Cars: the ultimate art’s form

When i was a kid driving was reserved to adults, it was some kind of a mythological activity, it was supposed to be so sweet to drive a fancy car around with friends or lovers.

When I turned 15 my mom bought me a little lightweight 4-wheel vehicle, i got it just after school finished in June and i just had the time of my life during those years. It was so amazing to be on the street for the first time with my own music on an audio cd I had just burned, one of the first tracks was “Diamonds on the inside” by Ben Harper! The sense of freedom of going wherever and whenever I wanted was absolute and inebriating.

If we look at cars in a cynical way, they’re just some metal on four wheels but, as you already know, there’s no space for cynicism here especially when we’re talking about one of the ultimate art’s form. And I tell this because cars possess a beauty given by the design of the interiors and the exteriors, but they also have an heart, which is the engine and they can give you feeling in the form of acceleration, deceleration, handling and a precise feedback of the road. Cars have eyes, the headlights; a face, the front; a body given by the design of the surfaces and especially the lateral view and a back, the posterior.

EXTERIOR DESIGN

The exterior design of a car is very complex and i don’t think it can be considered separated from the interior design as the choices for the body are going to affect the form of the interior and the visibility depending on how much area the glass surfaces are given. When a designer approaches an automotive design he has to deal with the inevitable limit of the four wheels, the headlights, the taillights, the windows etc. I’ve asked myself: why are cars made like this, is this structure compulsory? Since the invention of cars things haven’t changed much, basically it’s two adjustable seats in the front and a rear bench seating in the back on four wheels, and apparently this is going to stay so for a very long time. Nevertheless the efforts required to reach a longlasting beautiful design are tremendous, so many elements and volumes needs to be treated together and in a coherent way. Let’s start with some examples, look at this Audi A3.

Audi A3, 3rd gen restyling, S-Line
The surfaces are terribly sharp, they seem to be created by a laser machine rather than by the chisel of Michelangelo. Everything is sharp: the headlights , the 6-sided grille, the far too large air intakes and the insert within them. Rounded shapes are limited to the inevitable. This is an unfriendly design, it transmits coldness and a bit of arrogance because its desire is not to pass air trough a gentle touch, but to cut it. The fastest animals on land are not shaped like that, it’s a counter natural design. The third lateral window in a c segment car and the roof supports give that station wagon look adding other disturbing elements.

That’s how many german cars are designed, especially in the sportier versions (s-line, amg, Bmw M etc), and it’s not a case one of the few german car I truly love is the Porsche 911. Its iconic design has slowly evolved trough the years and it has always been based on delicate curved surfaces. The engine at the very back end gave space for the two small rear seats so that the trunk is under the front bonnet. One of the main concern of designers is giving balance between the bonnet, the cabin and the tail and with this design there’s no problem, the back will be made of one uninterrupted curve. 

 

Alfa Romeo Brera
Alfa Romeo 159
Alfa Romeo 147 restyling
Now let’s have a look at the Alfa 147 restyling design. Again this is a “soft” car, it’s elegant and strongly identifiable, from the triangular grille with the logo which is part of the bonnet to the bonnet’s ribs treated with grace. The headlights are outstanding and unique: three different cylinders covered by transparent plastic, another example of the right geometrical figures in action; the Alfa 159 and Alfa Brera were the sublimation of this remarkable Italian design as the plastic cover was eliminated.

Wheels are another important part of the exterior and their peculiarity is being static or dynamic depending on the situation, seeing a car passing by has always been fascinating because in that unique moment you can see the hypnotic spinning motion of the wheels. Designing alloy wheels requires infact an accurate study on the aesthetic outcomes of both the static and the dynamic situations. Our eyes after a certain speed won’t distinguish the single spoke and their shapes and size determine the figure we’ll see.

