‘Influences,’ ‘References,’ ‘Inspiration;’ all professional terms for what we at CC commonly refer to as cribbing. As time puts distance from a product’s release, a designer will occasionally admit what’s obvious to all: no idea comes out of nowhere, and everyone borrows from anywhere and everywhere.
Dating from 1997, this Chuck Jordan column elaborates on some of the cribbing that took place in Detroit’s studios. Back in those days, that meant a lot of Detroit was Italian inspired; lacking internet, visits to European shows and lots of picture taking did the trick. The California Custom Scene gets a prominent mention as well; not an odd source, as Chuck was a California native and undoubtedly took some of those ideas to GM. In all, no ‘influence’ went unused.
To admit such matters drives PR departments mad; and depending on the stylist’s temper, they agree or deny such realities. While styling has some objective principles, we all know it’s ultimately a subjective matter. And it always starts from a previous point: a designer will take from a ‘source’ in order to provide a new take, a variation, or an unforeseen direction. All this for a simple reason: the human need for something new. Not too ‘new,’ for it will find resistance -another human trait-, but ‘new enough’ to awaken interest and desire. It’s a tough balancing act.
The stylist’s job is in the end, to bring all ideas and influences into one cohesive whole. Easy to say, hard to do. That’s without mentioning engineering and marketing needs. While car lovers enjoy dissecting such details, there’s some kind of disappointment in the public’s eye -and the media- when such mundanities are pointed out. The myth of the ‘creative genius’ is seductive, and a tough one to shake away. To be fair, PR departments have their work cut out; the public is certainly fickle. To admit the ’97 Malibu is just a warmed over Camry with ‘karate-chop’ headlights (a Larry Shinoda quote) just makes for unexciting print. Instead it was: ‘The car you knew America could build.’
Unsurprisingly, Chuck quibbles a bit about regulations and its pressures on styling departments. The doldrums of the committee-guided ’80s era don’t get high marks either, but his excitement picks up with the ’90s and the styling tendencies of the period. His love for concept cars is obvious; he had created a few Motorama pieces back in the ’50s, and his love for their persuading power remained unabated. Ironically, Chrysler ran away with the concept-car-into-production idea, and placed styling at the forefront of their offerings during that decade.
Talking about Chrysler, Tom Gale -their design head during the ’90s- talked once about house furniture and its influence on car design. When it comes to cribbing, all is fair game. To my eye, current styling trends just remind me of aggressive Reeboks, with cues from video game graphics. Bob Lutz mentioned ‘angry kitchen appliances’ a while back. I haven’t read any stylists admitting to such influences, but could easily be the case.
The older I get, the more challenging it is for me to see “new” things. Thankfully, I have three teens that keep me contemporary.
New styles are influenced today by Anime, Photoshop, Marvel Comic movies, and personal customization. When I see what is rolling around in car shows, I’ve been told that the shapes, colors and details reflect what my kids have seen on their cell phones, in theatres, and in social media.
What was beautiful wasn’t found on any Camry – ever. What is beautiful today is not found on any Pathfinder. What the Chevy Blazer attempts to do, what the Tesla attempts to do is what seems to my kids as where styling is turning towards today.
I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
No one is designing cars for us anymore.
They want new drivers, not retired ones.
Some even spoke quietly of impeachment from the Mipswich Valley Sports Car & Goodfellows Club:
The Blazer and most new cars don’t look all that different than cars did in the mid to late 1990s besides the SUV becoming the defacto bodystyle over the sedan shape, the Tesla Model S doesn’t look that much different than a W body Grand Prix and the Model 3 doesn’t look that different from a Dodge Neon. You may have forgotten Tesla’s claim to fame when the Roadster and Model S were fresh ten years ago is that they were lauded for NOT breaking any new ground in the designs, compared to earlier EVs or hybrids that were all too often offputtingly weird looking to most buyers who didn’t really care about the green aspects. The Cybertruck is the only attempt at pushing any boundary and it’s extremely polarizing, it’s success has yet to be determined and by Elon’s own words it’s a tribute to Giugiaro’s folded paper designs like the Lotus Esprit and Delorean dating back to the 1970s.
