Is Proportion More Important Than Style?

One of the most difficult qualities to evaluate in car design is ‘proportion’. There have been attempts in the past to develop methods that can present a proportion matrix that will ensure a good solution to painting, illustration or design problems. One of the earliest is that drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, it is often called The Vetruvian Man.

Designers have tried to apply these rules of proportion to cars, but the results usually look as if the matrix was actually drawn on top of the design, and they are only used in straight side views, but it can be worth experimenting on simple designs. However the truth seems to be that an understanding of good proportion comes more from practice and a natural feel for what ‘looks right’, and that is something that can only be taught through examples.

Renault went through a period of experimentation with very unusual package layouts and proportions, the 1959 900 series of cars are examples of this and have to be considered unsuccessful. The fact that people were confused as to which way the cars would move is bad design because an object, particularly one that moves, needs to express its purpose through its form. The Panhard Dynavia of 1948 was a bold aerodynamic experiment too but the proportions that came from the very short wheelbase of the Dyna chassis were never going to make a good piece of design.

The 1965 Cadillac Eldorado concept utilized all the most modern styling elements of its time but the basic vehicle architecture produced an unbalanced design. AMC, Saab and Marcos either failed to understand the necessity for good proportions despite challenging mechanical layouts, or, particularly in the case of Marcos, they couldn’t see how unattractive their products were. In AMC’s case, this is surprising since the two-door AMC Eagle, from where the front half of the Gremlin got its shared components, was not a bad looking car.

Pontiac, despite giving us some great looking Firebirds, never got their MPVs/SUVs right; the 1986 Trans Sport concept suggested that a fine looking vehicle was on the way, but by the time the Trans Sport went into production it had lost all its style and charm! Conservative production engineers, a change of senior management or disenchanted designers? The reasons are not clear, but this vehicle was reasonable when viewed against the Pontiac Aztek, truly one of the world’s ugliest vehicles – awful proportions, dull surfaces, bad details and a clumsy leaden appearance – arrrgh!


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