Classic Cars - Yesterday's News or Lessons for the Car Designs of Tomorrow?

Jaguar Mk2

What is it about some classic cars that makes them so endearing? No car made 50 years ago is able to compete with its modern day equivalent in terms of performance, practicality, comfort, ride, handling, reliability, or safety, and yet, classic Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz, Ferraris, Porsches etc. regularly sell for many times the value of their brand new (and technically much better) descendants. Why is this?

Some reasons for the value of these classics are obvious: rarity, nostalgia, investment opportunity etc. In addition, classic cars have benefited from being designed in an era free from restrictive safety legislation that so heavily impacts the design of modern cars (such as pedestrian impact protection and unbelted occupant requirements). The beauty of a Jaguar E-Type or a Porsche 356 is simply no longer reproducable, making stunningly attractive cars like these even more rare.

In addition to those attributes, much of the appeal of classic cars lies in the detail design and execution that invokes a rich and emotive user experience, and a feeling of quality that is so different from the comparatively sterile user experience in modern cars. Are there lessons that today's car designers can learn from cars of yesteryear? I think so. Let me try to explain. 

Paint, Brightwork, Glass

Many classic car exteriors consist of painted metal, brightwork, glass, and very little else; no black plastic, few visible rubber seals, very little superfluous decoration. This simple mix of quality materials looks elegant and premium. The challenge for modern car designers is to have rubber seals that look tight but still function well, and to avoid black plastic ornamentation that can add visual interest; it rarely enhances the perceived quality of a car.

 Paint, Chrome, Glass, very little else on this DB5. Photo: Aston Martin

Paint, Chrome, Glass, very little else on this DB5. Photo: Aston Martin

 Mercedes AMG GT. Mold-in-color black plastic grill. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes AMG GT. Mold-in-color black plastic grill. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Few Cut lines

Classic cars such as this Porsche 356 have body cut lines (gaps between two parts) only when functionally necessary, for a moving part like the door or the hood for instance. There is continuous painted, unbroken body surface from the nose to the tail. There's not even a cut line for a fuel filler flap on the exterior of the 356 below (fuel is filled under the hood). The result is elegant and clean, giving a honed-from-solid appearance. This was enabled by hand-manufacture of these very special cars, infeasible for mass-produced cars of today, but the pursuit of fewer cut lines is still worthwhile for the more premium appearance that this principle delivers. The Aston Martin DB11 follows this philosophy, moving the cut-line between the hood and fender outboard and integrating it with the side vent, eliminating a cut line that would ordinarily be present from fender to hood, and achieving a clean, solid front appearance. 

 Porsche 356, one unbroken surface from nose to tail, enabled by hand finishing.

Porsche 356, one unbroken surface from nose to tail, enabled by hand finishing.

 Aston Martin DB11. Cut-line between hood and fender repositioned outboard and integrated with the side vent, giving a clean appearance. Photo: Aston Martin.

Aston Martin DB11. Cut-line between hood and fender repositioned outboard and integrated with the side vent, giving a clean appearance. Photo: Aston Martin.

Perfect Haptics

Many of the switch and control haptics from the cars of yesteryear are pretty poor, with excessive flexibility and minimal feedback, but some are worthy of benchmarking today for their perfect haptics. The Ignition Timing control of the Mercedes 300 SL is a metal knob, dished to show how it should be held and operated, pleasant to touch, with zero flexibility or looseness. It activates with the audible and tactile precision of an Apple product, tuned to perfection. The headlamp switch on the Jaguar Mk.2 feels a little different, less dainty, but has the solidity of a bank vault, in a tactile, audible and visual way. It inspires trust and is a joy to use. Can modern cars have such perfectly tuned haptic controls? Yes, and they should. 

Drama, Theater and Sense Of Occasion.

Poor ergonomics and complex ways to control products do not make for good design, but in many classic cars, idiosyncratic design and operations that add a sense of occasion and drama enhance the driving experience. They increase the emotional connection between car and driver. For instance, the startup procedure for the Mercedes 300 SL involves a complex sequence of knobs and levers to get it to fire-up. The instrument panel on this Ferrari is far from clear to understand, I suspect even if you were fluent in Italian.

The trade-off between a little added theater and a simple, efficient user experience can be one that is hard to get right, but a design that adds just the right amount of theater at the expense of efficiency can be joyful, especially important for a modern sports car. At Aston Martin, we thought very carefully about the startup sequence for the DB9 and V8 Vantage, creating a sequence that was dramatic and unique, albeit inefficient and completely unnecessary. Customers loved it.

(I'm reminded of an excellent article by Sam Livingstone at Car Design Research that may interest you if you've got this far, it covers similar themes.)

 Ferrari 250GT. Confusing but charming. I hope you speak Italian. 

Ferrari 250GT. Confusing but charming. I hope you speak Italian. 

Elegance & Attention To Detail

Many highly valued classic cars have an elegant simplicity to their form, the designs focusing on good design fundamentals: attractive proportions, simple surfacing, high quality materials, and fine details. There are very few parts that are purely decorative. The instrument panel on this classic Ferrari is a good example. On first inspection, the form, graphics and proportions are clean and attractive, and as you draw closer, the fine details of the dainty switches and instrument cluster graphics become more evident. Executions this clean are difficult to achieve in modern cars for a couple of reasons.

  1. Modern day safety and comfort requirements mean that instrument panels have had to grow to hide bulky hardware like air conditioning systems and airbags.
  2. Complex features such as navigation and in-car-entertainment need user interfaces for them to be controlled, driving the need for touch screens or a sea of switches.

With thoughtful design and smart packaging, these two challenges can be overcome, but the trend in recent years has been towards busy, complex design themes and overt decoration, not towards simple, calm forms, and restrained details. Themes like that of the new Ferrari 488 have a big initial impact (but have other drawbacks, see my last article for more on this) and this helps to make the design appear new, but new is not the same as better.

A modern Ferrari interior that follows the design principles of a classic Ferrari interior would be interesting to see (over to you, Ferrari)!

 Ferrari 250 GT Pininfarina Cabriolet Series I.

Ferrari 250 GT Pininfarina Cabriolet Series I.

 Ferrari 488. Busy, complex form, fussy details, lack of harmony, the pursuit of something new. Photo: Ferrari

Ferrari 488. Busy, complex form, fussy details, lack of harmony, the pursuit of something new. Photo: Ferrari

 

Thanks to Derek at Fantasy Junction for access to some of the wonderful classic cars seen here. Also, to Hugh Ross for your photography expertise, thanks pal.

 

Marcus Roffey