Top five creative moments in car design in 2016

As we start to bid farewell to 2016 and welcome a new year with all its fresh promises, I started to put together a list of my top five interesting speculative car design moments of this year. BMW Group’s Vision Next 100 collective of concept cars for MINI, BMW and Rolls-Royce was the first to come to mind as these vehicles are a bed of vibrant ideas, begging to be explored. Then came Bentley, and the marque’s softly radical approach to the future of luxury in the world of ecological, autonomous driving.

Tesla, of course, had to be included for its dismissal of the strict automotive codes in so many ways – with the products, the people, the stores, the approach. Jaguar Land Rover ‘s impressive contemporary life cannot be ignored.

And Volvo, for as skeptical as I initially was about the company under a very different ownership, the brand has really moved forward in new and exciting ways to remain Swedish in spirit yet rather than be a Scandinavian parody, the marque now represents a nation that is global, connected and therefore exciting.

There are, of course, others doing equally interesting work too – Lexus with its uniquely brilliant vernacular, Mercedes-Benz and its confident design language, Maserati’s successful venture into new segments, Audi’s clear visual language, Volkswagen’s brilliant electric world car proposition. But five was my number so…

… here’s my list and in no particular order: via ForbesLife

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Car, body, fashion

I was 18 when I first read The Nude by Kenneth Clark. Published in 1956, it was a sort of Bible for young aspiring aesthetes. I was on my way to becoming one, so I hoped, having enrolled on a pre-grad foundation in art and design.

Many of Clark’s observations have been tirelessly quoted but the one that always resonates is this simple line: ‘The relation of head to body determines the standard by which we assess all other proportions in nature.’ Even abstract shapes like the square and the circle are male and female, he argues. Clark believed that the human eye is disturbed by bodily imperfections and therefore doesn’t judge the nude as a living organism, but as a design.

From all the objects I can think of – and perhaps this is due to my close relationship with this particular one – the car is shamelessly anthropomorphic. This is one of its strengths, a winning point as such in that we can critique it in much the same way as a person.

Cars can have taut athlete’s muscles, or be lean like a runner. They can be as skinny as a model on the runway, or voluptuously sexy in the Rubenesque manner (although somehow this doesn’t work too well with cars). We criticise a car for looking bloated and sneer at the ones with a big behind. You could argue that the car’s skeleton is draped in metal in much the same way our bodies are in cloth.

Chris Bangle understood this well with his 2008 GINA concept car. GINA – or Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations for the full title – had been a study vehicle kept behind iron doors at the design studios in California and Munich and used to explore ideas within the department. Bangle revealed GINA to the public in June 2008 not long before he took his leave from the BMW, incidentally taking the concept with him, but I had heard this interesting designer hint at the concept years ago at a lecture at the Design Museum in London.

Addressing a starry-eyed group of young designers, Bangle who really knows how to command a room, quoted Clark adding: ‘replace nude with car, and you will understand everything about cars.’ GINA took this notion of car as human to a different level with an outer skin made of cloth – the virtually seamless polyethylene-coated Lycra stretch fabric shielding a moveable substructure beneath.

If metal is clothing, then how closely do the frivolous world of fashion – where trends come and go literally by the season – and the more sedate world of the motorcar interact? It takes years for a car to evolve from concept to production, with the design having to stay fresh for another five years at least whereas fashion is fast moving and fickle.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Cars are coming to market in a much quicker pace, and with such extensive personalisation programmes on offer (see picture of the Fiat 500 special edition), we are seeing a stronger dialogue developing between these two unlikely worlds.

In both worlds the most important aspect is the initial architecture, as there is a limit to what you can camouflage if the proportions are wrong. Nargess Gharani, fashion consultant co-founder of Gharani Strok, agrees that the initial concept needs to work before you even consider developing it further. She explains: ‘If an original design is beautiful and therefore flattering but that the trim used is badly positioned, or of poor quality, it will destroy the original design.’

This is very much the case with cars. For Audi this means following a clear genetic code, which involves having a very high shoulder line and a very condensed green house. ‘Our cars have to seem like they are laying down like a crocodile,’ notes Stefan Sielaff its former design director now in charge of Volkswagen. ‘Once the proportion is right, we add the details.’

Slimming in fashion is directly related to sleekness in the car. Vertical lines create a longer, leaner figure in the same way horizontal ones form visual length on the car. Gharani notes that on a garment it is more effective to work with seaming, which is a more subtle way of creating the same visual impact.

The BMW way is to sculpt its lines. They have to be authentic intersections of surfaces and only applied when two surfaces happen to intersect – much like seaming in tailoring.

Other tricks of the trade include elongating the DLO (day light opening), blending the hood for a slimmer visage, or using light and shade on the surface to create the feeling of slimness.

Gharani also suggests shading the inside of a dress to make it appear slimmer. ‘Use a darker colour on the back and sides of a dress, but keep a slim silhouette in a light colour. This way the eye will only see the light colour as the silhouette.’

