The Car: London museum show finds `common sense' winning out over pure aesthetics in auto design
It's almost a chicken-and-egg question for cars. Which comes first -- beauty or utility? What should be the prime motive for car design, efficiency or aesthetics?Skip to next paragraph
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It's a question faced by a current London exhibition titled ``The Car: a Critique by Otl Aicher.'' Mr. Aicher's arguments were first presented in a book published last year in Munich, West Germany. The exhibition (with English explanations) is at the Boilerhouse in the Victoria and Albert Museum here through Nov. 14.
Aicher, the eminent German graphic designer and a co-founder of the Hochschule f"ur Gestaltung in Ulm (often called the ``postwar Bauhaus''), applies to the automobile the systematic analysis used as a procedure for design at the Ulm school. He subtitles his critique: ``problems of defending the automobile against its worshipers.''
His conclusions are unconventional. His arguments converge, somewhat surprisingly, on the small Fiat Uno. The Uno and its designer, Giorgetto Giugaro (also responsible for the original VW Golf design and the Fiat Panda), emerge as Aicher's heroes. The discussion is mostly about European cars, but the principles seem universal enough.
He concentrates, above all, on aerodynamic efficiency as measured by the coefficient of drag (c.d.). Aicher points out that the Fiat Uno, though not at all ``streamlined'' in appearance, has a much better (lower) c.d. than, say, the E-type Jaguar, the Porsche Carrera, or the Citro"en DS19, which are very streamlined in appearance.
The Uno, in his eyes, is ``the common-sense car of the future.'' And, supported by his own reasoned history of the car, he firmly believes that future cars should be designed according to ``common sense,'' even if aesthetics and status-symbolism are sacrificed.
The ``new shape in automobile design'' achieved its breakthrough, he contends, with small cars like the Mini and the Autobianchi Primula, maturing to full success in the VW Golf (or Rabbit, as it is called in the United States). This shape, in essence, is the ``stumpy hatchback with a near-vertical tailgate.''
With city parking spaces at a premium, Aicher contends, small cars become increasingly common-sensical. He says the question -- long or short? -- is merely a matter of prestige. He dismisses the big car designed solely to make an ``impression,'' which ``suggests that its owner, if he works in town, enjoys the luxury of a reserved parking space.''
He is highly critical of cars as ``purely visual status symbols.'' Of the Porsche 911 he asks: Is there any sense in a car which can reach 160 m.p.h. in second gear? It ``can only be driven in the intended manner if the law of the land and the principles of ordinary social intercourse are ignored.''
``Motor sport,'' he observes, ``should be confined to the race tracks.''
There are, of course, other points of view.
Sir Alex Moulton, for instance, designer of the remarkably original small-wheeled Moulton bicycle, with its low center of gravity and convenience in overcrowded cities (it's also small enough to keep in a closet), offered some contrary views.
``Otl's condemnation of the large luxury car,'' he said on the telephone from Bradford on Avon, ``is, I think, unkind. Those people who wish to spend their money on ergonomic luxury -- space inside, height of view, mass and comfort -- why shouldn't they?''