Musings: The Driving Force Behind Our World


By Krishna Pamidi

Uncovering national personalities in automotive design

Illustration by  Jane Lee .

Illustration by Jane Lee.

Back in the day, names like Giotto Bizzarrini, Ferdinand Piëch and Gordon Murray demanded exaltation. These automotive designers were revered as artists, rather than employees of the bureaucracies that are car companies. They made art that you could take out for a spin—the original Porsche 911, the Mclaren F1, and the Ferrari 250 SWB. Back then, car design was more a product of the designer than the company or even the country.   

Design has come a long way since then. Different countries made multiple strides and iconic designs reformed and revolutionized the idea of car design itself. It went from something that was purely aesthetic and personal to the artist to something that is representative of national ideals and personalities, and the best way to demonstrate that would be to explore the facet of automotive design in three distinct countries.

Where Passion is Produced: Italy

Italy is the quintessential home of automotive design and reigning bedroom wall posters. Companies like Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lancia and, of course, Ferrari and Lamborghini have long been the kings of manufacturing the most desirable cars that ever graced the world. But exactly why is that?

I can talk all day long about the passion and flair that oozes out of any other Italian car, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know what to look for.  

Italian design is primarily about drama and theater. It is fully and fantastically frills, and Italian design makes no effort to hide it. Style is priority number one and in cars like the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari Testarossa and basically any Alfa Romeo this is quite evident. The proportions are either too exaggerated, as is the case with the Countach and its ridiculous spoiler and wedge shape or too inconspicuous to the point of theater, as is the case with the Lancia Delta.

Take, for example, the Ferrari 250 SWB. It is arguably one of the prettiest cars in the world with Pininfarina designer Giotto Bizzarrini truly working his magic on it. But as beautiful as it is, at first glance, no ordinary person would peek at it twice. They might probably even mistake it for any other old car. But it is the inconspicuous theater and the drama behind every simple line and the restrained beauty that make it worth the $11 million that it is.

It should be said though, as jaw dropping as they may be, Italian cars aren’t reliable. If it is a daily 9-to-5 commute-worthy car you are looking for, then look elsewhere.

Where Beauty meets Brains: Germany

Germany’s approach to car design is vastly different to that of the Italians. It is a functional approach rather than an aesthetic one, where style is given a lower priority. The main priority is to simply be the best of the bunch. One car which exemplifies this point is the Audi Quattro.

The Audi Quattro was designed by a team led by Ferdinand Piëch, with the goal of dominating the thrilling and exhilarating sport of Group B rallying, a form of motorsport. Till the unveiling of the Audi Quattro, most, if not all, of the competitors had the basic traditional approach to the sport: have an engine at the front generating monumental amounts of power and have a quick ratio gearbox sending as much of it as possible to the rear wheels. They also complemented this colossal power with shiny aerodynamics which supposedly helped the drivers stay on the ground and not topple off the cliffs on which they were racing.

The Quattro was different in that it featured a racing-tuned four-wheel drive with torque vectoring. This allowed the car to be faster around corners and inspired confidence in the drivers even on loose surfaces like gravel and snow. The Quattro’s drivetrain allowed it to dominate Group B rallying and it set the precedent for modern day rally cars.

The German automotive design is based around a simple theme: to be the absolute best in any category. The Germans don’t worry too much about the aesthetic appeal of the design so much as the functionality.

Where Resolution is Steely: The United States

The American car design is driven by a very interesting and frankly badass reason. The basic principle behind an American design is “Why the heck not?”

Let’s look at some details. The Ford Mustang was launched just after the peak of excess, the 1950s. Looking at the demand conditions, it makes sense why the Mustang was so successful. After World War 2, Americans had a lot more disposable income which meant that the economy was doing well. This was the time for businesses to experiment. At the time, given the big heavy cars that Americans were driving, Ford decided to spice things up a bit by competing with the Japanese sports car segment. It was an instant success with Ford selling some 600,000 Mustangs in 1966.

Make no mistake, the Mustang wasn’t born out of an unaddressed emotion or functional need. This American pony car existed to cater to American expectations about what they could do in response to foreign cars. It didn’t need to exist, but it was the sheer, ‘why not?’ that led to Ford competing with the Japanese and in the process, defining an entirely new segment of automotive design, in which the likes of the Dodge Challenger and the Chevrolet became icons also.

Trip to the future

The basic trend here is that when automotive design is let loose, it becomes a manifestation of the ideologies of that country. Cars aside, it can be reasonably inferred that Italy is a place of beauty and soul searching, similar to how Germany is a place of functionality and organization and America is willful and unapologetic. This is an interesting point because it illustrates how national sentiments and national personalities manifest themselves into creative outputs of those countries. Letting art showcase national personality and incorporating this art to some degree of functionality is simply marvelous.

In “Musings,” sophomore Krishna Pamidi shares a new adventure every week about the grand modesty that is called life by exploring the global twists to universal experiences.