It was pretty clear last week that there were some great truck designs in the past, but are we now in a time when no company is brave enough to take chances in design terms? There are certainly many more challenges with ‘type approval’, certification, homologation and new laws and regulations, but I do think that there is also nervousness about pushing the language forward.
The truck industry is much more conservative than the car business because, whilst the investment in tooling is great, the production numbers are comparatively small and the model life is more like 12 years than six years for cars. Because of this inherent conservatism it is necessary for truck designers to use much more restrained perspective layouts and illustration techniques when communicating with their management teams, for example. But there is nothing more spectacular than a full-size design model of a big truck and a great satisfaction to be had from seeing the design through to production.
One of the first lessons that I learned when designing trucks for both Seddon Atkinson and British truck maker ERF, was that if you relied on color break-up for the ‘look’ of the truck you would be disappointed when you saw the final result. Strong contrasts that could come from blacked out panels, particularly on the front end would be painted over by a truck buyer and suddenly your great design statement had gone! Designers still tend to look for black grilles for example, and still lose them to the paint sprayer.
There is a continuing debate about whether trucks should be aggressive of passive. The temptation for the designer is to go for a very aggressive look that suggests dominating the road and intimidating other road users, but the alternative is to develop a design language that integrates with the city, does not scare pedestrians and makes the truck welcome in the center of town where deliveries need to be made. This debate will not go away but designers should be aware of the impact that their work can have on others who will not have willingly invited a 40-ton truck into their streets.
Syd Mead, that great illustrator, enjoys trucks almost a much as he enjoys his futurist cars; his 50 years of drawing has mirrored changing design trends but Syd always manages to stay a couple of steps ahead. Strange German designer Luigi Colani (and I do mean strange!) has had a fascination with aerodynamic tractor units for his ‘Autobahn Cruiser’ concept trucks. One of his first was shown back in 1978; a separate driver’s pod was an outstanding feature of his radical thinking.
Colani, who was always looking for ways to reduce aerodynamic drag, and hence fuel consumption, developed this design theme through the next thirty years with trucks based on a variety of manufacturers chassis, Mercedes being a favorite. And finally in 2010 he built a complete tractor unit for Mercedes, sadly it had to feature a very conventional lower Mercedes intake grille; and even more unfortunately it was the painted in an awful graphic scheme and attached to a very conventional trailer unit.
Mitsubishi-Fuso produced a good-looking electric concept truck called ‘Eco-2’ which demonstrated a new aesthetic to match the new technology. The German truck manufacturer MAN has exhibited a spectacular tractor and trailer combination with the streamlined trailer shown as an integrated part of the whole concept.
This is very different from Mercedes who demonstrated an autonomous (self-driving) truck, all the official images show a driver looking at his iPad whilst the truck drives itself; a bit of a scary scenario which needs further investigation. Watch this space. The really disappointing thing about this concept is that Mercedes has chosen to attach a conventional and boring trailer unit to the tractor unit, why they didn’t design the complete combination is a failure of imagination!
About Peter Stevens Peter Stevens is a world-renowned vehicle designer and former 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.