Noise Vibration and Harshness

Notes on Design

Design can blur the lines between cars and people

Like painters and musicians, car designers are always being called upon to explain their work. And, as with these other creative types, the obligation inevitably gives rise to its own set of clichés. The analogizing of automotive forms to those of animals, wild and human, is perhaps the most common. Especially popular are references to large leaping cats and the contours of the female anatomy.

I get this. Designers often look to impart a sense of motion, and nothing says motion like a lion coiled to leap — unless you’re a designer saying your design mimics a lion coiled to leap.

Cars can be curvy or chiseled, svelte or fat, masculine or feminine, and you don’t even have to squint to see they have all been given faces and butts, features that tie them to all living creatures, including people. Like us, cars need fuel to work and foul emissions emanate from their nether regions. Thus the anthropomorphizing begins.

It’s not unusual for people in our business to speak of a car’s sensual lines. And how many times have we heard a car called sexy? I get that part, too. Even if I’ve got to override my pervert early-warning alert system whenever I hear references to an automobile’s thrusting loins or pert derriére.

That said, I too find it hard not to blur the line between people and cars. The anti-social part of my nature finds me wishing people were more like machines, that they did what they were supposed to do and could then be switched off and ignored, instead of what they actually do, which is to run on indefinitely. My old Saab 99 is unreliable and unpredictable and may talk back, it’s true, but it does so a hell of a lot less than your average college student.

I guess that’s why when it comes to falling in love with cars, I’m as shallow as the next guy. People often ask me, what it is that makes you like one car more than another, and the answer is almost always appearance. Give me a really sweet-looking body, and I’m willing to overlook a lot. Take the Austin Healey 3000 Mk III I enjoyed for many years. If it wasn’t beautiful, I never would’ve hung around for all the engine heat, exhaust fumes, and chassis flex. The Healey was a master class in understeer, an advanced seminar in safety ignored, yet were it not for its fine lines those subjects would’ve gone unexamined.

I admittedly look deeper into a car’s soul than some, finding character — for instance in old Lancias, Rovers, and Volvos — where others might see none. It’s why I expect I like more cars than most. The brains and engineering behind a car can make it look better to me. I like the brilliant but flawed, the ordinarily odd and the distinctively odd. Perhaps this is why I’m so promiscuous, automotively speaking.

Still, I know what I like, and I don’t like everything. The MGA my parents drove when I was born but sold when my first sister arrived irrevocably set my idea of proper design. Its shape had already imprinted as the perfect automotive form, and I pined for another for years, buying my first, a fire-damaged example for $50 with four friends in the 1970s, when I was 14. I’ve loved a lot of cars, but I’ve owned an A ever since, except for two brief periods in the ’80s and ’90s.

In 1996, one of my automotive heroes, Spen King, the great English engineer credited with developing the P6 Rover, Range Rover, and various Triumphs of fond memory, told me an MGA coupe was his best car of all time and a favorite design. I’ve only owned roadsters, but the even curvier coupe is on the short list. I mean, how horny are they? Whoops, there I did it too.

One other thing King and I agreed on was SUVs. Wonderful things in their place, but ridiculous urban transportation, thought the father of the Range Rover. SUVs were beautiful once — think old Land Rovers, Suburbans, and Travelalls. But that’s largely changed, their overriding style demerit with the rise of crossovers being one of general fatness.

Consider that two-thirds of the American population today are estimated obese or overweight by the government, and suddenly the idea of a new vehicle fleet where half the cars weigh more than 2 tons and have indeterminate, blob-like rear ends makes sense. It’s the modern automotive expression of the supersized ass attached to the misshapen bod waiting to refill a plastic 72-ounce Slurpee cup at the truck stop. As a species many, necessarily, today contemplate relations with the generously sized, some of whom may even be leaping ladies. So why should our cars be any different?