Function vs. fashion | Peter Brock column

Photography Credits: Courtesy Ford, Lexus (insert)

No individual has ever designed and completed a beautifully engineered automobile entirely on his own, but there’s little doubt the best have always been directed by an innovative genius or a small creative team with a single focus. 

There’s little brilliance in democratically achieved solutions. Having complete control of a new concept is the main advantage of being an independent designer.

Whereas many corporate stylists in the past came from purely artistic freehand backgrounds and were hired to create wildly successful production forms, the reality was that sometime later each idea had to be reduced to hardline engineering under corporate overview. Such compromise always creates a problem of interpretation that is rarely successful in matching the subtle intent of the primary creator. 

Some of the world’s finest designers in early automotive history were simply aesthetically sensitive engineers. Men like Vittorio Jano, Ettore Bugatti or Henry Arminius Miller, each with small, trusted teams of draftsman, fabricators and machinists, created the design/engineering masterpieces that became iconic classics of their eras. Today, only Gordon Murray and his team seem to match the singular creative genius of those early masters.

Having grown up in the hands-on, build-it-yourself Southern California hotrod racing culture that began just prior to WWII and later blossomed into a huge industry was a real advantage to me. Function and performance on the dry lakes just north of Los Angeles were the accepted measures of success. Almost equally important was the universally group-imposed critique of finish. Beautiful fabrication and machine work were considered art forms almost as important as triumph on track.

In contemplating a new exterior form, I prefer to start from a concept’s internal structure by trying to understand how all the components function in relationship to the driver’s abilities to operate at maximum efficiency. In short, automotive design for me has always been separated into two distinct categories: function or fashion. 

Industry creations, because of the importance of sales appeal, are mostly about fashion, whereas creating the most efficient forms for competition has always been my primary focus. If any new chassis design’s combination of given components was somehow internally arranged to achieve maximum performance, but then seemed aesthetically difficult to package because it didn’t appear visually comfortable or familiar, then some visual solution was required to change the viewer’s perception. 

This is where an aesthetic sense of stance, form and proportion is required to create functional elegance. That’s why racing has always been an important method to display and prove new ideas. Superiority in competition can create instant public acceptance for a radical concept that might never be accepted if offered without proof of function.

Because much of modern corporate automotive design is based on fashion, function with true aesthetic engineering beauty usually suffers. Misplaced public affinity for certain short-lived trends, like tailfins or the current popularity of massive, finely detailed front-end “grilles,” is astonishing because such questionable visual devices have zero effect on improving an automobile’s performance. 

As the world’s automotive industry moves questionably closer to producing all-electric cars, such gaping maws will soon look severely dated. The demand for uncompromised practicality in the form of distance traveled will soon eliminate or reduce all frontal openings in favor of aero efficiency.

The most egregious fashion trend that affected automotive design for decades was the incorporation of faux “streamlining” created to affect the public’s perception of speed with grace. This mid-1900s word came from the theoretical superiority of a highly compromised aerodynamic form adapted for use on WWI German dirigibles that was later falsely applied to automobiles in the questionable belief it also would increase performance.

A Zeppelin’s smooth form was considered the ne plus ultra of contemporary design. These huge but efficiently sleek forms, pioneered by Hungarian aerodynamicist Paul Jaray, were aerodynamically superior to anything in their day, but were not functionally applicable to automobiles with their clumsy protruding wheels and shorter proportional lengths. 

Air flowing over truncated automotive forms won’t stay attached to aid efficiency. It didn’t matter; in the ’30s, the simulated grace of Jaray’s “fastback” automobiles sold by the thousands in Europe and America, proving then that fashion ruled over function on the street–and it still does.

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Da_Wolverine New Reader
5/19/22 5:32 p.m.

Brock's own design, the Daytona, was designed specifically for speed (to best the 250 GTOs) but happened to have very beautiful lines.  As did the Series I XKE Coupe!   




Panamericano New Reader
5/19/22 6:38 p.m.

Agreed.  And the giant, be-jeweled "grilles" are especially stupid beause most are nonfunctual.  The air comes in through a small area, or beneath, and the rest is blocked off, fake.  Most of the most $ aluable cars these days are old race cars.  Just lovely, to go with the performance.

davnik6 New Reader
5/20/22 3:46 p.m.

Brock is always so right about design.  I wondered when somebody of respect would step up and say "UGLY".  BMW has certainly stepped on themselves by following with the massive grille.  My old 456 Ferrari keeps looking better and better.  Thanks Peter.

PetervonA2 New Reader
6/25/22 2:07 p.m.

I think Audi was first with a maw-like grill. To me it looked like it fell off its monorail. Then it got re-purposed with four large tired wheels.

7/7/22 10:22 p.m.

What I loathe most (besides BMW's new grille) is the tendency of making the side windows as little as possible as you go to the back of the car, with too few exceptions.  The greenhouse of a BMW 2002 tii illustrates what I consider a decent one.  Mr. Brock's excellent article is very enlightening regarding this, given that the sloping roof-top and almost non-existent rear windows mimics the pointy end of a Zeppelin and I suppose that the mirage of it being aerodinamically superior lingers.

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