Matt Prior: do groundbreaking cars still need to look amazing?
Cars sell even with a face only their designer could love
This week Matt Prior laments the direction of modern vehicle design, and wonders what happened
What started it all? The original Porsche Cayenne? What is it with cars that are seemingly, wilfully ugly; designed to shock, to have presence, but not to have grace or easy proportions?
Because it has become a thing. Of recent times, there is the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, the Bentley Bentayga, the McLaren Senna, and now the BMW X7 and McLaren Speedtail. All are designed to make you stop, take stock and go ‘hmm’; but they are not, I don’t think, things that make you go ‘phwoar’.
I’ve come to think this is now deliberate, that the plan with cars like these and others was never to make them great looking in the first place; although if you saw some early sketches of a Rolls Cullinan in profile, with four simple sweeping lines, you might think that in the interim there was a terrible misjudgment.
But it can’t be, can it? The BMW X7 can’t have got to the finished stage without somebody sticking their hand up in the thousands of meetings that must have taken place in the past four years, and saying: “Um, chief. I hesitate to say it but isn’t this, y’know… a bit of a munter?”
The only conclusion I can reach, then, is that perhaps, in an increasingly homogenised and ever-more densely populated world of cars, giving vehicles an outlandish appearance, or caricaturing brand features onto them whether they quite fit or not, is just a way of trying to inject some extra character. It’s a way of making quite sure someone knows exactly what the car is.
Given there’s an element of objectivity to design – and I think it’s fair to say there is, given historically certain proportions have been established as particularly pleasing – maybe if every car company followed established rules, too many cars would look alike. Maybe every GT car would look like an Aston DB9, or it would seem that nobody but Alfa Romeo designed saloon cars.
And given that a big car manufacturer will have more than 20 models in its line-up, perhaps designers have just simply run out of lines, so the only answer left to them is to wilfully bend or break accepted design rules.
In addition to design changing, though, haven’t we changed too? Time was when a manufacturer would reveal an ugly car and it’d get laughed at, and hardly anyone would buy one, and those who did would forever be filled with shame and regret, never again trusted with their judgment: “I might go and look at some new furniture on the way home, darling.” “Please be careful, Keith, remember that time you came home with a Ford Scorpio.”
Today, though, it doesn’t seem to matter. The first-generation Cayenne transformed Porsche’s fortunes. There are some proper shockers today with very long waiting lists.
Cullinan, Senna, Bentayga, X7: stick the accepted cues and some badges on anyway, guys, and watch ’em fly out of the showrooms. Because, apparently, nobody minds.