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2020-01-21 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

New Year's Resolution

The dawn of a new year and decade would be an opportune moment to formulate a fundamental car design concern. 



«For things to stay the same, everything must change.» 

This quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, describing the process of Risorgimento, the consolidation of different states into the Kingdom of Italy in mid-19th century, can be applied to any culture, any people and any state facing drastic transformation, at any point in time. It certainly concerns to the automotive industry anno 2020.

As we enter the third decade of this new millennium, it becomes increasingly clear that for personal mobility and the freedom it entails to stay the same to as large an extent as possible, a lot must change. The world clearly needs fewer cars, and better cars for a start. People designing, engineering and building cars need to continue to be able to make a living, but they also need clean air to breathe. Just like everybody else. The car industry as we know it will inevitably have to reinvent itself - or accept to get altered by outside forces.

The same applies for automotive design. In this sector, it is not all confusion though - there is also a rather baffling clarity, regarding the role aesthetics play in this process of change. For right now, car design is all too often used in order to reinforce the automobile’s reactionary image. This exacerbates the (increasingly popular) view that the automobile is, above all else, a problem - rather than a solution to people’s needs. A foe to humanity, not a friend. 

The aggressive war machine looks and ostentatious impracticality that have become an accepted norm in car design will prove to be hugely detrimental to the social acceptance of the automobile in the longer run. Right now, we keep getting told, they are a necessity for cars to sell, because people allegedly demand such a mean appearance. But this hugely overestimates the role of the countless barely pubescent YouTubers who believe owning a car is like some life-size video game that play such a vital role in today’s car ‘culture’. It also underestimates the emerging markets’ ability to appreciate sophistication: Obviously, garish ostentation sells there, but the rather patronising pandering to what is believed to be the lowest common aesthetic denominator is, above all else, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Audi A1 Citycarver


Never has car design been as vulgar and out of touch with the progressive Zeitgeist as it is right now. Whereas in the past, the automobile served as a symbol for the future, it now appears as though the industry is so afraid of a car-adverse future that it desperately and passive-aggressively clings onto a distorted present - the automobile literally showing its ugly face. 

Intriguingly, car design in this sense reflects the reactionary politics that have become so astoundingly widespread in recent years. Just like the term ‘liberal’ - which one might assume to be inherently positively connoted - is used in a derogatory manner among reactionaries, humble modernism and elegance are avoided by large sections of the car design industry. In either case, avoiding a ‘weak’ (benign, soft, welcoming) appearance being the main motivation, for fear of appearing vulnerable in some way oneself.

Being fit for a gangster rapper’s lifestyle has become part of the car design mainstream. Again, the urge to represent power and aggression trumps more thoughtful concerns. Likewise, the huge increase in environmental awareness is dismissed as being a concern of non-car people - but just as clothing is not solely viewed and judged by fashionistas, cars are part of everybody’s city- and landscape, and hence daily life. Even if one is not ‘into cars’, one is most certainly able to interpret the gigantic grilles, angry lamp graphics and imposing/threatening stance of a great many automobiles today as the antisocial statement they are - regardless of whether they were intentionally created this way or not. 

Today’s passive aggressive aura obviously did not come out of nowhere. But today’s car design’s focus on appealing to the baser human instincts resembles preaching to the faithful - an echo chamber, where little gets disputed and much is amplified. A bubble, in which each and every impulse is reflected and boosted, where dissent and doubts are given no space.

What worked in the past is not necessarily a solution for the future, most certainly not at the turn of an era. A perverted interpretation of the past - featuring bigger grille apertures for ever-shrinking air inlets and artificial back-firing noise for otherwise muted turbocharged engines - will only satisfy reactionaries, but alienate progressives and the aesthetically literate. 



«People don't know what they want until you show it to them» was a theory advocated by Steve Jobs, who knew a thing or two about creativity and products. Despite all the lip service paid to Silicon Valley’s innovating spirit, positively challenging the customer - even on a purely aesthetic level - remains frightful to an industry whose past appears far more enchanting than its foreseeable future.

If the automobile is supposed to remain a generally acceptable good, rather than a morally contested product like cigarettes and guns, changing its demeanour truly is without alternative. It is a matter of adapt or become marginalised, even if the chances of Greta Thunberg turning BMW brand ambassador remain slim, regardless of kidney grille size. It is the man, woman and child in the street who need to be told that the automobile is no nasty device for mean people, but a purposeful machine that can visually enhance or at least blend into its surroundings in an inoffensive manner.

Obviously, not all cars need to appear cuddly like the original Renault Twingo. The automobile has always been associated with power, performance, poise, athleticism, as well as might, grandeur and ostentatiousness. The odd excess is therefore not the issue, but the pervasiveness of stylistic traits that ought to be the exception, yet have become the norm. 

