ON FRIDAY / Design
Calif.-- "These days, almost every car is safe, reliable and performs
well," Gregory Brew said. "Now, the trick is to provide that
extra little something that creates attachment to an inanimate object."
Mr. Brew speaks, Detroit -- and Stuttgart and Tokyo -- listen. As the
assistant chairman of the transportation design department at the elite
Art Center College of Design here, he is training the 20-something students
who are expected to come up with the next big things in cars -- the future
equivalents of the Chrysler minivan, the Mazda Miata and the Jeep Grand
Cherokee, vehicles that captured the hearts and wallets of a generation.
talent, empowered by computer-aided design and emboldened by the anything-goes
spirit of pop culture, is certainly out there. There is only one catch,
Mr. Brew suggested: With basic transportation needs largely sated and
manufacturing technology giving auto makers the flexibility of short-order
cooks, car design is entering an era of "creative anarchy" in
which individual customers have as much say about what their vehicles
look like as the designers.
up a minute. By most measures this is a golden age for car design. Prodded
by global competition, the garish, unreliable land yachts of the 1970's
have morphed into the durable, luxurious people movers of the 1990's,
whose significant shortcoming is their bland sheet metal. Family sedans
tend to look like Toyota Camrys and compacts look like Honda Civics and
sport utilities aspire to be Ford Explorers.
this tendency to conformity seems to be self-correcting, though, as European
auto makers, hard-pressed to compete on cost, are distinguishing their
products with provocative designs. Enter the New Beetle, the Mercedes
M-Class sport utility, the Audi TT coupe, the BMW M Coupe. Equally impressive,
but not seen on this side of the Atlantic, are the elegant Alfa Romeo
156 sport sedan, the high-tech Mercedes-Benz A-Class micro-van, the playful
Renault Twingo subcompact, the buglike Fiat Multiplia.
enthusiasm for arresting design has hardly been spent. Soon to make a
splash are two products from Mercedes-Benz: the superluxurious Maybach
and, on European roads, the eight-foot-long Smart city car. Meanwhile,
radical chic is trickling down to budget-priced cars as Ford keeps pressing
out its sharply creased New Edge look and Volkswagen completes its curvaceous
lineup with a new Jetta.
comes next? One safe prediction is that eye-catching colors and unusual
materials will proliferate. The New Beetle's imaginative use of textured
plastic and tropical dashboard lighting, Audi's use of brushed aluminum
interior fittings (which accent the all-aluminum body of the Audi A8)
and the Mercedes SLK230's electric-orange leather interior represent the
wave of the near future. With auto makers depending ever more on distinctive
design to defend high-margin niche markets, parts suppliers must bend
to the demand for variety. "If we ask for headlights that are two
feet wide and two inches high, we'll get them," said Mr. Brew, who
moonlights as a senior designer for BMW.
good bet is greater attention to the needs and wishes of women, who are
making ever more purchasing decisions even while they are breaking into
the male ranks of car designers. While there is little evidence that women
prefer their cars warm and fuzzy -- the very macho BMW Z3 roadster has
been a hit with female buyers -- they do seem more concerned with the
practical. And auto makers are responding with extra doors on pickup trucks,
high-intensity headlights for middle-age eyes, extra 12-volt outlets for
electronic gadgets, side-impact and head-protection air bags and, of course,
cup holders in every cranny.
Johnson, 28, who is finishing her degree at Art Center College, thinks
this trend is in its infancy. With the help of dirt-cheap microprocessors
and electronic sensors, she notes, there are no barriers to producing
"intelligent interiors" that adjust music and lighting to the
driver's mood, or that select video programming to educate the restless
six-year-old in the back. "Cars should adjust to the needs of their
passengers," she said, "not the other way around."
Brew envisions a rapid proliferation of models, in large part because
customization is now possible. Computers have sharply shortened the cycle
from sketch to working model, and a host of changes in process engineering
have slashed the cost of producing a run of just a few hundred or a few
thousand vehicles. The next big step, he suggested, is custom manufacturing
in which a car is tailored to its buyer like a Savile Row suit.
will generate some very tangible benefits for drivers who do not fit the
common-denominator specs. "There are millions of women under 5-foot-2
who can never be comfortable in a mass-produced car," Mr. Brew said,
and a lot of them, he guessed, would gladly pony up a few thousand dollars
more for seats, steering columns and controls that are made to measure.
could also mean endless variety in what cars look like. Indeed, Mr. Brew
speculates that the trend will lead to entirely new ways to market personal
transportation -- one built around the increased durability of key parts
and the falling cost of making vehicles different.
car tailored to individual body shapes and tastes, he notes, will not
have much value to a second owner. By the same token, there won't be much
need to scrap cars built with corrosion-resistant materials and engines
that go 100,000 miles between tuneups. Hence, he envisions a future in
which individuals keep cars much longer, but pay for frequent facelifts
and add-on frills.
is an enticing vision for consumers, one analogous to the breakdown of
rules in the fashion industry and the rise of clothing that felt as good
as it looked. But it could prove hard on auto makers, who will be caught
between the demands of the marketplace and the wish to preserve brand
identities. And it could prove even harder on the next generation of designers,
who may never realize the dream of producing the distinctive vehicles
-- the jelly-bean Taurus, the E-Type Jaguar -- that became as familiar
as the faces of movie stars.
1998 The New York Times Company