Fabric Covered Machines – Relevant Concept or Old Technology?

Fabric covered vehicles have been around for more than 100 years but BMW, having started a long term internal research project back in 2001, finally showed the public their interpretation of this material as a body skin, seven years later, in 2008. The BMW ‘Gina’ was a great interpretation of a traditional construction method and a very influential show car.

Early, pioneering aircraft designers first used fabric covering over a light structural frame. With low powered but heavy motors, saving weight for the rest of the machine was essential and cloth covering was very light. Textiles could be stretched over a simple wooden frame lightly nailed in place and then painted with ‘dope’ a volatile paint that caused the cloth covering to shrink, and therefore tightly follow the share beneath it. The result was visually pleasing to designers, the shape of the ‘skeleton’ beneath giving a visual tension to the aircraft form.

Marcel Leyat's 'Helicar' propeller car from 1919; Charles Lindberg with the 'Spirit of St. Louis' in 1927;  1930s Gloucester Gladiator

This aircraft technology was adopted by Marcel Leyat for his ‘Helica’ propeller driven car in the early 1920s, I cannot imagine what other road users thought of his wild machines, but this was a truly radical concept. Where are the radical concepts these days?

Even the Spitfire, Hurricane and Wellington bomber in particular still used fabric covering for some of their surfaces as late as the early 1940s. Technically the Wellington was a very interesting design; its structure was based on the geodesic structural theories of Barnes Wallis, although first suggested in Germany in 1926 by Walther Bauersfeld, chief engineer at the Karl Zeiss optical company, for the frame of an exhibition hall. In 1948, American architect Buckminster Fuller was credited as creator of the geodesic dome building structure. He was the same guy who designed the ‘Dymaxion’ three-wheeled car.

Barnes Wallis’s structure was so strong that Wellingtons could still fly with much of the fabric shot away by enemy aircraft fire, and many of the thin aluminum struts missing. The remarkably brave Charles Lindberg, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, flew an aircraft called ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’, the skin of which was mostly fabric; only the engine cover was aluminum.

The remarkable little Czechoslovakian Velorex cars of the 1960s used fabric for much of the bodywork, making a feature of the press studs that were used to attach the panels. This is a method that is still used in India for the BAJAJ Auto Rickshaw, when you buy an ‘auto-ric’ you only get the frame for the roof and then find a local craftsman to stitch together a shiny fabric cover.

Czech Velorex (1920s) and Bajaj Auto Rickshaw

The great thing about this technique is that the result is a classic tensile structure that appears on the BMW ‘Gina’. The side view of this important car is probably the least successful angle to look at it from (it’s hard to find many official images from the side, maybe they know!), but the way the skin changes as the door are opened, the way the head lights are revealed and the engine is exposed is fascinating.

The worst thing about the car was the nonsense written by BMW’s publicity people back in 2008: “In the premium segment in particular, customers demand cars that stir emotions and allow them to express their individuality. An innovative concept introduced by BMW Group Design prepares the ground for this new approach: the GINA (Geometry and Functions In ‘N’ Adaptions) principle grants more freedom for car design.”

Apart from that it is still an interesting study and what is actually clear is that it influenced the BMW design language that has appeared recently where the folds between panels appeared to push against the panels from inside, giving the form a feeling of tension. This was clearly depicted on the BMW Z4 and M3 that followed.

About Peter Stevens
Peter Stevens is a world-renowned vehicle designer and Visiting Professor of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Over the course of his career, he’s been chief designer at Lotus Cars, McLaren and Lamborghini and design director for MG, Mahindra and Mahindra and Rivian Automotive. He’s also worked as a design consultant for Prodrive, BMW, Williams and Toyota. You can catch up with his antics on his Facebook page and his new website.


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