Vertical cities and urban villages

Can the car be more than a vehicle that takes you from A to B? This has been a subject much discussed in recent years. I remember talking endlessly with Chris Bangle, the former design boss at BMW, on this very subject – something that has been at the core of his design thinking (remember GINA?) – at a time when few car companies dared or even cared to venture into anything that signified a real change from the conventional automobile. There is more urgency now to address these issues and we’re seeing some interesting ideas floating around, and a degree of commitment from some of the larger manufactures.

Still, we’re a long way off from truly shifting our mentality. It should be up to the emerging generation of car designers to look at the profession as more than merely refining surfaces and creating yet another metallic object for individual consumption. It all feels so tired. Thankfully there are some who are shifting the paradigm.

The other day I met a couple of students studying Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London who have started some interesting discussions. Yuan Fang feels that the vehicle needs to evolve to fit into the high-rise, densely populated cities of today. Zishi Han is looking at how the car can feed something back to the shantytown communities. These are college projects, but raise interesting themes on the role of the car in our future lives.

Yuan was inspired by her hometown of Shenzhen, a dense vertical megacity north of Hong Kong that was a village until 1979. Now with 15 million inhabitants, and a population density higher than Guangzhou, Beijing and Hong Kong, Shenzhen is the most crowded city in China. ‘These tall buildings shape the city into different layers,’ she explains. People have adapted to this new vertical existence spending most of their time indoors. She wants to change the form and function of the vehicle to harmonise with its environment.

Zishi grew up in Beijing where rapid economic growth has created a vast urban village – or chéng zh?ng cún, the Chinese slum. These mostly former rural villages have been swallowed up by expanding cities and house the poor and transient that, he says, ‘tend to keep their original texture.’

His idea is for an open-source system based around vehicles that improve the living conditions of urban villagers, and take advantage of what the area can offer including local material, skills and labour. He explains: ‘The system will bring urban villagers, car manufactures and the government together using low-tech production methods and locally-sourced material to produce a vehicle and dwelling in the urban village by locals for locals.’ Zishi is now working towards formulating an instruction for design and manufacturing, as well as a vehicle prototype made in his urban village.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read about the Audi Urban Future Initiative here.

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

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Mini John Cooper Works family

Car companies need products that push the limit of the brand either in their design or performance. It pays to have a sub-brand that produces a limited and therefore more desirable numbers of specialist cars aimed at enthusiasts or those wanting novelty products. In the case of Mini this is John Cooper Works, the marque’s high-performance sub-brand. Founded in 2000 by John Cooper, a racing car maker and tuner who worked on the Mini Cooper models, BMW bought the company in 2008. For 2013, the entire range has been given the JCW treatment.

Mini is the fairy-tale success stories of modern motoring. Essentially a brand defined by a single model, under BMW ownership the Mini Hatch has been stretched (Clubman), chopped (Coupé), had its roof cut off  (Convertible and Roadster) and got blown up (Countryman) to suit the wants and needs of more customers. Next on the list is the Mini Van and Paceman, the latter combining the Countryman’s practicality with cool coupé styling, and it will get the JCW treatment, too.

To test the cars, we are driving the Countryman JCW some 1,400 miles from Lisbon to London through Portugal, Spain and France. It is a mighty big road trip and the February weather is adding further challenges in some higher altitudes en-route. As we depart Lisbon news comes that the Pyrenees, in particular, is experiencing some extreme weather – snow, high winds, the lot – as are some parts of northern Spain and France, which are devastated by floods.

The Countryman is essentially a small SUV, so strictly speaking it stretches the brand name somewhat, but nevertheless retains the cheeky charms of Mini design – giant size instrument dials and round, bubbly vents. Our car is the first Mini with four-wheel-drive to be given the rally car treatment. The JCW Countryman is also the largest and most powerful model in the range, which is reassuring as are the added winter tyres.

The JCW is 10mm lower than the standard car and comes with an aerodynamic body kit, red brake callipers and extra-lightweight 18-inch Twin Spoke light-alloy wheels (19-inch wheels are available as an option). It hits 62mph in 7 seconds, has impressive traction and sporty handling, and you get a sexy JCW roaring engine note when you hit the ‘Sport’ button.

Inside is comfortable and roomy with a generous 1,170 litres hatchback boot that fits not only our suitcases, but also boxes of wine and food purchased along the way. Finally, the high seating position is an ideal place to sit back and watch the 1,400 miles unfold.

