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Vehicles for Fame

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The designers of automobiles are rarely famous outside their field as bodywork is only one part of a comprehensive endeavour in which the outer shell is only a small part. The people and the machines that actually make the automobiles obtain none of the satisfaction gained from solving design problems, and the people who design automobiles obtain none of the satisfactions gained from crafting something by hand. Automobiles are a perfect example of the act of design being separated from the act of production and this is why modern architects are enthralled. The production of automobiles can be streamlined and automated and optimised for maximum productivity but design remains separate and free to be used for branding, marketing and other forms of perception management. The cachet potentially gained by an architect designing a car is far above that of the usual ornaments and trinkets. The trouble is, they can’t. Automobiles designed by people who don’t know how to make them are not very good.

Philip Starck’s V+ Voltgeis is the pick of the bunch because it’s possible to sense the presence of a design concept beyond shape. While not an architect, Philip Starck has his name associated with more buildings than many, at least in Tokyo.

V+ Volteis, Philip Starck, 2012

The stripped down body of aluminium, the fabric roof and lack of doors all show an effort to reduce weight and increase fuel consumption which is electricity in this case. The 11.5kWh battery can be fully charged in six hours (or 50% in two) from a standard 220V socket, and can travel 60 kilometres at a maximum speed of 64 km/hour. For comparison, the top speed of a golf buggy is 24 km/hour (15 mph).

Starck’s V+ owes something to the Mini Moke which was originally intended as a Jeep-lite military vehicle but instead found popular success as a low-cost utility vehicle. In production between 1964 and 1993, it was especially popular in Australia where it was known as a beach buggy. I remember it with fondness, despite being neither old enough nor cool enough to own one.

Z Car, Zaha Hadid, 2007

One has to be suspicious of a car design commissioned by an art dealer. This “concept car” was for a “hydrogen powered, zero-emission city car with a three-wheel base, whose streamlined form combines functionality, quiet operation and aerodynamic performance.” As far as a wish list of desirable features goes, there’s nothing not to like but the purpose of a concept car is to test market reaction to something that could exist and thus guide future development. Lacking both potential and purpose, this concept for a car is therefore not a concept car. Nevertheless, two versions exist. Before the three-wheeled version found a home at London’s Design Museum, it accompanied a second version to an exhibition in Miami organised by the person who commissioned both. Here is a photo of a V2 placed on a road.

Dymaxion, Buckminster Fuller, 1933]

Only three of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car were ever built. The first had a 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan chassis and V8 engine but this next x-ray plan and section suggests serious liberties were taken with the chassis. V1 featured at Chicago’s 1933/34 World’s Fair. Wikipedia documents the respective adventures of the three prototypes, two of which clocked up some serious mileage.

The Dymaxion was notoriously unstable in high winds, a fact that might be explained [away?] by Fuller’s claim that it was not intended “to explore not an automobile per se, but the ‘ground-taxiing phase’ of a vehicle that might one day be designed to fly, land and drive”. Okay. Fuller was obviously feeling the pressure from Voisin and envious of his track record of making automobiles and airplanes that somewhat less visionary but nevertheless worked. [c.f. Divide & Conquer]

The Lane Motor Museum spent several years researching and building a Dymaxion closely based on the first prototype. This is more of a reimagining than a replica as, apart from the single headlamp, the more horizontal keel, and the rationalised bodywork, the vehicle has a steering lock-to-lock of six turns instead of the original 35 [!!] of the original and, for reasons of road safety, steering and braking are hydraulic rather than cable operated. The deep-set headlamp reminds me that I remember reading the headlamps rotated towards the direction of steering but, even if that were true, there’d be marginal effect with 35 turns lock-to-lock.

Dymaxion, Norman Foster, 2010

One wonders how many of these assorted faults Sir Norman incorporated when he built his replica. It probably doesn’t matter. Here’s it in some gallery.

And here’s it at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed

Adler 6 Saloon, Walter Gropius, 1931

Walter Gropius was approached by the Adler company to design the body for the Adler 6 but what they really wanted was to associate Gropius’ increasingly high-profile name with their marketing campaign. Gropius obliged and the Adler 6 was linked with the new architecture. The collaboration wasn’t a success as potential purchasers considered the design of the car shocking rather than good. The word outré was mentioned.

Low Res Car, United Nude, 2016

Shoe company United Nude was founded by Rem D Koolhaas [nephew of] in 2003. We’re obviously looking at a media vehicle rather than anything destined for production. Lo Res Car is an in-line two-seater with a polycarbonate body and an interior that a mix of polished stainless steel and matt black something. In place of doors, the entire body raises “to keep the lines clean”. Racy to look at, the car’s top speed is 50km/h because of safety concerns. Without headlights, wing mirrors or registration plates, I’m surprised it’s on a road at all. The car was promptly exhibited in Los Angeles.

