Royal College of Art Automotive Design Unit

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There can be few products on the market in which design plays so overtly important a part as in the modern car. Every consumer durable comes into being as a result of some sort of design process, but the purchaser rarely chooses food mixers, for example, on the basis of looks. He or she is Likely to be more concerned with what features are offered, as long as the device is up to a basic level of performance. A car, on the other hand, is probably the second-biggest purchase most people make, and to assist in the selection a huge range of objective comparisons is available in the motoring press. But these alone are not enough to recommend one car over another; the dominant factor, and the one which most people will make a judgement on first, is one of aesthetics. Is it an attractive car?

This question is of course crucial to the success of the car, in combination with its reliability, its performance, its economy, and its usefulness. But while the technical achievements are quantifiable, the appeal of the body can be something of a gamble, for two reasons. Firstly, since beauty is subjective, reactions to a particular profile may vary tremendously from one country to another, from one area to another, and also between differing groups of potential purchasers.

Secondly, the element of time. The bulk of cars now come from giant multi-national manufacturers for whom each new model means a huge investment in tooling and production costs. Inevitably the process of development takes years — probably four, possibly six or seven — with the result that the designers are today at work on vehicles which will not reach the showroom until perhaps 1989. How can they predict what the public taste will be then?

Part of the answer is that they do not so .much predict as influence. The buying public can only express an opinion by choosing from what is available. There simply is no method of communicating their preferences in advance to those who will shape their next automobile. So what sort of training is required for these men who are effectively the arbiters of the public taste?

Although the number of professional automotive designers is small, it is still surprising that there are only two establishments in the world which offer’ specific training in this field. One is in the USA (Art Centre, Pasadena), the other is in London — the Royal College of Art.

It is only 18 years since the Automotive Design Unit was founded at the RCA, yet in that time it has forged a reputation for producing a steady stream of designers of the highest calibre, mostly British, who have gone to work at manufacturers and design studios around the world. Of a total of about 80 students who have so far graduated from the course, only one has left the industry, which must be a virtually unequalled record for any vocational course. The majority of graduates work within Europe, although some Far Eastern students are sent to London with the intention that they will return to their sponsoring company on completing the course.

Only two students were taken on in the first year of the unit, but classes have grown steadily since, and the college now accepts eight or nine per year. Each student is sponsored by one of the car manufacturers, and Ford have traditionally taken the lead in this area. It was in fact a Ford designer, Roy Brown, who arranged with Professor Sir Misha Black of the RCA for the first two pupils to receive specialist training from designers in the industry. With the transfer of their design facility from Dagenham it the new engineering centre at Dunton, Ford realised that there would no longer be the Space for the in-house training of designers which had been the norm up until then. It addition, the overheads of using senior stall to teach pupils were high, and as the RCA’s school of Industrial Design had already undertaken vehicle design projects at first degree level, the decision was made to build up a post-graduate course leading to MA(Hons).

One of the valuable elements of such a vocational course is that students are in direct contact with the industry, both through their own tutors who have all had industrial experience, and through visiting designers who set and judge a variety of projects, thereby forming a close relationship with some of their future employees.

The time spent at the RCA tends to refine rather than teach, certain skills which students have already learned, usually from an undergraduate design degree, but sometimes from the engineering side of the industry. Although the term “stylist” is sometimes used in a derogatory sense to decry the sometimes outrageous and impractical ideas which can emerge, any designer must know, for example, how much travel a suspension system requires, or roughly how much air is needed to cool the engine at speed, and during the development period he will work closely with engineers to bring their concept to fruition.

All car projects, however, begin with sketched ideas, and the ability to conceive a three-dimensional shape and illustrate it accurately is cultivated in the first projects on the course. This basic skill is the essential tool of all designers, but automotive design has traditionally revelled in the most striking and highly finished illustrations. As the year progresses, the emphasis changes towards the functional requirements of a particular project, with increasing importance laid on such factors as aerodynamics, internal space use, visibility and ease of manufacture. In the second year, the students concentrate on one main vehicle, often based on the running gear of an actual car, and develop their solution to a high level under the supervision of the tutors.