The Countryman is a good choice for a road trip as such. In northern Spain, high up in the Pyrenees as we cross the border to France, we brave high winds and sleet and snow sensing that with this car we’re in safe hands. An overnight stop in Bordeaux, we are reminded at how evocative the JCW badge is even outside the UK, with quite a few passers clearly admiring our car. Alighting in London we too feel an admiration for this rather grand grandchild of the old Mini on which my father taught my mother how to drive.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Frank Stephenson discusses McLaren 12C

Few contemporary car designers boast a resume as impressive as Frank Stephenson’s.  Since graduating in vehicle design from the prestigious Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, he has designed the first generation 2001 Mini, BMW X5, Maserati MC12, Ferrari F430 and Fiat 500.

Frank Stephenson and the 12C

Stephenson took on the position of styling director at McLaren Automotive in 2008. The first road car designed for the new company, the MP4-12C, was already underway when he joined, but he has been responsible for fine tuning the design, as well as mapping out the upcoming products.

We caught up with him at the futuristic and pristine Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre near London in Woking, where he resides until the bespoke car plant is completed next year.

‘The 12C was already conceived before I arrived so I couldn’t start from scratch but at least I could give it that look to give it the individuality,’ he says. ‘My task was to find out what kind of impression we should have with this car. Does it have to be bold, quite, strong – it was all up for grabs.’

Stephenson had worked for BMW for 11 years and the Fiat Group for almost six – both marques heavy with automotive history. McLaren’s road car making history is, on the other hand, pretty limited – there was the McLaren F1 (coined the ‘ultimate road car’) built as a one-off in limited numbers in the 90s. And there was the partnership with Mercedes-Benz, the fruit of which was the SLR super car – both production and partnership ended last year.

The McLaren MP4-12C carThe McLaren MP4-12C car

‘If you work with a car company that already exists you have to respect its history and heritage so that any new product is genetically linked. You can’t really break away and do your own signature,’ he says. ‘With McLaren we didn’t have this kind of history.’

‘McLaren Automotive is not a repeat of what we did in the 90s,’ he concedes. Neither is it a kit car firm. ‘This is a real company with a future strategy.’ The firm has a 12-year plan in place starting with the 12C, which will go on sale globally next year. Expect a new model, including three 12C variants, coming off the production line every year for the next seven years. ‘How many times does a real automotive company get started?’ enthuses Stephenson.

High tech design

The 12C is a wedged-shaped two-seater V8 sports car. What’s unique about it is that it is essentially built around a lightweight carbon fibre tub that only really exists in F1 and hyper cars – those that cost over £500,000. The 12C will be priced around the £150,000 mark. Therefore one of the main challenges for McLaren was to drastically reduce the production cost of the tub down. The one-piece mould engineers specifically for this project has managed to reduced the production cost of a single tub from around £100,000 in a F1 car, and £30,000 on the SLR, to just £6,000 in the 12C.

The lightweight tub in the McLaren MP4-12C car

The tub is light and helps weight reduction and therefore fuel efficiency. Plus, it is a unique feature for the 12C, which is hoping to compete against the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world. ‘This is our principle,’ notes the designer. ‘If you can introduce new technology and let it cascade down, eventually it will enter the mass market and cars will get better for it.’

McLaren design DNA, says Stephenson, is to be very purposeful and efficient, and the styling essentially comes through that language. ‘We are not there to make a pretty face and then trying to make it work. It is the other way around – you optimise the car dynamically, and then beautify it in such a way that it doesn’t lose any of the function.’

Ron Dennis at the launch of McLaren Automotive

In the 12C ‘form and function work together,’ says Stephenson. ‘Every product has to look like it does what it says on the tin.’ Design is aero driven, which means creating the lowest possible wind drag and using light materials. ‘It is what it is – we haven’t over stylised it. The car is without ornamentation and surfacing.’

As expected there will be a wide degree of customisation for interior colour combination and trim levels. And the 12C is a very high-tech car, kitted out with the latest gadgets including three cameras in and around the car so you can record, download and make a movie of your track day.

Competing in niche world market

McLaren is aiming at a world market that includes the established markets as well as some of the emerging ones, most notably South Africa, China and India – its relatively reasonable price undercutting some of its rivals. ‘We will have entry-level super cars. The cars will be exclusive which is what will make us special. You don’t want to oversell as it loses its bottom purpose,’ he says.

Image of what the McLaren Automotive retail stores will look like

Stephenson doesn’t think McLaren will necessarily steal Ferrari or Lamborghini customers. ‘I think what we will get is customers who know about cars,’ he says. ‘It will be people who understand technology and are car enthusiasts as well as those who want something different.’

He warns: ‘We are not a start-up company. But, you cannot put all your eggs in one basket and hope to be safe. If we do spread out to the automotive range, it will take technology, innovation and the advantages we have learnt from F1 and let that cascade down into our product range.’

