Getting the Wheels in the Right Place

It always sounds so easy – if you get the wheels in the right place and the overhangs under control then the outcome should be a good looking car.

There are some simple rules of proportion that always seem to work as a starting point: If the wheelbase is about 4.5 times the wheel diameter and the front overhang is one wheel diameter you can’t go far wrong. The rear overhang is very influential in defining what kind of vehicle the car is, more so than the front overhang, although off-road vehicles with a long front overhang never look convincing. They don’t work very well either! Again, overall height depends on the vehicle typology, but for regular sedans and street cars three times the wheel diameter is a good place to start.

The 1994 Chevrolet Caprice wagon is one of my favorite cars even though the proportion breaks all the rules. It is fun to play with some of the proportions to see how it can change character by moving the rear wheel back or shortening the rear overhang.

Chevolet Caprice (1994)

Simon Cox’s Isuzu ‘Vehicross’ show car from 1993 shows what can happen to the look of a vehicle if the designer ceases to be involved with the design as it goes into production. Isuzu decided to transfer the excellent Cox design onto a (then current) badly proportioned production chassis that they already had and by doing that lost all the balance and style of the original. The production version was nothing like as good as Cox’s concept.

The little Ford Ka, first sketched in 1993, always looked ‘right’ in terms of proportion and ‘stance’ on the road. It was just a little bit lower at the nose than at the rear, which helped it to look light. This is not the case with the current Ford Ka, which looks heavy and a bit like it is too fond of eating pies!

Ford Ka - First generationThe brilliant job that designer David Wilkie did in turning the conventional Ka hatch into the lively little ‘Street Ka’ is an indication of how a designer can hold on to a showcar design’s style and form when transitioning into production. Wilkie did this in such a way that it still looks like a cool concept 15 years after it first appeared. I hope that Ford’s 2010 ‘Start’ concept can follow through into production as the funky little car that the latest Ka has never managed to be. The Ka almost looks like it was designed before the decision to use the Fiat Panda platform was made and then forced to fit the package.

I have always admired the classic proportions of Chrysler’s Dodge Nitro wagon, it looks so well balanced compared with the contemporary Land Rover Discovery — apologies to all those classic Discovery owners! But nobody got it more wrong than Jeep when they developed their 2002 ‘Compass’ concept car into the awful proportions of the production 2005 Compass. Having to re-body a badly proportioned Mitsubishi at the insistence of Daimler Benz was a depressing mistake for Jeep.

The Citroen 2CV van from way back in the 1960s and 70s has always been a vehicle that demonstrates how much the rear overhang can affect the whole feeling of a car; the short rear version is so much more charming looking than the later version. But that could be because I have an early ‘AZU’ and just love the look of it!

The inherent problem is that all too often the package proportions are decided by the sales and marketing departments – or by conservative engineers – and the designer has the unfortunate task of just joining up the dots that he/she is given. That is why it’s important for designers to have a sound knowledge of packaging and some idea of what goes on under the body surface.

Making the Ford Street Ka as nice a job as it still is very nearly killed friend David Wilkie but, thanks to his drive and perseverance, we have a low cost and fun to drive car that sill looks great after all these years. Thanks David.


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