When we talk about cars and art, usually we are talking about the overall art of car design. But look closely, beyond just the overall aesthetics; beyond the elements you see every day.
Remember the golf ball gearstick on the first-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI? Was that just functional, with the dimples in it providing better grip and feel when changing gear, or was it a fantastic piece of design? For those who remember it, it was probably both, which is why VW still recreates it in models such as the performance Clubsport.
You might drive a fancy set of wheels, but what about those wheels — the actual wheels? Designers put a great deal of effort into creating great wheels that complement the overall design of the car, although, let’s be honest, it doesn’t always work. Some designs have become iconic over time, such as the classic five-spoke Audi quattro wheel, the BBS wheel on the BMW 325is, the Fuchs wheel on a Porsche 911, or the pepper-pots from the Lamborghini Countach. Often a wheel design in isolation does not work, but its ability to complete an overall design does.
For decades, headlights were square pieces of glass that lit up the road — occasionally they were daring and were round and sometimes they popped up. Now look at them — they are intricate pieces of design in their own right.
It is easy to see why car prices have escalated so much when you take a moment to look more closely at the headlights of a model such as the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Actually, any Mercedes, but many other models too.
Headlights have become signature items, packed with technology with great names such as Matrix, Vision Dynamics, or Laser LEDs. Individual light components can move as you turn a corner, LED indicators can swoosh from side to side, and rear taillights can become lighting compositions, such as those on the latest Audi A7 Sportback.
Think back to the classic Mercedes E-Class or the simple Mini and then look at a headlight of today. Actually the headlight of an S-Class probably costs the same as an entire original E-Class did back in its day.
If we are talking lighting, then we have to talk interiors, because manufacturers are falling over themselves to compete when it comes to LED ambient lighting. Whether it is the number of colour choices, the thinness of the lighting strips, or the contours they follow, LED designs have changed from the days when they were all The Fast and the Furious aftermarket neon to high-end bespoke craftsmanship. A great example is the interior of the latest Volkswagen Touareg, with its thin LEDs that show up even its platform-sharing cousins.
The Touareg was launched recently in South Africa, and with it comes another element where design competition is fierce — the infotainment system. Here high-definition graphics combine with smartphone-style icons, or tiles that can be moved around to match the needs of the driver. There can be themes to choose from, multiple colour options, and, hopefully, proper research that brings together design, functionality, and safety. As infotainment screens get bigger and contain yet more controls, this is one area where design is going to intensify.
While tech is driving many elements of design, there is still plenty of luxury too. The ultimate example is probably the Gallery in the latest Rolls-Royce Phantom, but look around and you will find other examples of exquisite attention to detail. The latest Lexus LS features door trims handcrafted by Japanese Takumi master craftsmen. The trim features a thin piece of folded silk that takes hours to create and a wood veneer that has been cut to be one of the thinnest in the world.
Talk to any designer and they will tell you to look around for inspiration design, but we overlook much of it as we go about our daily lives. We focus on the overall look of a vehicle but often the real art is in the smaller elements, which brings us to a more modern feature of the automobile — the puddle lamp. These started out simply, lighting up the ground as you opened the door so you could see where the puddle was, but then designers started getting clever, putting the brand logo in them.
Then BMW created a whole pathway of lighting with the latest 7 Series. But then along came the Jaguar and its cub in the puddle lamp of the new E-Pace. It may seem cheesy to some people, but the design team at Jaguar nicknamed the E-Pace the cub while it was being developed, so this piece of art and design adds a personal touch, a connection beyond the usual.
And isn’t that what art is all about — making a connection to the person who sees it?
- From the September edition of Wanted magazine.