A change of perspective can help sharpening one's mind. In that context, it might be worth one's while to imagine taking a look at the streets, any street, through the eyes of a child. Would an Audi A1's fierce snout be suggestive of a machine fit for Jules Verne-like adventures? Does a BMW X7's towering grille radiate imposing solidity, particularly to someone unable to see its bonnet? Or do both designs exude an air of mean menace that is not the least bit heartwarming, but intentionally repulsive?

If there is one characteristic car design can have more of in the year and decade to come, it would have to be decency. What exact form this decency shall take is up to the creatives, of course, whose job it is to create what cannot be foreseen.

Faced with today’s reactionary movements, the concept of decency takes on a deeply progressive quality. And progress is what the automobile, what design should be all about. In literal and figurative terms.




Photos: Audi AG (2), Auto-Didakt (2), BMW AG (1) all rights reserved

Text  ©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt


car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

also writes for THE ROAD RATDRIVEN TO WRITE , OCTANE  & others

Comment by Kostadin Kostadinov |

I was reading and smiling all the way trough.
That's the kind of article I want to see in the RoadRad or even better in a major car publication. Sharp and remorseless in its assessment of the downfalls of the contemporary automotive culture.

Reply by Christopher Butt

I can only speak for myself, but must state that The Road Rat allows me the kind of freedom I'd not have deemed possible in a print magazine in this day and age. But as this is a manifesto-of-sorts, I considered my own little online retreat to be the appropriate outlet on this occasion. 

Comment by Luis Ortego |

Congratulations for this honest and well put piece of thought Christopher. For quite a while I've been talking to people, reading and struggling to put together a view of the cultural challenges of the automobile as a symbol and the automobile industry as a cultural agent. I don't think I could have ever written something this comprehensive, clear and smart. Thank you for this statement, I think many of us are in the same page, but it still needs to be built and written. You did it perfectly.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Thank you.

Comment by Guido Lambeck |

Brilliant analyses of the current situation.
But is there a silver lining somewhere on the horizon?
Thinking about replacing my long distance winter car, a Phaeton, one day, I have no idea what to choose, even the - in the not so powerful versions - quite nice new Giulia is far away from the elegance of an Alfa 156, as far away as liberalism is from todays politics.
And my first-generation Smart fortwo has no modern substitute too, so I will keep both cars as long as possible as their understated and friendly looks are part of my idea of cars who have a kind of social acceptance, especially in times of such disruptive changes as ours.

Reply by Christopher Butt

The arrangement you're proposing is one of both aesthetic and literal sustainability (as far as any luxury vehicle, like a Phaeton, could ever be described in such terms), what with planned obsolescence being a topic that generally gets far too little attention.

The sheer number of '80s and early '90s Mercedes cars on German roads suggests that these cars were possibly a bit too timeless for their manufacturer's good. They never looked silly, they were exceptionally well made, and if something did break, it could be repaired. As in many ways the most environmentally friendly automobile is the one that isn't built in the first place, a car's longevity would be a factor deserving further discussion. 

Comment by Jeroen |

Thank you Cristopher for another lucid analysis.
There are still reasons to be positive. A few prototypes unveiled during 2019 encouraged hopes of decent, attractive cars in the years to come. On the other hand, catering for the worst instincts of car owners under a sense of impending doom has served the industry quite well.
Let's be pessimistic: I don't see buyers' and manufacturers' attitudes shifting any time soon without regulatory changes bright and genial at the same time. And yet this may eventually only precipitate short-termism and hysteria.
Let's be optimistic: virtuous new models will actually shift trends and take us into a phase of positive designs and pragmatic engineering.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Doom-mongering is not an option. 

Comment by Théodore ECONOMOU |

My 9-year old's reply to my pointing out the elegance of the design of a car passing by: "but Dad, why do you care? A car only has to be good at getting you where you want and not break down. Looks don't matter."
... 'nuff said.

Comment by Daniel O'Callaghan |

Hello Christopher. I'm rather late in catching up on this, but you have absolutely nailed the malaise that afflicts the mainstream car manufacturers. Instead of pursuing lightness and efficiency to minimise the environmental impact of their products, the are still engaged in an ugly, reactionary and backward-looking battle. They seem to assume that for the majority, car ownership and concern about climate change are mutually exclusive which, of course, is not the case.

Still, there are signs of hope: Tesla's designs are refreshingly unaggresive, likewise the new VW ID-3, but more must be done, and soon. Governments really need to accelerate the development of charging infrastructures (and non-carbon electricity generation) to promote the adoption of EVs.

Comment by Darius Gilmont |

Thank you for this article. You've encapsulated my thoughts exactly. Car design today seems to be a reflection of aggressive egoism. In most cases, there's no place for elegance or beauty, which are forgotten values, considered irrelevant. You make some very tantalizing suggestions about the return of decency in design.

Comment by Paul Henriques |

Excellent piece, Christopher. I've enjoyed your website before, but this has been one of your best articles yet. It neatly addressed everything that is currently off-balance in the automotive world.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Many thanks!

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