Headlights and taillights. In the eyes of someone we can trace feelings and intentions, in the lights of a car we can find an alternative kind of love. I think there’s a neurological explanation to this: our brain is wired to recognize human faces everywhere and two circular transparent objects can trigger this mechanism. That’s why I don’t think it’s possible to create a kind of empathy with a car if we don’t like the lights, the designer has a really important task for this reason and their job has recently been semplified by the invention of led continuous lights. The leap has been terrific, nowadays “blades” of light fill the day and the night, pure lines drawn with pencils can come alive. When led lights first came out in 2008 there were many single led lights put together in a certain fashion. I am not afraid to say that period was a disgrace for design and beauty…I want Christmas tree’s lights at home with gifts underneath, not in my car. Fortunately the dark times are over and our sculptures of light can shine and enlighten our way in a more secure, energy efficient and beautiful way.

Audi A4’s Christmas lights
Bmw 3 series
I think designing a headlight like the one of the above A3 is an offense to art and nature, I find the circular shape much more pleasant for this purpose; Porsche 911, Alfa 147, 159 and Brera, many Bmw’s models are just some examples of the compelling beauty of circular headlights.

There’s a cromatic restriction designers have to face: headlights must be white and taillights must be red, that’s how it works everywhere. Apart from this, fantasy is always a factor in designing. Let’s imagine together how the lights of the future will be, I imagine a future where the lights are more and more thin, a little unobtrusive line on the metal. I have never liked the fact that for a little light such a huge surface must be covered in plastic. And apparently that’s where many designers are going, Citroen is the one that got closer but also Porsche made huge leaps with the 991 series and the Mission E prototype.

INTERIOR DESIGN

A car is made to be driven that’s why everything inside should be centered on the driver. Alfa Romeo, with its Duetto in the 60’s decided to orient the indicators towards the driver.

Ala Romeo Duetto
And this solution is still adopted by Alfa Romeo in its latest Giulia, BMW, Ferrari and so on.

At the cost of interrupting the simmetry the driver oriented cockpit is a constant solution that has arrived to its most recent evolution with the Audi virtual cockpit, which basically transforms the entire instruments area behind the wheel into a big lcd screen dinamically displaying the information needed. It has always been a challenge to put the informations in the right place. The usual place at the center, like this Alfa Romeo Giulia below, distracts you from the street

Alfa Romeo Giulia interiors
and the Audi virtual cockpit does the same thing, only in a different position. That’s why I think that the head up displays borrowed from military aeronautics is the winning choice for the future and many manufacturers have started to implement it in their cars.

In general a crucial aspect of internal design are materials. You can design a beautiful cheap car outside but even with the best design an hard plastic interior won’t be beautiful. Leather, leather details like the logo on the headrest, soft textured plastics, wood, carbon fiber, aluminum, these are some of the expensive materials you can find in modern cars and this changes everything: the scent of the leather that fills the cabin, the soft touch of the soft plastic, the absence of chirping from cheap materials, the solid feels of the aluminum switches. The German trio of manufacturers are among the best in this field. Incredible but true, Audi has a team whose job is to smell the materials used before and after the stress tests to verify their odor stays pleasant. The air outlets of the Audi A3 are composed of more than 30 elements and the distinctive “click” is studied to be unified with many other commands in the car. The A3 interiors are not flawless though.

Audi A3 3rd gen interiors
When you sit in the passenger seat all you have in front is an hard plastic surface and the little drawer below is fragile too. Push the bottom to retract the screen and you feel there’s nothing left. Don’t get me wrong, I like this solution of a screen that can be there when needed, it’s a non obtrusive use of technology and it’s much better than the giant-framed tablets that cluelessly hang in the cockpit of other Audis or Mercedes. Simplicity is not just about the absence of clutter, that’s why this A3 interior is a bit simplistic rather than simple.

And it’s more and more difficult to bring simplicity to such sofisticated vehicles with increasing functionalities. One of the most clamorous examples is the Porsche 911, look at the difference between the 997 series (2004) and the 991 series (2011). With only one evolution of the model the central tunnel has been overhauled and the number of buttons and commands dramatically increased.

Porsche 997 mk1 interiors
Porsche 991 interiors
 

Another crucial element is the steering wheel. It occupies arguably the most important role in the cabin both for volume and functionality. The key to designing a beautiful one is the proportions and the size. Too big and it will look like a truck’s one, too small and it will look like a toy. I prefer a circular shape in the center with three spokes like the 911s you can see above.

