The car gods have smiled upon us lately. In July General Motors unveiled the 8th generation Corvette in California. In September, Jaguar Land Rover took the wraps of the long-awaited Defender. Both cars are quite at opposite ends of the vehicular spectrum. Yet they are identical in one unique way: icons. It is an extraordinary dichotomous situation for the people in charge of those vehicles. It’s a great honour but it is quite a pressure cooker. Public expectations are sky high and some people will inevitably be pissed off. For every successful 911 there is an equal miserable failure (insert your own here). We’ll take a look at both and for good measure we’ll see how things turned out for a certain motorcycle.

 Example 1: The Defender of The Empire

The first Land Rover Series I rolled out of the assembly line way back in 1949. It was to the United Kingdom what the Jeep was to the United States: simple, rugged, unbreakable, an iconic versatile all terrain machine. A Series I was a gift to Churchill’s 80th birthday. The Queen was carried around in a “Landy”. She was even seen at the wheel of the Defender, the heir born in 1983. After a record 66 years the Solihull assembly line went quiet. Generic SUVs carried the Land Rover name yet everybody was waiting for a “true” Land Rover. Their wait was rewarded by design director Gerry McGovern. The new Defender strikes all the right tones. Like its forefathers it is a true off-roader, boxy with short overhangs on the outside. There is an honesty of purpose on the inside, with screws and IP beam tastefully exposed. And those white steel wheels are awesome. As a design it is a great continuation of the brand, with all the HMI you could ever need as a bonus

Example 2: A Promise Finally Kept

Coincidentally there have been 66 years of Corvette because of its formula: an aspirational 2-seater sports car with a big V8 upfront. However, its father Zora Arkus Duntov always wanted to make a true mid-engine sports car. There have been no less than 8 mid-engine Corvette studies. Physics finally caught up with the Corvette. 755h with the C7 ZR1, it was the end of the performance envelope for that formula. There also was another pressing matter: Le Mans. Corvette Racing won its class 8 times since 2001 but not since 2015. Outgoing design director Tom Peters said “design it for a ten-year-old” and the C8 delivered. There are some points of contention. The surfacing is quite busy at both ends. However, the inspiration from fighter jets is just striking in its side view. It can pack the requisite two golf bags and most importantly it remains aspirational: $60,000 for a mid-engine sports car that can keep up with a C7 ZR1. Watch out for a bonkers Z06 or ZR1 in the future. Oh, and that C8R definitely means business …

Example 3: The Sequel to Mona Lisa

Let’s throw back and finish with one of my favourite brands, Ducati. The 916 was one of the most iconic and most decorated motorcycles in the world. It won 6 world championships in its 8-year run (996 and 998 included). How do you replace the Mona Lisa of motorcycles? Chief designer Pierre Terblanche penned the 999 in 2003. The public reaction was definitely mixed. It was purposeful and clever. The 916 was sex on wheels, with its cat eyes, twin gun exhausts and exposed rear wheel. The 999 had stacked headlights, a conventional swing arm and a box for an exhaust. It did what it was supposed to do, 3 world titles in 4 years. Yet it failed to capture the public’s imagination. Look back at the first generation Multistrada. Along the 999 they both look like products. With a BMW badge it actually would not shock anyone. In 2007 Terblanche was gone and Ducati brought sexy back with the 1098. All the cues from the 916 were back. It was not as revolutionary as the 999 but it followed the design expectations set by the 916. It won two world titles in 4 years. All was right with the world again. Most importantly it also started a design streak at Ducati that is lasting to this day.