Voiture Minimum, Le Corbusier, 1936

Given Le Corbusier’s penchant for namechecking his idol and sometimes sponsor Gabriel Voisin who had established his own car company in 1919, it’s no surprise for Le Corbusier to think he had a car in him. This is it, the Voiture Minimum. It was designed after a competition run by France’s Société des Ingénieurs de l’Automobile (SIA) for a car that would cost a maximum of 8,000 Francs. The main goal was to stimulate France’s industrial economy but in a few years WWII would do that anyway. People were resistant to the magic of the golden proportion and LC was unable to convince anyone to produce it. The internet is silent on who won the competition.

This full-scale mock-up was lovingly created by Giorgietto Giugiaro of Italdesign for the 1987 exhibition L’Aventure Le Corbusier: 1887-1965 at Paris’ Pompidou Centre exhibition.

Despite the general indifference to Voiture Minimum, Le Corbusier claimed it to be the inspiration for Citroen’s 2CV (1948–) and the Volkswagen (1939) but the site viaRetro tells me that in 1932, Erwin Komenda had only just joined the engineering office newly founded by Ferdinand Porsche when he designed the Type 12 to have a sloping rear end and rear mounted engine. This precursor to the Volkswagen was known as the “KdF-Wagen” (German: Kraft durch Freude – “Strength through Joy”).

It was Adolf Hitler who set Porsche the task of designing the new “people’s car” (Volks-wagen) and who, like Le Corbusier was to do, drew from the zeitgeist. Here’s AH’s sketch. I’m assuming “33” year means 1933. Which would be about right.

The Porsche 911 is a development of a 1959 design by by Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” and the same Erwin Komenda, although it was to be the last automobile he had a hand in designing. It went on sale in 1963 and had a sloping back and a rear-mounted engine.

Various improvements have been made since 1963, most notably the switch from an air-cooled to a water-cooled engine with the Type 996 in 1998 but the basic concept remains unchanged to this day. Today’s Porsche 911 is that rare thing of an automobile that has undergone continuous development and improvement but in which the genes of the ancestor can still be recognised seventy years on. The millionth Porsche 911 was manufactured in May 2017.

If the Porsche 911 has undergone continuous development for seventy years then Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle has also come a long way since the Type 12 of 1932. The first Volkswagen was more than aerodynamic-looking. It was the first automobile to actually be designed with the aid of a wind tunnel. More than 21.5 million were ultimately made, making the Beetle the best-selling automobile of the 20th century. 

The 1997 Volkswagen New Beetle had a lower profile still reminiscent of the original Volkswagen Beetle but it never enjoyed the same success and was discontinued in 2011.

The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle was a more aggressive redesign that still managed to evoke memories of the original Volkswagen and, if you squint, you can see both today’s Porsche 911 and Erwin Komenda’s 1932 Type 12. Unlike the Porsche 911 however, it’s the end of the road for the Beetle as Volkswagen announced in September 2018 that it will cease production in July 2019.

It can’t be easy to design a car like the Porsche 911 that stays in production and is incrementally improved over decades. Photographs such as the one below create the impression that car design is a hands-on act of intuition not unlike sculpture – even though intuition may boil down to nothing more than the mental synthesis of multiple parameters some of which are known and others merely guessed. With automobiles however, stylistic genius must have the engineering to justify it. The wonder of the Porsche 911 is how little the look of it has changed. I’m filing this post under “Science” because that’s what incremental improvements to make things better are.

Generated by pixel @ 2019-04-16T02:03:49.106559

“Design must be functional and functionality has to be translated visually into aesthetics, without gags that have to be explained first… A coherently designed product requires no adornment; it should be enhanced by its form alone… Good design should be honest.”

Ferdinand Alexander Porsche

• • • 


Malcolm directs me to the book Voiture Minimum by Antonio Lorenzo, that states the competition for the car design was only open to automobile engineers. After the competition Le Corbusier showed an interest and the organisers gave him details of the other entries. [12 May 2019]

Freek informs me that Gabriel Voisin was trained as an architect yet was hugely successful as builder of an airplanes, and then automobiles. Former car designer Walter de’Silva is said to have preferred hiring architects rather than industrial designers but we don’t know why. [12 May 2019]

Hans asks me not to forget the Colani truck. Here it is. Luigi Colani is an industrial designer but with experience of automobile design. The truck seems to be his most famous, and the seventies work has a blobbiness that looks more modern than it is. Here’s his 2014 Lada Concept Car. The 1977 airplane I remember.

Either that, or Thunderbird 2. [12 May 2019]



  • Note that the bit of the truck that directly serves its purpose – the fifthwheel and trailer – is perfectly, boringly normal. It’s as if the whole thing was a basically silly style exercise. look at me!

  • Fascinating article – but Heatherwick’s London bus seems a notable omission.

    • says:

      I did consider it briefly but decided no for no better reason that just wanting to stick to automobiles. Now I think about it, wasn’t it a Foster + Heatherwick joint effort? Not that it makes any difference. It was universally reviled, I seem to remember. I think the unoperable windows were the killer. Well, that plus the fact that nobody really warmed to it.

  • says:

    Gabriel Voisin was actually trained as an architect and was hugely successful as builder of an airplanes. His cars have lately gotten more attention and rightly so.

    Furthermore I actually heard from an usual well informed source that former car designer Walter de’Silva preferred to hire architects instead of industrial designers. I have no way of confirming this however.