You’re giving the “youth” culture way too much credit. Everything popular today is a rehash/reboot of popular things 30-40 years ago, it’s just more accessible and resultantly expanded upon. Marvel characters, Anime, and photo editing programs aren’t new.
The median age of new car buyers isn’t getting any younger, if there is anything to designs being influenced by what the kids are into, these vehicles are what the parents are buying to try to stay “hip” and “with it” to their kids.
I think that someday people might look back on the 1990s as the last golden age of styling. There were lots of appliances, but there were also some bold and unique designs (in all kinds of colors) making it into showrooms.
I don’t agree. There is a lot to like in the electric car styling in the showroom right now that outdoes the 1990s.
The Model 3 in particular. IMHO in 30 years it will be regaled as a styling triumph.
It outdoes the 1990s by harkening back to the hot hatch styling from the 1980s!
Yes – the Ioniq is one of the very few new car designs that I actually like. There’s plenty of designs that I can benignly tolerate, but this is one that I outright admire.
I will take the ‘90s full size pickup styling by Detroit’s “Big 3” over anything built since. The exception being the mid-‘90s re-do of the Ford. Yuck.
Automotive designs have always been influenced by all kinds of things, not just other automotive products, but airplanes, rockets, film props, animals, the human form, sea creatures and other natural phenomena, etc. Look at Colani and the way his bio designs influenced automotive design in the .80s and ’90s as an example. Furniture and fashion design are also influential. Politics, regulation and societal trends play a part, too.
The medium used to design also has an influence – cars modeled in plaster (i.e. Bertone) have a different surface feel to those modeled in clay (most studios), prototyped in metal (i.e. Jaguar under Lyons), or these days, math modeled in Alias.
Of course designers reference other well accepted automotive designs too – look at the European designs that were influenced by the Corvair, for example.
I agree with VanillaDude – things will continue to evolve inspired by what younger generations are attracted to. That is why studios try to encourage their younger members to go all out with designs that may only be shown internally to expose the whole team to new trends and provoke reactions. Otherwise things can quickly get to comfortable and staid.
Most creative, technical and cultural innovations are not carried out in a vacuum…
A young designer working at Opel in the early 90s….
The art of cribbing is as old as humankind. There are remarkably few truly unique and original things. MOMA is a good place to see some of them, including Pininfarina’s 1946 Cisitalia.
The whole cribbing thing reminds me of a Keith Richards quote when asked about criticism that he just plays old Chuck Berry riffs and blues standards he said…”it’s hard getting inspiration from the future”, all artists draw inspiration from what goes before, that is the essence of the human story.
Love that quote!
Don’t forget that Bill Mitchell was hired as a young man out of a California custom coach builder shop. While this predated the hot rod/custom shops after the War, Mitchell was familiar with them, as well as foreign sports cars and American Classics like the Auburn Boat Tail Speedster. He was still a young man when he designed the Cadillac 60 Special in 1938. This was one of the most influential designs of the era.
Jordan was correct when he describes customizers as “face lifters,” they would take an existing design, simplify it and “streamline” it. Moving into the ’60’s they became involved in a competition to “one up” their peers in producing something different, just for different’s sake, abandoning good taste in the process.
There were some simple classic designs in American cars in the 1960’s. The Corvair, the early model Rivieras, as well as the El Dorado and Toronado. Ford gave us the ’61-“63 Continental, and the early Mustang.
The SUV configuration is currently the dominant body style. It took a while for me to accept the fact, but there are some nice designs being built by Audi and Land Rover, as well as others. These have influenced the design of more mass market vehicles from American designers.
I’m hoping that cars will return to cleaner designs with less fussy detailing.