Conclusion

There will always be furious debates about cars and bikes. It is even worse when they are about iconic vehicles. In the age of social media, it can be downright nasty (ask Star Wars). The Defender and the Corvette face some unknowns ahead of them. Will the Corvette alienate its fan base? Lowering the demographic is a good idea for GM. Yet the boomers are the biggest buyers and some of them already said no. Also, mid-engine cars are exotic, coming from the likes of McLaren and Ferrari. Will potential buyers really cross shop a Corvette? For the Defender it has kept its off-road prowess. Yet it is a big truck and it will cost a pretty penny. Do people even go off road anymore? On the flip-side, is it going too soft by adding a plugin version soon? There will only be one way to know: sales. Look at what happened to the 999, a sales flop for sure right? The Ducati 999 actually outsold its predecessor 2 to 1 its first year (feat accomplished by the following 1098 as well). The 999 even increased Ducati’s market share in superbikes. The designs of the Corvette and the Defender have rightfully earned high marks. Yet the market will be the ultimate judge. The 999 design was vastly more polarising yet it sure got the job done. Maybe Terblanche knew what he was doing all along.

Porsche Taycan

2012 marked the introduction of the Model S. Tesla brought the long maligned electric car into the 21st century. It would no longer have an impractical range. It would no longer be a glorified golf cart. It would no longer look like a science experiment. And most importantly it became the “it” car. Wall Street and Hollywood embraced it in droves. There have been a lot of electric cars since but none of them really ever went toe to toe with the Tesla Model S. Until now. There have been multiple electric cars since. An E-Tron SUV? That looks ordinary next to a Model X. A Renault Zoe or a Chevy Bolt? Nobody cross shops a Tesla with either car (I know, I drive a Zoe). Enter the newly revealed Porsche Taycan. It took 7 years, an eternity in product development: that’s almost two product cycles. But it’s here and make no mistake: it’s a frontal assault Tesla. The Model S just met its most dangerous rival to date for three reasons:

It’s a Porsche – by design

The Mission E teased us and the Taycan delivered. It has stayed remarkably close to the concept car as a gorgeously designed sedan, unmistakably a Porsche. Its low profile has stayed away from the humpback look of its first generation Panamera sibling. The interior is easily identifiable as a Porsche as well yet resolutely futuristic at the same time. Count them: 4 screens! There are some really neat design features like the touch enabled charger doors on both fenders. Porsche has also taken batteries out behind the drivers so you get more foot room as rear passengers. Finally, it kept the very cool black and white wheels from the Mission E. 

It’s a Porsche – by engineering

There is one thing that Tesla does have over Porsche or anybody else: the supercharger network. Looking for places to charge can be challenging. Some chargers are iced, you have to join yet another charging club or it is simply too far to get to. And every time I have looked for a place to charge my car, I have stumbled upon a Tesla station. However, Teslas have been notoriously problematic. In the USA, Consumer Reports has taken both Model S and Model 3 off the recommended list. It is pointless to have a charging network if your car is always in the shop. By the same token Porsche knows how to build cars. It consistently tops customer satisfaction and initial quality studies in J.D. Power. Nobody will match Tesla in range. That’s because Porsche and Audi build their cars and their battery packs like a tank. You can make one prediction for sure: the Taycan will be well put together.

It’s a Porsche – get it?

Finally, you come to the real reason the Volkswagen Group chose Porsche over any other brand in its portfolio to really go after Tesla. Sure, there are other luxurious brands like Bentley, Lamborghini or Bugatti. Yet to quote one of the most famous marketing campaigns of all time about Porsche:

There is no substitute.

Yes, Tesla has its die-hard fanboys but Porsche fans have been at it a long time. Make this a very long time. Porsche won its first of 17 overall victories at Le Mans in 1970, a year before Elon Musk was born. It has won everything from the tracks of Formula One all the way to the sands of Dakar. They have their own celebrity collectors like Jerry Seinfeld or Magnus Walker. They have their celebrity tuners like RWB or Singer. Once upon a time (oh wait they still do it) people lined up around the block for days to be the first ones with the latest iPhone. The 1% has flocked to the Model S because it was an early adopter’s wet dream. It was the best technology could offer. It was green and it would make your neighbour in Chelsea very jealous. Soon those very same well-heeled customers will be offered a hugely enticing alternative to their Model S. Specs will not matter. Money will not matter. Having the “it” car will be the only thing that matters. Musk could not help himself and took his jab at the Taycan (and rightfully so: “Taycan Turbo”, seriously?). He also hastily arranged a Model S to claim back the Nürburgring lap time from Porsche, complete with a celebrity driver. When you are in a proxy fight one of the unspoken rules is to never acknowledge your opponent. Musk might have taken notice that in a very Tesla-like move, the first model year of the Taycan is basically sold out, and to a huge chunk of Tesla owners nonetheless. Maybe there is no substitute after all.