Then there is the power of accessorising. ‘Heals make you look slimmer and give better posture,’ says Gharani. Similarly, the positioning of buttons and the size can completely alter the impression of a garment. Wheels, headlights, the grille and other graphic elements on the car can work in a similar way to hide flaws or direct the eye to selected area.

Lighting especially is increasingly manipulated to highlight design and brand identity. Front lights can also enhance the car’s face adding to the human association. One aspect of Audi’s philosophy of Vorsprung Durch Technik (advancement through technology) is to have a clear light design strategy to define the brand and the product line day and night.

I ask Gharani what contemporary car excites her. She mentions the Nissan Cube, saying she admires the fresh feel of the 60s inspired cabin with its clean lines and use of colour. She says she appreciates the clever manipulation of material that pushes boundaries yet maintains functionality. ‘This I believe is very important in both fashion and car design as you have to be fresh and push boundaries but never keep your eyes off what is commercially viable.’

It is tough for cars to truly represent immediate trends be it in fashion, furniture or product and electronic gadget design. With the outer fabric body exchangeable, and the car transformable into various shape to suite the desire and needs of its occupants, Bangle’s GINA has conceptually come pretty close.

‘We are going to have to find new ways to adapt to how the world sees cars,’ Bangle said at the Design Museum. ‘We have to offer a product that is more about lifestyle and personalisation statements. We need to get some of the individuality of the consumer as well as the producer into the product.’

Here Chris Bangle talks about GINA a little while before the car was unveiled to the public.

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Klaus Bischoff: Volkswagen’s Up

Volkswagen has a strong history of building solid, well engineered and modestly designed cars. You know you’re in reliable company with VW if not always in an exciting one. This is why project Up has been an interesting one to follow. This is a family of affordable cars designed for cities around the world.

The project has been brewing for a few years. Our first teasers came in 2007 in the shape of the Up Concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show followed shortly by the Up Lite at the Los Angeles show. These were visionary design propositions – more product design than automotive.

Last month we drove the first production car to be born out of this initiative – a small modest city car that seats four passengers and is offered in the same format to a world audience (read the road test around Rome here).

Before the drive we caught up with director of VW design Klaus Bischoff to discuss the Up family, and the marque’s position in finding viable solutions for mobility in 2012 megacities.

Klaus Bischoff director of design at Volkswagen

Design Talks. With the Up family in many ways you’re returning to your brand’s real heritage of making small, global, affordable cars. What is the idea behind this project that you initially proposed with the first concept in 2007?

Klaus Bischoff. The Up is a new space on the new family platform and a global activity. We are showing different drivetrain options – from combustion engines down to electric mobility that will come on to the market in 2013.

DT. The Up design language seems stripped of unnecessary surface decoration – it has a reduced aesthetic. Was this intentional?

KB. Yes. But you can only achieve a simple design if you have a simple package and did your homework with the engineers. It is easier to allow engineers to make the overhang longer, bonnet higher and wheels smaller. Then you need to add some styling to camouflage what is wrong in the package. We work in a team with the engineers to create the right package much like product design. The package is simple but we think ingenious – like your iPhone.

DT. How would you describe the DNA the Up?

KB. The Up is about purity, simplicity and affordability. Simplicity means the face has to be absolutely unique and sympathetic. We therefore used the Transporter face with the VW badge as the nose, the lights with the shut line as the eyes combination and the grille as the mouth. We have cleverly packaged the opening for cooling in the grille and worked hard in the wind tunnel to make this design possible. It is original and characteristic.

DT. The electric Up seems to be the most visually futuristic of the six variants.

KB. I’m happy you think so. This will be a more expensive car and so the customer will want to say my car is electric with my special lights and chrome wheels. On the wheel cap are metal spring flaps that opens to let air in and heat out but when shut it perform the best aerodynamics. It is a very clever design. It also features the new LED lights so when it’s working the whole element around the grille lights up to say: ‘I am electric’.

DT. Tell us about the other members of the Up family.

KB. We are showing face variations on the Up group to say what’s possible on such a platform. The Up Buggy is a showpiece – it has a strong remembrance of our heritage but transported to a contemporary life. There is the Cross Up and the Azzura Up inspired by yachts that is beautifully crafted and looks expensive.

DT. What message are you conveying with the single seat electric Nils concept?

KB. We wanted to create a new solution for urban mobility, but to transport the VW design DNA – to show that our clean design approach is able to jump into the future.

DT. How does the design express this?

KB. It is clean and all shut lines have a function with the rear reserved for batteries and the electric engine. The lower windows allow you to see the turning wheels when you drive which is very spectacular. You feel at home straight away as it carries on the heritage of VW with a strong focus on ergonomics and engineering.

DT. How difficult was it to design this car?

KB. It was a demanding task to reduce the shape in such a dramatic manner and incorporate only one driver. We also had to fight to get these large wheel sizes as the engineer wanted to make them smaller – the usual game.

DT. Will we see the Nils as a production vehicle and how does it feed into your overall future strategy for urban mobility?

