The Thinker's Garage Pondering Automotive History, Design and Culture

a class
On fashion, innovation and design integrity

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.

beetle

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.

cla class

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.

z4

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.

4 Responses to On fashion, innovation and design integrity

  1. Andrew Hall says:

    Greetings Andrew,
    From another but you’ll know me from another place.
    Still working through your site and enjoying it.
    It’s a gastronomic strategy … eating a little of your favorite from a plate and saving something for the finale.Works for me!

    You’ve helped me somewhat with MB and to a lesser extent BMW and their design ethos and it’s implementation. It certainly did seem like a change of guard and a new direction,but for me from a personal position of never really knowing who or what the old guard were.

    It seemed to me and it’s cud I’m still chewing, that particularly MB either came back to the field or the field caught-up, as a centerist I suspect a bit of both.
    In 60s 70s they enjoyed a position clearly on top of the pile in every possible way.It was a very wide gap between Benz and the rest.
    Perhaps it is genuine far sightedness, embracing the actuarial realities and appealing to a previously un-soughtafter market sector.
    I’m still thinking about it.

    The other area of yours I’ve looked and thought about is something rather dear to my heart but I’ll try to remain dispassionate.
    The thoughts on GMH and it’s imminent departure.When you compare the global strategies of Ford and GM and your advocacy for a simplification of model(s) production reducing overlap and models from the same make or parent maker competing against each other in a singular marketplace.

    Whilst the notion of a single model per segment or occasionally manufacturing and market base and sometimes country, make sound economic sense.
    The buyers in those markets are humans not neccessarily known for sound economic decisions,much less rational ones.

    To me it seems the spanner in those works is and will be model creep.
    Unless the market can embrace a purpose oriented (for very the best reasons) change of psyche.
    Manufacturers are always going to strive for brand loyality, repeat business is and will always be the holy grail of sales.
    For mine whatever the contributing factors may have been, model creep is the force that drives the model overlap and repetition, plus the intra corporation competition.

    Just my thoughts, nothing more, I’ve really enjoyed your style and frankness, very refreshing in an otherwise sterile enviroment of automotive journalism.
    Well done please keep up the very good work.

    Andy

    • Andrew Marshall says:

      Thanks Andy,

      Model creep is an interesting thing to consider, I think its not just GM who have realised it may have gone too far at some point in the last decade, but I think it is one of the contributing factor to the demise of GM’s Australian manufacturing. I sometimes seem down on our local industry – I’m not – considering the budgets we have to work with locally we do some pretty amazing things. The problem is with the finances being so tight recently, we simply don’t have the money to invest to produce domestic cars that can compete with manufacturers who spend global cash on global models, particularly when free trade agreements with places such as Thailand make manufacturing offshore seem so attractive.

  2. James Davies says:

    I’m in full agreement that the new A/CLA are fashion items (for what it’s worth: I love them), but I’m not sure this is actually a problem.

    Mercedes are in the business of selling *new* cars, not building timeless classics. Of course, they must have a few hero cars in the range (SLS), but the A/CLA exist to sell in volume, and they need to target the people who will actually buy these things, not those who are putting posters on their walls.

    And judging by the waiting lists for these new vehicles, Benz have got it spot on. They’re selling more cars than they ever have, and to a new group of customers they otherwise wouldn’t have had an offering for. And these owners don’t expect a timeless classic – they’ll probably keep the car for four years, and assuming they’ve had a good experience with the brand, trade-up to another three-pointed star. It’s good business.

    The people buying new cars (and hence, dictating the market) are rarely the brands most passionate fans.

    • Andrew Marshall says:

      I suppose I have a very romantic view about things – I agree with you to an extent, I think that diversification is a good idea to a point and there is definitely a place for cars as fashion items, but I feel that Mercedes-Benz’s blatant following fashion trends compromises some of their historical core design values and if they are not careful this could harm their long term perception. Some of the less favourable reviews I have read compare Mercedes’ current design strategy to Hyundai’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design language and I don’t know if Mercedes would be happy about that. That’s just my opinion of course – as you say, the waiting lists demonstrate there are a of people who don’t agree with me putting their money where their mouths are.

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