Back in 2014, we started sketch modelling something crazy. That was in the User Experience Studio at GM.  It was a bank of buttons that was floating in mid-air.  It bridged the console to the instrument panel. I never got to see the finished product. That’s because on Tuesday, August 5th 2014, I was on a one-way plane from Detroit to London.  Goodbye 12 years at General Motors, goodbye United States, and hello to a brand-new challenge with Tata Motors, cheers to the United Kingdom.  Monday August 11th was my first official day.  Five year later, it is now a perfect time look back at the five biggest takeaways from the last five years.

 The Upside Down – Part I

The first thing to absorb was the culture shock.  I grew up in France so I should not have been amazed by a more socialist society.  I was a teen without a worry in the world then. Now I was a family man. I knew all too well about the costs of medical coverage and education. In the UK our family uses the National Health Service. It’s cheap and efficient. I send my kids to public schools and the quality of their education has been great.  As my daughter enters secondary school there will be plenty of things to worry about.  A bulletproof backpack?  That will not be one of them.  There are a lot of great things about living in the United States.  If you are an entrepreneur the US sky has no limit.  We can debate for an eternity about socialised medicine and the Second Amendment.  At the minimum, five years away will make you think about the choices you make as a society.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Upside Down – Part II

In the United States you get your health benefits from your company.  Bigger companies typically get better coverage for medical / dental / vision for yourself and for your family.  You can start working at a car company as a contractor.  If you are good at what you do you will eventually be offered a permanent job.  And that’s a big deal.  In the United Kingdom it is the complete opposite and it took some adjustment as a manager.  Good contractors are hard to find. They are in demand and their pay rate can be higher than permanent employees.  And of course, health coverage is universal.  “Permies” receive paid holidays and other goodies on both sides of the pond. It is up to the individual to determine what best fits them. 

The Work

It has been, it is and it always will be about the cars.  In those five years Tata went through two iterations of Impact Design.  And our digital team was more than happy to contribute.  The EVision showed a compelling execution of a luxury car with Indian Design.  That was the beginning of our use of Blender in automotive design.  The 45X highlighted the first ever use of the parametric software Dynamo in automotive design.  It also previewed the production model Altroz.  And the H2X showed how a micro SUV could look tough.  Each car had its mission.  Each car had its different set of challenges.  And guess what: I enjoy challenges. The reward is to see our cars in the metal or featured in the likes of Car Design News.

 The Travel

It is one thing to help design cars for the Indian market when you are 4000 miles away.  It is another to be driven around a tuk-tuk at night in the middle of Pune. It’s not quite a scene from Octopussy but you get the idea. It was great to see how the cars we design were used in their natural environment.  It was also the unique treat to taste for yourself the richness and diversity of the Indian culture, from the temple of Dagdusheth Ganpati in Pune to the Gate of India in Mumbai.  I was also fortunate to travel across Europe: Amsterdam, Valenciennes, Munich and of course London.  If you fly one hour out of Detroit you are either still in the US or in Canada.  In that time in Europe it will take you to medieval times or to completely different countries. It sounds cheesy but it’s pretty cool.

 The Achievement & What’s Next

In the last five years I reached one of my professional goals.  It was great to check that off.  And in that quest, I started my journey to master of a new skill.  Even Ian Callum thinks it might be a good thing to have. I gave a speech in Amsterdam which was okay but it needed work.  So, I decided to do something about it.  I really got into public speaking with Toastmasters and that’s something I will keep doing in the future.  When I signed up more than two years ago, I did not know that it was going to be so handy so quickly. I had to present for work in France, in Germany and in the UK. In the last five years it is definitely the best skill I picked up for myself.

