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November 29, 2006

Behind Design

If you're like me and appreciate great small cars, and particularly great small car design, there's a very interesting blog up and running that you should check out. It's populated by Simon Lamarre, a Canadian born designer working for Volvo design in Sweden, and it’s about Volvo's new small car, the C30.


The first time I saw the C30 show car I was immediately smitten by its muscular stance, nice proportions, and its nod to Volvo heritage while at the same time remaining completely modern. It carries forward the new corporate design language expertly; which seems to work as well in this small package as it does in the rest of the line.

Anyway, if you ever wanted to know how a single car is designed, from a designer’s perspective, check out Simon's blog: http://c30designerblog.blogspot.com/

November 28, 2006

Cool Car

Cool cars do not come around very often, and when they do they are usually not noticed until they are gone. Sure there are interesting cars that create an immediate lust from car aficionados with even the vox populi chanting its praises but they are not really cool, they’re just fashionable. I put most every exotic car types from Ferrari, Porsche, et al into that category. Sure many of them are lustfully beautiful and fast as all get out, but they’re all a bit prissy with their high strung (albeit very powerful) little motors and fine honed details.


No, really cool cars are not fine in any way and they fly under the radar with only a small cult following. They are typically bulldog handsome, have big thumping engines designed to spin extra large tires at will and leave long patches of anti-social rubber behind. Needless to say they are not tuned at racetracks in Europe or anywhere else for that matter.

The Dodge Magnum is just such a car, especially in SRT-8 guise. From its brutal in your face station wagon design to its old school rumbling Hemi V8, the Magnum is the coolest car on the market today. Thanks to its useful but unloved extended roof line it’s a car that flies in the face of convention, and is tanking in the market because of it. Now that’s cool.

November 27, 2006

Good Design?

I’m given to thinking a great deal about design because it is such a black art for me. Engineering I can get a handle on because it is objectively based in science (it also happens to be what I am schooled in). Even if I do not understand the exact calculus behind the theory, I do at least understand the theory. Given the same set of variables two people will come up with the same solution—there are defined mathematical laws to guide you. What makes a car look good is a completely different matter because what makes a shape so pleasing is mostly indefinable. It’s easy to say what one likes and dislikes, but it’s hard to convince those around you that may disagree that you are more correct than they are by pointing to a calculation.


Having said that, I have some personal theories as to what I like when it comes to car design. Good automotive design in my mind’s eye comes down to a few elements. It should be based on the mechanical configuration of the vehicle and work in concert with the mission of the car. The surface development should be clean but not necessarily simple. And finally, the proportion and stance should be natural.

There you go, that’s why design intrigues me as much as it infuriates me—not one of my “elements of style” are definable by anything other than subjective impulses.

My first element is rooted in the “form follows function” idea of design. Some of the best looking vehicles are race cars and in particular the Ford GT40 of the late 1960’s. Every surface detail is beholden to the mechanicals underneath as well as the need to cheat the wind. It’s a give and take between the wind and the hard points of the car—which brings about a certain tension in the design that even wide eyed children instinctively find exciting. Thanks to the level of aerodynamic understanding and technology at the time, many of the elements of the GT40 had to be filled in by human thought rather than computerized modeling. I think the GT40 was created at a time when the balance between science and art was just about perfect in terms of design.

I’m not a fan of superfluous wings, fender bulges, and air scoops unless they are needed to better the performance of the vehicle. Truly great designs can meet the needs of the engineering department without such add-ons by incorporating them in the design right from the start. The surface development of a car, the way the skin twists and turns over the mechanical skeleton, is a complex symphony of curves, flats and creases. Shadows and light play off of the surface to give the design more depth and the viewer even more satisfaction if done with a certain bit of economy. The BMW 1 Series is a perfect example of way too much surface modeling on such a small car. With concave and convex curves punctuated by sweeping creases, the 1 Series surface is much to busy. The MINI is quite the opposite in its surface detailing allowing the shape and stance of the car to define its presence more than undulating sheet metal.

Proportions and stance are both the biggest contributors to good design and the toughest to get right thanks to modern packaging concerns. The layout of the engine and suspension is often dictated by engineering, and the interior by marketing (as well as the consumer). Government safety regulations add another dimension to the picture. The size of the cabin and the basic proportion of the car are thus foisted upon the designer by outside influences. To make it work to the advantage of the design much thought and time is therefore required. The key to making it work for me is the way the car body sits on its suspension. The location of the wheels relative to the rest of the body helps define the attitude of the car. Sports cars tend to get it right more often thanks to the fewer compromises they have to make to packaging concerns, but there are a few sedans that can pull it off. BMWs do it better than most, as does Jaguar with its XJ sedan line.

