a beautiful bridge can literally bring me to tears and I can stand and look in awe for an hour at a hydroelectric power station. The early models of the Porsche Boxster I think amongst the most beautiful cars of all time; thankfully they also drive brilliantly. But even if I’d admired the Boxster’s looks, if it was shit behind the wheel, I wouldn’t want one. In fact the only car I can think of that’s so ugly I’d not consider it is the Ford Taurus model that was sold in Australia… simply one of the most godawful looking cars ever.

But while all this makes perfect sense to me, apparently many others are hugely swayed by how their potential car purchase appears. And that’s been the case for most of the life of the car – and car makers have responded accordingly.

Click for larger image

As I write this, first details of the new VE Holden Commodore have just been released. The information is being dribbled out in the fashion of current new car launches, so right now I don’t know critical factors like the mass of the cars and the fuel economy. But we know all about the styling rationale…

Quoted in Go-Auto E-News (, designer Mike Simcoe had this to say about the exterior:

It’s good, confident design. It’s well proportioned and it pushes quality to a level that we’ve never seen before. The interior package for VT was king of that in the market here – and this car continues that. The volume efficiency of the package – that’s the exterior volume to interior size – is just as aggressive as VT was. We made a big song and dance back then about that. And this car is the same.

The track is a little bit wider with this new architecture, so from the ground up we’ve been able to put the wheels wider on the car.

It’s an international design. You can’t say ‘European’ any more, because there’s no ‘European design’, or ‘Japanese design’ – it’s a truly international design in its form language. It’s genuinely a rear-wheel drive proportioned car which is something we hadn’t been able to push as hard in the past. And it’s much more formal. The form language that’s on the car is internal Holden. We’ve been trying to do something like this seriously for a long time.

I mean, WTF does all that mean? Where are the important details on the body? What’s the coefficient of aerodynamic drag? What are the coefficients of front and rear lift? How has the exterior been optimised for frontal pedestrian impact safety? How do the shapes of the doors help in side impacts? Was the wider track (I assume that’s what “we’ve been able to put the wheels wider on the car” means) done only for appearance?! How can you apparently justify no improvement in interior packaging after nearly 10 years of automotive development?

What came first – the exterior stylists’ wet dream or the functionality of the car?

And what if other industrial designers behaved like this?

Here’s your new Nikon digital SLR, sir. Note how the lens mount combines with the form language of the body and how we’ve pushed the corners out in an aggressively positive volume efficiency design language to give formal non-Japanese proportions…

You really have to wonder.

Footnote: The fuel economy figures have just been released. And there in the press release, excusing their lack of progress, is Holden’s Executive Director – Engineering. He said that the fuel figures weren’t really that terrible, “despite more mass for improved safety, larger wheels and tyres, [and] more aggressive styling…” That shows how low we’ve sunk – styling is being blamed for a lack of fuel economy improvement…

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