It’s hard to tell my favorite interior design, what I know for sure is that it’s very easy to perceive the quality because materials and acoustic and tactile feedback don’t lie.

THE ENGINE. THE HANDLING. THE HEART. THE ROMANCE

A car can be a stunning work of art and some are exposed at dedicated museums or at art’s museums like MoMa in New York. It’s a silent and tridimensional beauty. . We can walk around it, bend on our knees to see details but it’s quiet and still. It’s also interesting to note that we watch it when standing while we should at least seat to have a clear view. The best way to observe a car is from another car😉. This static situation changes when we seat inside and we turn the key, it suddenly comes alive, a vibration, a noise interrupts the quietness. We insert the first gear and push on the pedal, we are in motion…how is it possible? It’s a miracle of our time, a work of art that can escape from the museum 😅.

And here is the romance. You start hearing the sound of the engine and oh boy it can be a symphony. When you steer for the first time you can feel the road, you can feel how sharp the response is, in the corner you can feel the behavior of the suspension and the chassis. And the throttle…I can’t forget the first time I fully pushed the 911 throttle…as I can’t forget the first time with the Ferrari 458…the adrenaline is so high…you don’t realize you’re smiling…being pushed to the seat and see everything around you passing so fast…and the roaring noise from the engine…and the deceleration when you hit the brakes and that the weight going on the front wheels… and the corner you struggle to do…and when it’s finally over the throttle again…it’s a multi sensorial experience you can enjoy in so many ways. When you know your car well there’s not a clear distinction between the man and the machine, your heart is racing as are the revs, you feel the tires as feet and the suspension as legs, it’s your will to make that trajectory at that speed that you are going to make together with the car.

Our direct and most immediate contact with the car is the steering wheel. The Porsche 911’s one is so light because the weight and the traction is behind and you feel scared at first that those front tires won’t just have enough grip. The handling of a 911 is special and unique and that’s why i love it, the sense of insecurity doesn’t have correspondence in reality, with all that weight at the rear end you just have to enter the corner slowly and with a little brake so that you can get out sooner and take advantage of the great motricity. And it’s so much fun, the engine is in the wrong place…but you can fall in love with a feature, you can’t with perfection. I consider the 997 the last true 911. To resolve the performance limit imposed by the peculiar construction Porsche made the 991 model longer and put the engine a bit more forward, the wheelbase is longer and the overhangs are shorter. The behavior is a bit more similar to mid-engine cars. Also, with the 991 series Porsche introduced the electric steering which is set well but it’s not as sensitive as the hydraulic one. Alfa Romeo’s steering wheel, especially 147-156 ones, instead, is very heavy, I like this bad*ss feeling, it gives you confidence and it’s very precise although it’s influenced by the front wheel drive force that spoils the connection between the road and your hands. Ferrari’s 458 and Lambo’s Gallardo ones, for example, are a more balanced solution especially the first one.

The other physical connection we have is the one of our feet with the throttle and the brake pedal. It is always advisable to wear a shoe with a thin outsole to maximize the sensitivity. Here it’s all about dosing, too much or too little and we won’t get what we want. Every car has different set up, the brake pedal can be very spongy or difficult to dose, same with the throttle but it’s always so nice to feel them and find the right pressure to apply. Well we should count the clutch pedal too but it’s less and less used in sport cars nowadays, a sorrowful event for the heel and toe technique and the nostalgic of the good old fashioned way. Fortunately Porsche mantains the option for a manual transmission but it’s a white fly in the industry and almost all orders are for the automatic. The fact is that even the most proficient driver can’t change gear as fast as an automatic double clutch transmission where the next gear is already inserted in the second clutch. It’s so fast you can’t almost distinguish the pause in power supply and the paddles right behind the wheel let you focus more and give you that not so romantic feeling of being playing a Playstation game.

And now, before the conclusion, a gallery with some outstanding cars.

I believe that cars have a soul because they are a combination of so many components that make every model unique. And I believe they can be an extension of our personality and dreams. Cars help us go where the dreams are, and when dreams shatter and fear overtakes we shouldn’t  fall apart, because, with a fine car, it doesn’t matter where we are going, what matters is the journey.


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