We all know people who we would describe as “different”. Some of these people are different because they are true to themselves and aren’t really fussed by others. Others try really hard to be different to get attention or maybe even divert attention away from the fact they may actually be really boring. The latter type of different person might be good company for a bit, but once you get to know them, reality strikes and their presence could become boring or maybe even tiresome.
We could look at cars in this way too. Cars that are truly different because they are the product of unique thinking often go down in the history books as classics: the Citroen DS, Porsche 911 and many Alfa Romeos and Lancias for example. Then there are the cars that are trying hard to be different to exploit a fashion trend. These tend to be less well regarded by history and often find themselves falling into unloved territory following a short period in vogue at launch. Cars such as the Volkswagen New Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser fell out of fashion almost as quickly as they came into it.
I feel that soon we may be able to add the new Mercedes-Benz A and CLA Classes to the list of fashion victims. The new Mercedes small car twins are designed to bring new young people to the brand and as a result it seems a concerted effort has been made to make them look trendy – they feature some incredibly detailed complex surfacing, L.E.Ds everywhere and stunning interiors with high-tech infotainment. Sadly, it seems that in all this excitement, Mercedes have forgotten to actually make the cars good looking. Bold, yes, well proportioned, no. The surfacing is currently perceived as avant-garde by the type of people who will be buying garden-variety As and CLAs (although some will simply buy them because they have the three-pointed star), but I fear that once the mess of creases and contrived over the top “styling” has become familiar to people, the novelty will be gone and all we will be left with are dated, ill-proportioned cars (although I believe the technical prowess of the AMG versions will see them safely become classics). A tragedy for a brand that has produced many timeless vehicles from the original 300SL ‘Gullwing’ to the W123 and W124 series cars which can still be found doing duty as taxis the world over.
There is a place in car design for shock value. Chris Bangle is still often derided for what he did at BMW but during his time there Bangle and his team moved the goalposts for car design. The surfacing was bold and extreme, and for a lot of people it was a taste that needed acquiring. The upshot is many cars from this period still appear fresh today, in some cases a decade on. One of the reasons these cars haven’t passed out of fashion are the great attention to detail and sound underlying proportions of the vehicles. BMW had the basics right, then got creative and I believe this basic soundness is what held together BMW’s work during the Bangle Era. Mercedes’ effort reminds me of many Korean cars from the 1990s – plenty of chrome and obsessing over detail but without enough consideration given to the overall proportion, stance and cohesion of the vehicle. It’s like putting new carpet in a house that needs re-stumping.
I believe there is a distinction to be made between design and styling. Good design employs creative thinking to improve the world in some way – it could make life more comfortable, convenient or simply more beautiful for us. It should be an approach applied holistically to projects, not just as a veneer over products designed by committees of businesspeople, engineers and marketing teams. Products, including cars, designed in such a way are really “styled” rather than “designed”. It is a reflection of the state of the world today that this is how most cars come about. I believe this is why timelessness through innovation is so difficult to come by these days and so many cars try to shock or blindly follow trends with little regard to how history may look upon them in the future.