It seems that time and time again, American car manufacturers force on the buying public, some of the ugliest cars known to mankind. Don’t believe me? Two words for you – Pontiac Aztec. This abortion-on-wheels had to have been one of the worst excuses for “design” that the motoring public has ever known.
I remember that one of the major car magazines (I’m thinking it was Automobile Magazine) – did a pre-production road test of this car – and totally ripped it. They went so far as to tell GM that this would be a huge mistake to put on the road. GM had tried to make a minivan into a minivan/SUV crossover…like we really need that. It also had the look of “designed by committee” – where a designer was assigned to design, say..a fender. Another – the front grill. And, in a horrific example of silo-management, combined with political protectionism – no communication seemed to take place between designers, creating a hodge-podge, disjointed combination of angular panels that screamed “drop something heavy on me – just so I don’t look this bad!”.
Yet, when these same manufacturers put their mind to it, they can also design some of the most beautiful cars we’ve ever know. Cars like the current Ford Mustang, Chevy Corvette, and many of the new Saturn line. But what bugs me is cars like the new Pontiac G8. Which is really a Holden (a GM subsidiary – in Australia). The new Saturn Aura – which is really a Opel (a GM subsidiary – in Europe).
It’s not that we don’t have good designers in this country – we do. One example that comes to mind is a gentleman that designed a car that almost 30 years later – still looks modern. When this car came out, it was the mid-late 70′s, when we were getting American cars like the Pinto and the Vega – yet, Tony Lapine (and American designer) – came up with the design for the Porsche 928.
I think the big problem – is most of the American car manufacturers are run by accountants – people who love numbers, not design. It’s hard to cost-justify prior to product launch, why an attractive design will sell more – and be more profitable – than a basic design. And, with the focus the past 30 years (emphasis on each of these varying, but still important nonetheless) – on fuel economy, reliability, and safety – all of these things add costs to the price of the car – so the places we see cut back on are areas like the quailty of interior materials & related design, for example.
Yet, we’ve also seen what happens when bean-counters run these companies. Mercedes-Benz – once the epitome of quality – decided it would be more profitable to cut cost out of production – and reliability suffered, killing sales. So, there is a valid argument that cutting design won’t hurt sales like cutting production & manufacturing costs. Additional proof of this is most of the cars coming out of Japan (and now South Korea as well) – these cars aren’t known for being…well…beautiful – but knowing your Honda or Toyota will rarely break down – is important.
Yet, the problem remains. Cars – especially American cars…are usually pretty bland, if not downright ugly – unless you spend over $50K. Why is this? Does it really cost that much more to make a car that’s beautiful? Especially if you’re trying to compete against other foreign brands that are attractive, reliable, or both?
I think part of the problem is – many of these companies are entrenched in their own design philosophies. And only rarely venture outside of them. Example of stepping out? Cadillac. Now, I’m not a Cadillac fan. Many of the parts are really from a Saab – and I’d rather have one of them. But, they took a step into a new design philosophy about 8 years ago – and look at what it’s done for their sales! And…an example of not stepping out? Buick. They have this stupid philosophy that says that the front fenders of their cars must have 3 portholes. Because they did 50-60 years ago. OK…if you’re target market is people in their 70′s – great. Once they are gone…so is your brand. Simple truth – innovate or die!
Of course…that brings me to my last point – maybe they design ugly cars…because people buy them anyway? How else can you explain why people would order a Buick or Cadillac…with a fake vinyl top that looks like it would be a convertible..but isn’t?