 Conclusion

In the end one thing remains: I am glad I made the change. Oh, the famous buttons made it to production in the 2020 Corvette C8. It would have been nice to be a part of it but there are no guarantees in life. Even in a booming economy GM had a massive round of layoffs just recently. Would I have been spared? I don’t know. Here’s what I know. I started writing this post from Battersea Park, a spectacular area of London.  I also know that my first day at Tata was the exact same day Detroit was drowned in a biblical flood. The entire neighbourhood I lived in for 9 years was under water.  I sold the house less than 2 weeks before…

 

Father’s Day was good to me this year. By pure coincidence it was the day when I took delivery of my second ever Ducati. I looked at it smitten and thought back “how long has it been?” Another coincidence reminded me that it had been 25 years since the Mona Lisa of motorcycles was unveiled. Like everyone else I was blown away by one of the most iconic pieces of design ever created. The 916 made me a huge fan of the brand, on the street or on the MotoGP and WSBK tracks. Imagine the look on my face when I saw it in a catalogue wearing a striking gun metal livery with gold accents. The Neiman Marcus 748L had a smaller engine but it had the exact same lines. It put a spell on me. A year or so later it was mine: the 16th bike out of 100. When I parted with it two years later, I was absolutely devastated. I told myself I would have another Ducati some day. I didn’t know I would have to wait 18 years to ride a Ducati again. But in that time, I have learned a lot from bikes and the truly important things in life.

Father’s Day was good to me this year. By pure coincidence it was the day when I took delivery of my second ever Ducati. I looked at it smitten and thought back “how long has it been?” Another coincidence reminded me that it had been 25 years since the Mona Lisa of motorcycles was unveiled. Like everyone else I was blown away by one of the most iconic pieces of design ever created. The 916 made me a huge fan of the brand, on the street or on the MotoGP and WSBK tracks. Imagine the look on my face when I saw it in a catalogue wearing a striking gun metal livery with gold accents. The Neiman Marcus 748L had a smaller engine but it had the exact same lines. It put a spell on me. A year or so later it was mine: the 16th bike out of 100. When I parted with it two years later, I was absolutely devastated. I told myself I would have another Ducati some day. I didn’t know I would have to wait 18 years to ride a Ducati again. But in that time, I have learned a lot from bikes and the truly important things in life.

 What’s more important is riding

If you only smoke Cuban cigars you will miss out on life. I think that’s a Bob Lutz quote. Anyway, I did not wait all this time to ride again. Hondas were cheap, reliable, easy to maintain and not bad looking at all. The first one was a Superhawk (or Firestorm) V-Twin. If you close your eyes you would believe the soundtrack came from Bologna. In the UK I got something more practical and less expensive to please the local insurers, a CB1300. Bottomline? I love riding. When you are on the bike (and if you want to stay alive) you have to focus 100% on the task at hand. There are no text messages, no calls, no emails, no voice of the boss in your head, no screaming kids, just you and the road. In the time I get to my work commute I’m either fully awake or I made the mental break between work and home. It is my favourite form of escapism.

 What’s more important is progress

Motorcycles have come a long way. The 748L was a race bike with lights. It was a raw, low slung, purpose-built machine. On the right road in the right apex it was absolutely sublime. There were no electronic nannies (no ABS, no traction control). You thought the bike was falling apart because the dry clutch rattled like crazy. Even for a guy in his 20s the 748L was not exactly comfortable. The clutch was heavy and stubborn. Low speed manoeuvres (95% of the time) were not easy to execute. The racing position also put a tremendous amount of weight on the wrists and crushed the pinkie nerves. On my latest Ducati, you sit on top of it, upright and relaxed. At 6’2” (1m88) I can’t even plant both feet flat on the ground. You can choose how many nannies you want. It is an upright bike, supremely comfortable bike but deceivingly quick. So why the hell did I deal with all of this pain back then anyway??? Must have been love…

