Beautiful Cars – Form Over Function Through the Ages
Week after week, new supercars and hypercars are announced, showcased and launched by manufacturers. The engineering excellence and technological prowess that goes in to these new machines is mind-blowing, but it does raise the question of aesthetic. It raises the question “Are these cars beautiful?”.
The Lotus Evija which launched just a few weeks ago is, on paper at least, an incredible engineering feat. 2000PS. 200+mph top speed. 12 minutes for 80% charge. It’s all incredibly impressive (albeit as yet numbers on paper; I do really hope Lotus get near these numbers though!).
The thing that really took everyone’s breath away though, wasn’t the batteries or the motors, or the endless (and somewhat pretentious) personalisation options available to perspective buyers. No, what shocked was how this car looked.
The Evija embodies all of the attributes of a modern hypercar. It has razor-sharp leading edges on carbon fibre aerofoils. The mid-riff is sculpted showing how the air is being harnessed. A seemingly all-consuming diffuser and, of course, those enormous tunnels from the buttresses through to the rear valance complete the thing. Engineers have designed this car. Aerodynamicists to be precise. But can you say that within the breathtaking function-over-form body you can see beauty?
It’s a trick question of course. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc. etc. There are however cars that are universally accepted as drop-dead gorgeous. The cliche that is the Series 1 Jaguar E-type is the most beautiful car ever made is not one I subscribe to. It is certainly beautiful, but I would place the Ferrari 250 SWB the Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato ahead of it. The Citroen DS is often quoted as being on the Top 10 list for reason, ot me at least, that remain unknown. The Mercedes 300SL Gullwing has to be a contender as do the Corvette C1 and BMW 507.
And I haven’t even started on racing cars! Porsche 956 in “Pink Pig” livery you say? Well I raise you the Ferrari 330 P4 in Rosso Corsa. Is the Lotus 72 pretty? How about the Gurney Eagle-Weslake MkI? I feel I am opening a can of worms now… I’ll stop.
All of these cars I have just mentioned were, at the time, designed by engineers. They were designed to split the air in two as efficiently as possible during an age where wind-tunnel testing was a black art and the aerodynamics were done very much by what “looked right”. The result is cars that to the eye of most, are objectively attractive
Beauty isn’t constrained to cars of a by-gone era however. The Jaguar F-Type SVR (Jaguar’s second mention) is a truly stunning car from all angles, as is the Aston Martin DBS Superleggera (Aston’s second mention too). The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio has a more masculine beauty to it, and the current offering of Mazda MX-5 brings things back down to earth with a gorgeous body work to compliment its sublime driving experience.
These cars are different. The Alfa and the Mazda have packaging constraints which dictate a large part of their overall aesthetic, with designers adding a touch of flair in a clever way here and there. Whilst the Aston and Jag might have a nod to aerodynamic efficiency, you feel like they are restrained to look “more right” as it once was. The Aston and the Jag are edging towards form-over-function design ethic that the engineer in me should cringe at, but the car lover in me admires.
Now let’s discuss something that needs addressing. An German, rear-engined elephant in the room. The 911. This car is not beautiful in the way a Ferrari could be judged to be. It is ostensibly German; form following function. In fact form gets in the way. The 911 is not a bad looking car, but the bug-eye, hunched-back look lacks the the flair that its peers have. This is Porsche’s USP. This detachment from making-something-beautiful-to-appeal-to-those-who-want-something-beautiful makes the 911 unique, and is exactly what builds it’s following. The 911 is, and always has been, a car designed to be driven. Not looked at, not photographed, not displayed as a piece of artwork, but as a visceral experience. Iconic yes, beautiful no.
In a total hypocritical stance on modern aesthetic, the latest Aston Martin Vantage is not as beautiful as it’s predecessor. Its mouth is too big, its eyes are too small, and whilst the lime green looks excellent on the GTE car, it doesn’t compliment the body of the road car. I don’t care that the new 911 wasn’t beautiful; I wasn’t expecting it to be. But the fact that the Vantage isn’t gorgeous means it has to drive better than the Porsche to compete with it.
Time Will Tell
Now I might be too blinkered to see it, but there is every chance that cars of today will be viewed as beautiful in their own rite in years to come. At the end of the day, the same principles are guiding designers and engineers today that drove them in the beautiful car heyday; conquering air. Is the Lambourghini Diable SV becoming beautiful? The Ferrari F355 Berlinetta? The Audi TT quattro Sport? Time will tell.
Beautiful cars are more than just eye candy. They define generations and progress technology. They spearhead innovation. I can’t ever see someone going gooey eyed over an eGolf or a Tesla, but they have an engineering beauty that isn’t necessarily on the surface. Internal beauty so to speak. Maybe one day they’ll be in a line up with an E-Type. Who knows?