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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Stop Saying That Cars Look Like Other Cars


Of course, the Paris Motor Show is upon us, which means that many new models and concept cars have been unveiled to camera-wielding journalists and subsequently (or even prematurely) sent onwards to the internet. When that happens, everyone who sees pictures of said cars becomes a styling critic, one that can often be impossible to impress because they just sit there comparing them to all the other cars out there and deciding that any coincidence regardless of magnitude makes a car's styling "lazy" or a "rip-off". This is something that's been increasingly getting on my nerves...

Take the new Jaguar F-Type as a prime case-in-point. This is a very good-looking car. I've mentioned before that I'm not keen on all the air intakes on the front bumper, but aside from that it's got the proportions and general shape of its spiritual predecessor, the monumental E-Type, combined with some well-placed modern touches and shorter overhangs for a more taut, aggressive look. Those who have seen it in person call it a stunning car. But the internet? Well, while some are smitten with it, others would have you believe that it's basically just a Nissan 350Z Roadster that's reversed into a BMW Z8. I hate that. Why can't it just be a good-looking car?

The thing is that, in the 51 years since the E-Type Jag, car stylists have done pretty much everything. We've had tall headlights, narrow headlights, pop-up headlights, swiveling headlights, LED headlights, square ones, round ones, square ones with rounded corners, eye-shaped ones, ones shaped like a company logo or a number (the daytime running strip in the left headlight of the Audi R18 LMP is meant to look like a 1 to commemorate all the winning they've done of late), the list goes on. So when car design genius Ian Callum put vertical almost-rectangular headlights on, the chances are that it never, on any level whatsoever, occurred to him that there are six or seven cars that have already done that, with one of them being a Nissan. And who's to say that, when styling the BMW Z8, Henrik Fisker wasn't inspired by the E-Type himself? It is, after all, one of the most beautiful shapes in history, to the point where it's been on display in art museums. The narrow horizontal red tail lights on the German car are pretty similar to the ones on a Series 1. So when Callum took inspiration from the same car, it's only natural that he will also have skinny horizontal red tail lights on his car, except that they're actually bigger and more interesting than the ones on either of the other two.

My point is, it is pretty much impossible in 2012 to design a new model that doesn't in any way look like any other car.

The French have tried oh-so hard for decades. Citroën, for example, smoke their favourite thing and just go mad with shapes and lines and angles to make something truly weird and wonderful. In their history, they've actually succeeded in being unique, with cars like the DS and SM. Nowadays? There's only so much they can do. Some people even accused the utterly bonkers GTbyCITROEN made-for-Playstation concept as looking like an Audi R8 crossed with a Lamborghini. Er, isn't that what a Gallardo is? Besides, the only remote similarity is in the headlights (again), with a low-set strip of LEDs. If anything, Lamborghinis like the LP560 and the Aventador have subsequently  gained the huge air intakes in the front corners that angle upwards into the main part of the nose in the middle. But look at this from any other angle and surely it only looks like itself? What else has huge chevrons cutting into the engine cover (well, fuel cell cover), or that tail end meant to look like the "whoosh lines" a child draws on a car going really fast? Or those crazy carbon fibre snakes they call mirrors? Nope, sorry, it's just an overstyled R8, apparently. Because of the headlights. I haven't even mentioned the swooping copper-laden interior...

The mainstream market is the toughest area for this kind of thing, though. With designers getting ever more creative with the traditional body shapes - hatchback, saloon, estate - mainstream cars have suddenly become very style-heavy - compare the current Ford Fiesta with the previous one for a stark contrast. What's more, when a particular car is praised for its styling and goes on to become a big success, the rest of the market notices and tries a version of the same thing because they know that that particular thing works and will sell well. Even Citroën are guilty; notice the DS3's BMW "Mini"-style "floating roof" that doesn't appear to be connected by any pillars. Retro was a big thing for a while after the Mini and New Beetle (the latter despite just being a slightly worse Golf) became a hit at the turn of the century, although thankfully the trend's starting to die out. Still, this phenomenon happens, and it doesn't just happen in the motoring world. Reading this on your iPhone-shaped smartphone?

Unfortunately, in defence of the couch critics, there are instances where following the herd starts to take over a bit. Take this for instance, the Vauxhall Adam. Named after the founder of Opel (er, yeah, Vauxhall being twinned with Opel and having to sell something named after Adam Opel is a bit awkward for marketers), it features a short, tall, round front end like Fiat 500 or a (non-)Mini. The roof may have pillars, but they're still floating and come in a small range of their own colours, like with a DS3 or, again, the BMW Mini. The very short tail with a round-ish tailgate is reminiscent of a Mk.1 Ford Ka if you squint, and it has the big mid-mounted fog lights of a Nissan Juke. Or indeed a 500. The side creases are fine though, as they're taken from other Vauxhall/Opels.

That said, there's a difference between derivative and coincidental. Sometimes other decisions lead you to a similar conclusion on a particular element.  Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid the fact that if we look at some staple segments, a common shape starts to appear. Compare the Ford Mondeo and its rivals, for instance. But it's not design teams that are to blame, it's the air. Aerodynamics have long been known to improve a racing car's high-speed cornering ability, but a low drag coefficient also improves fuel economy (oh, and top speed, but if we're honest that's neither here nor there). Enter streamlined profiles everywhere you look, and similarly-shaped noses. In the end, all the designer can do is apply their (or the company's) styling philosophy to a shape largely pre-defined by aerodynamic research and peppered with little spoilers and things to cut drag further, such as on the new Honda Civic diesel (EU) which has little bits of plastic under the tail lights to make air leave the car more smoothly, and plastic lining the wheelarches to lessen the gap between tyre and body. Every little helps. In some cases - particularly with platform-shared or badge-engineered cars - this just means putting your own grille and lights on something, and making the grille big to establish which brand it is.

So there are many reasons why cars tend to look similar to eachother, and as for people saying that modern cars all look the same? Pre-war cars all look the same, with huge running boards and round headlights. '60s cars all look the same, with chrome on each end and the same proportions. '80s cars all look the same, with lots of straight lines everywhere. Every decade has defining styling characteristics. Just because it's not the one you grew up with and/or know all about, doesn't mean it's any different in that respect. So get over it. Unless something really is a shameless rip-off and looks like a particular car from every angle, stop looking for other cars in a new model and just look at it in isolation. Does it look good? Does it make you want it? Is it otherwise aesthetically pleasing? That's all that matters. You're not big or clever for noticing any similarities. Similarities of some sort are inevitable.

I can't moan too much about the critics themselves, because I used to do it too, but frankly it's become all-but inevitable. I think the best way I can explain it is with music. Hundreds of years ago, classical musicians could blow people's minds with all sorts of clever techniques nobody had thought of. As genres like Rock 'n' Roll and Punk appeared, people's minds were blown all over again, and so it goes on. But now, you'd be hard-pressed to blow people's minds. Every musical trick has been done. Every chord progression, modulation, guitar effect, key, instrument line-up, everything. You can only hope to write something that's not exactly like somebody else's songs, and failing that, try to put your own spin on the same four-chord progression everybody else uses. Or give up and just sample other songs for your own monetary gain. Frankly, the best anyone's been able to do in recent years is come up with new electrical sound effects, and seeing as that has lead to Skrillex existing, I'm not sure it was worth it...

So stop complaining already. It doesn't matter. If you spot a true rip-off, it was probably intentional, and by all means poke fun in that case. Otherwise, think of something else to say about a new car instead, or grab a pencil, some paper, a rubber, a ruler and a compass (coins also work if you can find the right sizes), and try to do better. I bet you can't.

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