Under Director Nigel Chapman there are one full time tutor, Ken Greenly, and two part-time, John Heffernan and Peter Stevens, who are also independent consultants. Everyone involved gives the impression of genuine enthusiasm and dedication — Stevens, for example, is heavily involved with motorsport, designing the graphics for Richard Lloyd’s Canon Porsche team whose car we featured in Motor Sport, October 1983, working with aerodynamics experts on the styling of the Brabham F1 cars, and creating the body revisions for the Tom Walkinshaw Racing’ Jaguar XJS Sport, pictured on page 133 of this issue.

It is this level of involvement and interest which makes the Degree Show, the shop window of the graduating students, such an important event in the somewhat exclusive field of auto design. At this June display in the college’s building next to the Albert Hall can be seen some of the top stylists and executives pondering which of these eight graduates they will invite to join their studios. Sponsorship by a particular firm is not an obligation to accept employment at the end of the course, although many students are happy to remain with a company which has probably already given them vacation employment.

The current attraction is to go to one of the Italian design houses, or to Germany, where Audi, Porsche and BMW have proved particularly fruitful for RCA graduates. Car design involves such a large team that individual designers rarely receive recognition outside their own circle, so it is worthwhile looking at some projects in which British-trained designers have played a dominant part.

German design is usually described as “typically Teutonic”, yet two of the most striking cars of recent years have come from the pen of an Englishman, Martin Smith. Both the show car which led to the Audi 100, and the Quattro are his work. Smith has worked for Porsche, Ogle (England’s leading studio), and went on to BMW after his time with Audi. He has since returned to Ingolstadt as the head of a unique ‘Concept Studio’ where he has effectively a free hand to explore new ideas.

Currently also at Audi is Peter Birtwhistle, who has looked after the modifications for the short wheelbase Quarter which the engineers decided was necessary to beat the Lancias this year. He has also revised the nose and tail of the Audi 80 so that it will bear a family resemblance to the new 100, although this will not be seen for some months yet.

The quality of design at Porsche engenders a good deal of competition to obtain positions there. The much-praised interior of the 928 was designed by a Scot, Dawson Sellar, who with Peter Stevens was one of the first two graduates of the RCA course. Working now as a freelance design consultant, he was asked by BMW to shape the very advanced four-cylinder motorcycle which has recently been launched. Also on that job was Jan Fellstrom, a Tynesidee despite his name, also ex-Porsche, who has been greatly in demand by Japanese motorcycle manufacturers since the appearance of his strikingly novel and handsome Katana bike for Suzuki.

On display at the recent Frankfurt Show and at the MotorFair was the Opel Junior, a design exercise whose novel interior with its detachable accessories inclined some to look on it as a sophisticated 2CV. Yet under the low-drag body, RCA designer Get Hilderbrandt has incorporated Nova running-gear, making this a practical concept which may provide a clue to future GM minis, just as Ford’s Probe series foreshadowed the Sierra.

Normally seen as the other end of the spectrum is the sensual work of the Italian stylists, especially Pininfarina, whose beautiful Jaguar XJ Spyder made such an impact at the Motor Show in 1978. That car was the work of Elio Nicosia, an Italian who left the RCA in 1976. He also produced the Ferrari Pinin show car, based on the 400, and has now moved to Ghia.

In France the head of Citroen Design at the moment is Carl Olsen, late of Ford and previously an RCA tutor, while his second-in-command is Geoff Matthews, another RCA graduate who was previously responsible for the Talbot Tagora.

Not all graduates remain within the field of car design; some turn to motorcycles, trucks and other transport subjects. Some become independent product design consultants, a broader field which allows them to retain their automotive involvement perhaps through small specialist car firms. The attractive Midas, the highly developed fibreglass monocoque of which was the basis of Brabham designer Gordon Murray’s own road car, was commissioned from Richard Oakes, yet another product of the college’s automotive unit, and who also does a lot of illustration work in the motoring press.

There are perhaps 500 automotive designers in the world at the moment. Eighty of these have been trained at one establishment in London. Since this one course is capable virtually of satisfying Europe’s entire yearly demand, it might seem that a danger exists of standards falling through complacency. Yet the continuing achievements of graduates, in an area where ability is immediately obvious to potential employers, and the frequency with which some of these rise to positions of influence must surely say otherwise. GC

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