 What’s more important is perspective

The universe really owes you nothing. After a long slug to get two college degrees my first Ducati was owed to me. I blew a lot of money on a new bike and so what? When I lost my job, I didn’t handle losing my bike very well. Looking back, it is clear I did not handle anything well at all.Today I understand that life is a series of trade-offs. When I got my first company car, I sold the CB1300 so we could go on a family vacation instead. To ride this (gently used) Ducati, I ditched the company car and bought a small electric commuter. And to be honest it really has not bothered me too much. The biggest thing I have gained in the time between those two wonderful machines is perspective. For all I know an unforeseen event or a totally predictable catastrophe will happen and that Ducati might have to go. And it will be okay. When we moved to the UK, I rented a big house. Our current house is smaller (make that a whole lot smaller). Yet we are happier as a family in that house than in the first one. It is nice to have nice things. Blasting through the British countryside on a Ducati is an absolute delight. Yet it really is not the end all be all. You know what my favourite thing is? It is to get off the bike, open the front door of my house and get hugs from my family. There’s no Ducati equivalent to that.

H2X

For people in my line of work it is becoming increasingly clear that a yearly pilgrimage to Munich will be a must. The Automotive Innovation Forum hosted by Autodesk has now gone global. OEMs from Asia and America are now flying in for the two-day event. People discuss and share ideas and methods about the digital tools needed to enable automotive design. I was very fortunate to present last year and I was equally happy to fly to Germany last month. Two things stuck out in my mind this year

First, Rivian, Italdesign and BMW started off the day with their keynote addresses. Each company was impressive in their own right. However, Nio stole the show. The ES8 was on display in the Hilton Lobby. As well executed as the car was, it was not even the most impressive part. The centre piece was what could be referred to as the “Nio experience”. It has completely taken care of any problem related to or derived from the ownership of an electric car. Did you forget to charge your car? Have a coffee at the Nio House while your battery is being swapped. Not convenient enough? You can summon a charging van to your car. Want to drive from Shanghai to Beijing? It is more than a 12 hour drive but fear not. Those highways are hooked up to the Nio charging network. Obviously all of this requires a huge investment. Time will only tell if Nio can achieve its vision but it sure offers a compelling vision. You can check out  part of the presentation online.

Second, let’s get back to more “car design nuts and bolts”. The other biggest takeaway is that some studios have moved away from clay completely. Clay can be expensive. On top of qualified staff, it requires a massive hardware investment: clay ovens, milling machines, physical bucks to build, to maintain and to store. The move away from clay is not too surprising if you are a consultant. The savings can be substantial. The alternative is to set up a PC and two trackers in the corner of your office. Strap on the VR headset and that’s it. That is way less than the cost of a full-size model. It is a little more surprising to see OEMs diving into the full digital realm. GAC’s new advanced design studio in California has gone fully digital and so has its neighbour in Malibu Audi. 

I have spent a lifetime in the tube but I am not a “clay hater” by any stretch. It has my appreciation and my respect. It dates all the way back to school. I remember how difficult it was to sculpt the clay into submission. It really is more like art and you need the flair for it. My clay mentor Alexander Buchan was a fantastic teacher and a sculpture wizard. Also there is nothing like feeling the presence of a car in front of you, running your hands on the surface and feel the fullness of the shapes. In 3D you can zoom ad infinitum into a part. And because of it some designers are never satisfied (never). When you see it in clay, either modelled by hand or milled from the computer, it keeps everything honest. That’s how the surface looks. You can’t zoom in past the physical limitations of your eyes.

When I started in the business many moons ago, parts were already created without clay or foam models. There were done in 3D only to be seen again when the car rolled out of the assembly line. After movies and video games, the automotive industry is probably right up there when it comes to capital investment into computer graphics. Can you even tell what is rendered and what is photographed anymore? It’s a technological warfare of clusters, headsets, tracking gloves and raytracing for the masses. Let’s put it another way. Do you remember the reveal of the first iPhone? When people saw it everybody knew it was going to be big, expensive as hell but revolutionary without a doubt. In Munich it did not feel like that January in 2007 at all. Nobody wondered if there was going to be a revolution. It had already been underway for a quite some time. The only question remaining is: how far will it go?

To clay or not to clay? Sound off in the comments.