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?

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?''

As an engineer, Sir Alex feels that Aicher's ``preoccupation with c.d. leaves out other things.'' For instance, excellence in aerodynamics often ``goes with problems of lateral instability'' or road-holding capacity.

``The great step forward in stability was the introduction of front-drive cars,'' he says, adding that in his opinion, stability is one of the most important things ``in the pleasurable use of the car.''

He also felt that Aicher should have mentioned questions of ``noise, vibration, harshness'' and ``ride quality.''

``Ride quality . . . is very difficult to achieve in smaller cars and is one of the great attributes of the large luxury car.''

Sir Alex was eager to add that Otl Aicher was a friend and great supporter of the Moulton bicycle: In fact, Aicher owns six of them.

Nigel Chapman, head of transport design in Britain's leading design college, the Royal College of Art, praised Aicher's willingness to ``stick his neck out'' and propound, as a non-engineer, his feelings about the car.

``He's an extraordinarily brilliant graphic designer -- his form of product graphics has literally spread all over the world -- but he's got a kind of love-hate relationship with the car.

``I think he loves the car as he would like it to be, but hates the way most of the car manufacturers . . . have done the car up to now.''

Mr. Chapman has chaired a student discussion at the exhibition. He noted ``quite a heavy voice of opinion'' against a ``too-functional approach to the car.'' Some students agreed that ``it would be so much better to just get back to designing simple, upright, easy-to-get-into, functional cars'' as ``all right for some people''; but ``you know, so many people relate to their cars in a kind of human way, and are . . . anxious to have something that represents a life style or an alt er ego.''

Cars can also, of course, represent fantasy. To balance Aicher's functional arguments, the exhibition starts with a dark anteroom full of romantic, glossy photographs -- by ``Britain's leading car photographers,'' according to the exhibit's literature -- of cars seductive, glamorous, and desirable: perfect images of the kind of car ``worship'' Aicher opposes.

But, as Nigel Chapman observed, Aicher is also up against the ``reality'' that the car industry ``is not going to change one iota from the way it is'' unless there are ``monumental pressures on it -- as it has changed, for instance, because of the price of oil.''

Chapman's own aims are to encourage in his students a ``new kind of highly qualified competence.'' He wants them to be ``forward looking'' and ``responsible'' designers with ``panache and a concern for elegance.'' He also hopes they will design vehicles that are ``very human and easy to relate to.''

Clearly, he feels that there are still markets -- regardless of what Otl Aicher preaches -- for cars that are not purely functional.

But Aicher should really have the last word here: ``Practicability,'' he observes, ``rather than high gloss, is becoming the cultural parameter.''

Time, presumably, will tell.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.