Ground-Breaking Performance Seeks Breathtaking Beauty – The Lohdown


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“Now a Ford car can be bought for something like a tenth of the cost of a Rolls [Royce], and in the real world, where things have to be paid for, many people would regard the Ford as more functional than the Rolls. But the external appearance of the Ford bears little relation to its mechanical workings; what we see is more or less a tin box put round the machinery by the bodymakers and the stylists. The mechanical, that is to say, the functional, parts of any modern mass-produced car, are not attractive, being made largely from bits of wire and bent metal which we find it difficult to admire however useful they may be.”

So writes the founder of material science, James Edward Gordon, near the end of his seminal book, “Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.” First published in 1978, this highly readable treatise covers, as you might expect, the physics and engineering concerns of everything from bridges to boats, WWII bombers to Baroque cathedrals. Unexpected, at least by me, was Gordon’s prescient observations on the state of modern vehicle aesthetics, including the above passage and this zinger: “On the whole it may be fair to say that, as modern technology gets more and more functional, we can less and less bear to look at it.”

Now to be clear, I don’t completely agree with Gordon. I don’t believe that all modern cars are ugly and getting uglier—that’s not true. But as I glance through the cars in our ultimate new car buyer’s guide, I admit to being bored by many of the shapes and themes I see. There is a familiarity and safeness to modern vehicle design; with few exceptions, today’s cars all look like each other, or like they have for generations.

There is a familiarity and safeness to modern vehicle design

This is a substantial disconnect considering the massive strides in automotive performance and functionality. Cars, trucks, and SUVs have never been more capable, and we continue to push the boundaries of acceleration, top speed, energy efficiency, and load-carrying capability. Why hasn’t automotive design achieved similar aesthetics gains?

The simple answer is inertia. How form and function interact has been the key question since time immemorial, and modern design dictates that the former trail the latter. That form follows function is automotive design dogma—and the problem Gordon observed nearly 40 years ago.

We are hurtling toward a future where if we can dream it, by and large we can build it. Advances in exotic composites such as graphene and manufacturing processes such as rapid liquid printing (3-D printing in a gel suspension) mean we are able to redefine the limits of complex structures. The current, broadly accepted thinking for electric vehicle architecture places storage batteries in the floor and drive motors at or between the wheels—sort of like a powered skateboard. Ongoing development of drive-by-wire systems (including brake, throttle, and steering) with the aim of improved efficiency and reduced parts/manufacturing complexity further contributes to what is becoming an increasingly open vehicular floor plan. It is on foundations like these, which already incorporate energy storage, propulsion, and control elements, that future glittering chariots and gilded carriages should be reimagined and built.

Instead, the automotive designs on these pages and those coming just around the corner are largely iterative and evolutionary—slightly smoother adaptations of the same two- and three-box concepts (engine, passenger, cargo compartment) we’ve known for generations. The bits of wire and bent metal that underpin the modern car have made shocking advances since the Ford Model T. It is time that the surrounding tin box—and the mindset of the bodymakers and stylists that design it—change dramatically, as well.

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