KB. If we get a good reaction then we will decide on what to do next. We are heavily investigating future mobility. We think mobility solutions need to be diverse to answer all needs so if you don’t have the money for this you go for an e-scooter like we showed in Shanghai, and if not an e-bicycle.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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Car design trends: Frankfurt Motor Show 2011

We are at the start of the second life of the automobile. Up until recently, cars were more of less about individual mobility, personal space, about ownership. It has been about creating beautiful or quirky sculpture.

With our diminishing fossil fuel reserves, concerns for the environment and world economic recession, the closeted, cosy world of the automobile has had to shift. I recall going to see controversial ex-BMW design boss Chris Bangle at London’s Design Museum in 2004 who talked of the car essentially remaining the same horseless carriage of a hundred or so years ago, and even then proposing we re-address the automobile.

Fast-forward to September 2011, and it seemed that at the Frankfurt Motor Show some genuinely interesting ideas for future transport and mobility were being proposed.  Alternating yearly, Frankfurt and Paris are the most coveted international shows and an indicator as to where this industry is heading.

So what were these trends? It was admittedly a bizarre mix of clean mobility that has more in common with product design versus extreme high-performance cars wrapped up in shinny metal with the usual references – clean lines, lean athletic muscle.

BMW’s i3 and i8 – its first offerings in its electric sub-brand which we reported here back in the summer – are inspired concept cars that will be produced in the next few years at the Zaha Hadid Leipzig factory and promise to remain close to what we see now.

Audi Urban Concept studies, in coupé and open-top Spyder formats, are plug-in electric two-seater concepts that feature carbon fibre monocoque; the interior uses aluminium and carbonfibre trim and a quirky square steering wheel. Despite their modern approach to mobility, these cars retain the clean and precise Audi design DNA.

Volkswagen’s Nils is a similar idea – this one a tiny one-seat concept car with gullwing doors in a unique shape that envisions a future mode of urban transportation. Our reaction, design director Klaus Bischoff told me at the show, will determine if the marque will invest in such mobility solutions. We already saw the VW e-Scooter concept at Shanghai and a car like the Nils will fit in nicely to the marque’s electric portfolio.

These are just some of the ideas exhibited at Frankfurt. Read my full report published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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VW’s electric London taxi concept

The taxi cab can be one of the most iconic features of an urban landscape – think the London black cab or the New York yellow taxi. With electric driving considered the most reasonable choice for current clean mobility, it makes sense to turn these often polluting vehicles into something ecologically responsible.

With this in mind Volkswagen has designed a taxi with London in mind that is not only electrically driven, but provides for a modern transportation environment. This is the last in its World Taxis series that has thus far included a Hong Kong, Berlin and Milanese cab.

This is a cute and quirky looking vehicle based very much on the loveable iconic original VW Campervan. Head of VW design Klaus Bischoff says this and the original Beetle have been the main inspiration for this concept and the Up city car for 2013 on which the taxi shares its underpinnings. ‘People remember these vehicles positively,’ he says noting that it is this sense of nostalgia that needs to find its way into the entire electric car range.

It is mainly with the face where VW hopes to make a unique impression with this car and the rest of the electric vehicle family. ‘VWs were born with their engines in the rear and so there was an absence of a radiator grille or an opening on the face,’ says the designer. An electric car doesn’t require an opening at the front – there is no conventional engine to cool. Therefore like the Up, the taxi concept’s face has a tiny ring shaped grille, there really to represents the mouth and in a sense complete the face. ‘We wanted to give the car a unique look, but one that is friendly and sympathetic,’ says Bischoff.

The prototype is relatively compact – 3,730mm long, 1,680mm wide and 1,600mm high. The absence of a conventional engine at the front and clever packaging however, has allowed for a pretty spacious interior that can sit a driver and two passengers in individual seats – as opposed to the usual bench – comfortably with lots of extra space to place for luggage.

Daytime running lights mounted within the headlight units are joined by a taxi light on the roof. At the rear the light units are integrated into the split tailgate, behind which are a pair of cubbies to house the driver’s belongings.

The light and spacious cabin is visually dominated by two large touch screen displays – one by the driver and one by the passengers. The driver can personalise the display setting on his display much like a smart phone, and in the rear a similar screen relays information to the passengers on their route and their immediate environment. Plus the reduced colour scheme that includes only a splash of red helps with electricity usage.

It takes just over an hour to charge the electric taxi’s slim battery to 80% of its capacity. The 113bhp electric motor gives a top speed of 74mph, and the 45kWh battery provides a range of up to 186 miles.

The prototype features deliberate tongue-in-cheek details such as the silver Union Jack on the roof and the City of London’s coat of arms on the sides and dashboard.

‘For me London has the most convincing taxi in the world,’ confesses Bischoff. ‘The New York taxi is nice, but not as comfortable as the London cab. It gives the urban setting a unique character, and we wanted to pay tribute to this.’

Read more on the VW  electric taxi cab in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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