Auto design: Wild West to Big Mouth Bass

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Posted 20 Sep 2015 in Scrap Book

Automotive styles – from the Wild West days of the 1950s and ‘60s to today’s Big Mouth Bass – took members of the Phoenix Automotive Press Association on a fascinating and humorous ride.
Arizona resident Ron Will, the designer behind such vehicles as Subaru Outback and the 25th anniversary Corvette, led a panel that included: Gary Smith, former General Motors designer and the force behind design website; Bruce Wheeler, a GM design modeler and automotive art sculptor; and Aurelien Francois, who moved from France to join the early design team at Chandler-based Local Motors (
Will kicked off the evening with a presentation he calls “Styles of Automotive Design – An Unscientific Review.”
While architecture and even furniture are grouped into styles such as Prarie and Tudor, it’s not so with cars, he says, taking the initiative to come up with categories of his own.
For example, cars such as the new McLaren, Toyota Venza and Hyundai Elantra, might be dubbed Latte Swirl. “They just sort of swirl and wrap around everywhere,” Will says.
On the aggressive side, think Velociraptor when you see the Veneno, one of the Lamborghini bulls it calls a “racing prototype for the road.”
You often see Xerox cars, whether it’s just tail end design or the whole works that’s déjà vu. Will points to the new Corvette Stingray’s similarity to the 2010 Lotus Elite prototype.
The audience thought of Lexus with its self-dubbed “spindle grille,” when he mentioned Large Mouth Bass, but there are plenty of others. He showed the new Scion iA, saying it looks like it flopped out a lake.
Will has other categories – to name a few, Disjointalism where pieces don’t seem to connect, Retro-Roots and The Time Has Finally Come resurrecting ideas from years ago.
But many of the most popular cars fall into a class he calls Vanillaism, when you can hardly tell one from another.
A variety of factors affect auto styling today, panel members say.
Will likened the ‘50s and ‘60s to the Wild West, when designers could do anything, the big fins, the Edsel. It became competitive to see who could be the wildest, before it settled down – and then became “far too settled,” he says
People say they want advanced styling, but they really don’t, he says. It has to advance slowly, and extremes don’t last.
Wheeler says General Motors saw the shift with a changeover in the design bosses from Harley Earl to Bill Mitchell plus a growing influence from “bean counters.”
There’s also the growing number of federal regulations manufacturers must follow. Will says, however, designers usually seek out a theme and excitement first, then work into those parameters.
Smith goes back to the Lexus examples, noting that if you got rid of the distinctive panels, they’d blend in with the crowd. Designers are searching for anything and everything to differentiate their vehicles.
Francois agrees, saying there is a new push to the wild side.
Smith also thinks the press and others who evaluate cars influence public perception of style. And while design does impact sales, so does brand recognition, he says.
Francois summed it up: “Styling is like music in the end.” One style does not appeal to everyone.

Scion iA Scion iAVeneno VenenoElantra ElantraRon Will, Gary Smith, Bruce Wheeler, Aurelien Francois Ron Will, Gary Smith, Bruce Wheeler, Aurelien Francois