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.

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.