Peter Stevens Shares His Thoughts on Becoming a Car Designer

A young school leaver recently asked me five simple questions about the automotive industry; the idea was that my answers might help the decision about whether to join a vehicle design course in the future. The great thing with questions like these is that they make designers ask those same questions of themselves.

When working on a new design, what would you say inspires you the most?

The most inspirational thing about a new project comes from the opportunities offered by new engineering, technology or occupant packaging ideas. If one is simply asked to propose a new body style for, as an example, a Ford Fiesta, then it is hard to feel that inspired. I have a potential new project just starting, which is for an all-electric GT car for the 2018 Le Mans 24 hour race — this is something totally new and very inspiring. It has not been tried before and success is by no means certain.

What place do you feel older designs and styles have in influencing future designs?

There is always a temptation for the marketing departments of automobile manufacturers to treat their history and past products as a sort of ‘dressing up box’ full of ideas. The fact is that the historical culture of a company can be a useful guide to future design directions while also being an inhibitor of creativity.

Using Fiat as an example: Their understanding of how to produce low-cost, logical and charming little cars for people with limited incomes — cars like the original Fiat 500 and 600 from the late 1950s and 1960s — gave them the background philosophy for the Fiat Panda.

The first Giugiaro designed Panda was a great little car that represented my idea of a modern equivalent of the original 500, and even the current Panda still has charm and practicality. The Ecobasic concept car from 1999 was a bold idea of how a small and ecologically relevant car could be, but I think that Fiat frightened themselves with its uncompromising looks.

Someone in Fiat sales or marketing then thought that the same 1960s 500 could be a ‘brand’, so they made the new 500 that was enormous, complex, heavy and took only the ‘style’ of the original without any concern for the philosophy of it. This process then produced the 500L, a bloated joke that shares a platform with the Jeep Renegade!

Is there a design process (organization of ideas etc.) that you would say works best?

I think that a clear idea of what the company is trying to achieve (besides the obviously necessary one of making a profit) is an essential starting point. Some cars are made that produce little or no profit but improve the image of the company; this is why people like Ferrari and Renault go motor racing. Others can be seen as filling a need that they have seen.

Toyota pickups are a great example of this. As are very simple cars for developing nations — the Tata Nano was an idea that came from Ratan Tata who wanted to improve the lives of ordinary Indian families who could only afford a motorcycle, often putting four or even more people at risk. In the case of the Nano it was very well-intentioned but was probably the wrong car for the customers who had never owned a car before.

The Second World War Jeep, produced by both Ford and Willys was the forerunner of what is still one of the most iconic vehicle types of the last 70 years. Henry Ford got this absolutely right too with the Model T; he sold 17 million of them!

Given the recent ICE (internal combustion engine – petrol, diesel, LPG for example) ban announcement from 2040 in the UK, do you think that automotive designs will have to radically change in the near future?

It would be nice to think that there will be a radical change in automotive design but this is almost certainly unlikely. The idea that we can stop producing ICE-powered vehicles and only sell electric vehicles on January 1, 2040 — little more than 20 years from now — is not going to happen. We would need a minimum of 18 new nuclear power stations on line by that date. A 1000 megawatt generating plant takes around 15 years to design and build after planning permission is granted, that usually takes five or six years — so we should be starting right now!


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