With future McLaren cars, Stephenson says there will be a family identity but not a heavy one. ‘This locks you in creatively,’ he notes. It is with the post 12C range that the designer has the chance to put in what he has always wanted to into design. ‘And we have the potential to create something really nice in an intelligent way,’ he says.

Lewis Hamilton testing the 12C

‘This is about new ways to do a car. This may sound hyper but if you knew what was inside my brain you would understand it’s not just words but being considered the crazy one at work and do cars that people will say why didn’t I think about that.’

Read about the bespoke McLaren Automotive Centre designed by architect Foster + Partners in our review published in Building.

More from Frank Stephenson…

On the 2001 Mini:

‘BMW wanted a Mini for the 21st century. They said it is too important a project and we cannot get this wrong. So they asked us to produce 15 models between Munich, California, the UK and an external team in Italy – this is three times more than normally done for a new car.

‘We were celebrating after finishing our model. It was 4am when I took a final look at the model all painted and dressed up. Then I just froze behind the car – our modeller had forgotten to put in an exhaust pipe. Everyone was flat on their backs by then but I looked at the Colin modeller who was drinking a Budwiser so I took the can, cut off the bottom half put a hole in the bottom of the can and shoved it in the clay. The next day Chris Bangle says to me ‘congratulations Frank but never ever waste a modellers time making a detailed exhaust pipe’! The first Mini got the same design as that original exhaust pipe.’

On the dream Ferrari job:

‘I was working at BMW when I got a call from someone to come to Turin for a job prospect. At the end of lunch the two guys said we’re from Fiat and have been instructed to offer you to be the design director or Ferrari and Maserati. I said you don’t have a design director and they said exactly. I signed up immediately.’

On working with Chris Bangle:

‘Chris Bangle was really interesting to work with. On Mondays he always had some amazing ideas. We need people like him to inject some real changes. When BMW came out with the second-generation Mini I hated it. The one I did was like a link so that they wouldn’t get upset with us meddling with an icon, the one after could have broken the bubble and gone crazy but what did they do? Nothing. They lost it – made it bigger and too comfortable. It needs to be Dennis The Menace on wheels. It has become a corporate decision.’

For more on the development visit McLaren Automotive.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Adrian van Hooydonk on BMW Megacity Vehicle

‘The Megacity Vehicle will be attractive but not controversial, and it will need to express cleanliness combined with premium and efficient, efficient dynamics,’ says Adrian Van Hooydonk.

The BMW design director is referring to the first product to be released – albeit only two teaser sketches – from Project-I, an internal research unit which has been studying the best possible mode of personal transport for urban driving for some time. The Mini E was part of this as was the 2008 Vision EfficientDynamics concept that hinted at some of the lightweight technological advances and design thinking behind these zero-emission cars. The truth is the world is moving towards mass urbanisation with a recent UN report suggesting that by 2050 over 70% of the world’s population will be urban dwellers – and companies like BMW know they need to address this in order to survive.

BMW Megacity Vehicle first sketch

The two and four door versions shown in the renditions say little about what we should expect from the MCV when production begins in 2013. All we know is that it will be a rear-wheel four-seater electric car that will be priced at a premium. It will also be BMW’s first volume production car to use lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) extensively in the structure and body panels.

Experimental vehicle platform with body in white structure made from CFRP

The MCV has been designed specifically for mega cities. The Project-I team, therefore, carried out extensive international market and trend research to discover exactly what this target group needs in terms of size, loading capacity, drive concept, sustainability as well as interior design and user interface. Interestingly enough, they discovered that customers didn’t want a micro car, that they attached importance to having four seats.

Van Hooydonk notes that his main task with this car was to mix exciting with clean. He admits that even though some of the design quality and detailing will be traced back to BMW cars, as a sub-brand he can introduce new elements, most crucially figure out an appropriate design DNA for the zero-emission brand.

BMW design director Adrian Van Hooydonk presenting Project-I

In-house designer Benoît Jacob will head the new design team for the sub-brand. BMW refuses to reveal any information on future models but Van Hooydonk admits it would be relatively straightforward to create derivatives based on its architecture.

‘The complete new package due to the electric powertrain and also the use of new materials like carbon fibre gives us designers much more freedom for our creativity – the freedom to give the customers of the future totally new features and impressions,’ enthuses Van Hooydonk, adding: ‘And of course, the know-how of this project, the new ideas that we have, will also have an impact on the core brand BMW.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read more in my report published in Wallpaper* and read our full interview with Adrian Van Hooydonk in Car Design News.

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©