At the end of the day one cannot get around the fact that good design is subjective-- as my pitiful attempt to objectify some of what I consider core elements proves. But I’ll keep thinking about it and if I come up with any better ideas, I’ll let you know.

November 20, 2006

The Saab Chronicles Part 4

The 1990 Saab 900 sedan is purring along without so much as a minor hitch—minor to a 16 year old car that is. I have noticed that if it doesn’t start right away, it really doesn’t want to start at all. With some experience I am happy to report that I have learned how to start the car on the first try. Different than the more highly computerized engines of today, but not nearly the procedure one had to go through on carbureted, manual choke cars, it requires just the right amount of feel.

Before you roll your eyes too dramatically, let me explain.

The Saab has a pretty simple electromechanical fuel injection system coupled to an ECU that is as powerful as a “Leapfrog” electronic learning aid for toddlers. In other words the ignition system is pretty simple and consequently requires more input, or feel, from the driver. Many modern cars take control of the starting procedure the minute you get close to the car thanks to keyless entry and touch start systems. Press a button and a powerful computer takes control knowing exactly how long the starter motor needs to be engaged and what the air/fuel mixture needs to be to satisfy the firing order of the fuel injectors.

Old carbureted cars needed a little more finesse to get started. Often times you had to prime the carburetor by “pumping” the gas pedal. This delivered, via a complex and temperamental mechanism of levers springs and flaps, gas to the intake side of the engine. Too much pumping and you flooded the engine with gas and you had to wait for the go juice to evaporate. Too little and the engine didn’t want to start. On cold days you had to mess around with a manual choke that starved the engine of air. If it was really bad a can of starter fluid conveniently rattling around in the trunk had to be pulled into service. Open the hood; take off the big wing nut on the air cleaner cover, and sprits a little fluid into the gapping barrels of the carb. Again the amount was critical: too much could be disastrous (many an eyebrow was singed by the backfiring explosion that occurred when a less than deft hand worked the can).

All in all the start procedure of older cars mentally prepared the operator to pilot a complex machine that needed to be respected. If you didn’t have the right feel for the machine, you couldn’t even get it onto the road.

Fast forward to modern times and modern cars and the ballet of pumping the gas and twisting the key just long enough (with the potential of having to repeat those steps a few times) to fire up the engine has been replaced by pushing a button or twisting an obnoxious plastic “fob.” How unromantic.

The Saab lies between these two relative modern extremes (I didn’t even mention the crank starters of yore). First, the Saab has its ignition down and in between the two front seats, right about hip level. That’s just plain cool to begin with. Second, thanks to the age of the ignition and key, you have to insert the key deliberately into its slot in order to twist and start. Finally, you have to listen to the engine carefully and release the key just as you hear the engine ready to fire. Wait too long and it stumbles, release too quickly and the engine will not stay on. If you screw that up you have to try again, but this time depress the gas pedal all the way through its stroke to stop the gas from flowing into the combustion chamber and flooding the engine. Timing for the back-up starting procedure is even more critical. You need to have a good feel for the procedure to get it right the first time, and I’m proud to say that I have learned—the Saab now starts for me 98% of the time on the first try. How many people today can feel a sense of accomplishment by simply starting their cars?

November 09, 2006

SEMA 2006

Much like Cher, Madonna, and Sting, SEMA has grown so large that it’s known within the car world by just one name. “SEMA” is actually the acronym for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a lobbying organization founded by early automotive go fast parts makers.

What started as a small annual convention of primarily Los Angeles based parts makers 40 years ago has turned into the single biggest automotive aftermarket industry orgy this side of the moon. Parts makers from all over the world come to Las Vegas the first week of November each year to peddle their latest wheels, tires, exhausts, audio/visual equipment and pretty much anything else that can be welded, bolted or glued to a road going (and some not so roadworthy) vehicle.

SEMA says that the aftermarket business rung up $34 billion in retail sales this past year--up 8% from 2005. $5 billion of that came from the sport compact market alone, one of the fastest growing segments of the industry. Thanks to size of the market the big automakers are now beginning to really take notice. This year’s show-- which as always was open only to those working in the industry and not to the general public-- had 14 automakers on hand displaying cars with their own in-house brand of bling.

Despite the “American Muscle” theme of this year’s show, there was still plenty of Asian and European tuning on display. Sub-compact cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris seemed to be the most prevalent showcars on the floor. There were fewer Nissan 350Zs, Mitsubishi Eclipses, and BMW M3s than ever before—due more to their end of lifecycle timing than popularity I suspect. SEMA is about new if it’s about anything; especially in the sport compact end of the industry which caters to the fickle “what have you done for me lately” young ADD generation.