It’s been said before that all the best songs have already been written. When Freddie Mercury wrote the masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody, he was free to be as creative as his thoughts could take him. Never before had someone mixed opera into a rock song that went on for nearly 6 minutes. The result was a track that over 35 years since its release, still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Now, imagine what would have happened if the record company went over the song and scribbled out some lyrics here, added a guitar riff there and altered it to conform with a mandatory regulation by the Official Charts Company. That’s exactly what car designers have to contend with today.
Just like in music, there’s a strong argument that all the best car designs have already been made. While there’s only so many tweaks you can make to a shell covering four wheels after 135 years of trying, there’s other factors that are limiting creativity the most.
Health and safety, we all love to hate it and there’s no doubt it’s crippling automotive creativity. But before you all chime in with “it saves lives” just consider this. Older cars generally have much lower waist lines and much more glass, meaning greater 360 degree visibility. Ok, that also means you’re not as well protected but preventing the crash in the first place by allowing the driver to see with their eyes, rather than rely on shifty technology, is better than bracing for the inevitable impact right? How many times have you heard the driver causing a collision say “I didn’t see you?” If their A pillars are 8 inches thick and their C pillar makes up the majority of the rear end, they may have a point. Whether you agree with me or not, it’s undeniable that regulations dictate so much of a cars basic styling traits, that cars from each segment start to lookalike.
Pedestrian safety is another obstacle designers have to negotiate. There’s less of an argument against this one but it’s there nonetheless. Those classic shark nose BMW’s don’t look like they’d be very comfortable hitting your leg at 30mph but my god they’re pretty. Likewise those intricate bonnet ornaments found on old classics. If you’ve ever driven an old Mercedes with the three pointed star on the bonnet, you’ll understand the feeling of superiority it gives you.
Whether it’s to eek out that last drop of diesel or shave off an extra second around the Nurburgring, all new cars are shaped in some way, by airflow. The advent of computer aided design has allowed manufacturers a better understanding of the once black art that was aerodynamics but in doing so has resulted in the designers artistry being lost and computer algorithms taking over.
Aero in Supercars
Let’s look at Ferrari and the iconic F40 and F50. Both incredibly fast cars with ducts and wings to control airflow but both retain an organic, unfussy shape. The F40 has that low nose with pop up headlights and a boxy yet flowing coachwork that ends in the unmistakable integrated rear wing. The F50 has a clearly hand drawn line, that runs from the very front of the car, over the front wheels and boomerangs around the rear wing. Stick either of these in a wind tunnel today and engineers will laugh at their inefficiency but let’s be straight, they’re still incredibly fast, 200mph + cars that are capable of obliterating 90% of everything on the road and they do it all, while keeping a natural, pure sculpture that’s so beautiful you want to run your hand across their carbon bodywork.
The Current Generation
Compare both of those classics with the current SF90 and it looks a bit all over the place. I’m all for form follows function on a pure track car but when your dry weight is 1600kg, it’s very much a road car.
The McLaren Senna is an example in point. It’s a fantastic technical achievement and in a way I’m glad they made something so different but again, it’s a road car, so it shouldn’t make passers by gag. 800kg of downforce is great but if you’ve got £750k burning a whole in your pocket for a track toy, just buy an old race car on slicks or save yourself a few quid and get a BAC mono.
The Buying Public Don’t Care
I think at the end of the day, the modern consumer just doesn’t have style and design as anything like a priority when they’re looking for a car. To them it’s an appliance, much like a fridge or a washing machine. A tool that gets them from A to B with the least fuss possible. They’re swayed more by a few quid off a lease deal rather than an eye catching design. Look at the monochrome colour choices that are popular at the moment, it’s like they’ve all ticked the no cost option, because they just don’t care. So while we can point the finger at lazy designers or silly legislation, it’s those that are laying down the cash who are equally to blame.
Rose Tinted Spectacles
We live in an age where comfort and practicality trump style and design, where SUV’s rule the roads, where Croc’s are the footwear of choice and where budget flights have come out victorious against Concorde. They say you can judge a man by his watch, shoes and his car. Look around at people today and then look at your grandparents generation. We’ve come a long way in many respects but in others, it really was better back in the day.