BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

The turnaround artists

  • Fathers of reinvention

    Designers are the celebrities of the car world, but there’s good reason for that. These are people who speak to us on an emotional level, and have as much – if not more – to do with selling cars than the dealerships that showcase them.

    But sometimes a designer is tasked with much more than making a car look good. This artist is tasked with resuscitating a brand that is on the ropes, or that has never quite found its groove, or that is just plain boring. Simon Cox (pictured), a 30-year design veteran, was recently tapped to inject some blood into Infiniti – a brand that has struggled to translate the virtuosity of its concepts to the showroom floor.

    With Cox’s appointment in mind, we look at the designers who charted bold new courses for their employers – and who survived to reap the rewards. (Photo: Nissan)

  • Giorgetto Giugiaro (Volkswagen)

    Volkswagen (VW) had enjoyed sales success with the Beetle and Microbus since the company’s early years. The carmaker expanded its palette through a fruitful collaboration with Italian coachbuilder Ghia. But in the early ‘70s, when VW was struggling to break through again, it turned to design consultant Giorgetto Giugiaro. Responsible for the first-generation Passat, Golf and Scirocco, Giugiaro revolutionised mass-market car design. The Golf particularly became the benchmark against which all other cars in its segment were measured – a status it has maintained to this day. (Photo: Volkswagen Group)

  • Giugiaro's 1974 Golf MkI

    (Photo: Volkswagen Group)

  • Marcello Gandini (Lamborghini)

    It’s no secret that Ferruccio Lamborghini, founder of the now iconic company that bears his name, decided to build his own sports cars following a well-publicised row with Enzo Ferrari. While the first vehicle, the 350GTV by Franco Scaglione, was well received, Lamborghini appointed Carrozzeria Touring to redesign it to suit production. For his second car he turned to consultancy Stile Bertone and the company’s then 22-year-old design director, Marcello Gandini. The success of this collaboration – which would continue for 22 years – is clear in the Countach, Diablo and Espada, all of which bear Gandini’s signature, but it is his gorgeous Miura that ushered in a new vehicle type: the supercar. (Photo: Automobili Lamborghini)

  • Gandini's Lamborghini Miura

    (Photo: Automobili Lamborghini, via Newspress)

  • Chris Bangle (BMW Group)

    When Bangle took up the design reins, BMW was doing well enough, competing head-to-head with its premium rivals. The cars were honest, dependable and of faultless build quality. And yet, the BMW range lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Bangle’s decision to develop a more contemporary aesthetic that deviated from the company’s well-regarded – if somewhat cookie-cutter – design approach was backed by the board, but it did not sit well with critics. The Wisconsin-raised designer received hate mail – and even death threats – over the avant-garde Z4 and 7 Series sedan, the latter wearing what would become known derisively as the Bangle Butt, but he persevered. And while this step change in BMW’s design language may not have been universally accepted, it firmly established the company as a design leader. (Photo: BMW Group)

  • Bangle's BMW GINA Concept

    (Photo: BMW Group, via Newspress)

  • Harley Earl (General Motors)

    As General Motors’ first design director, responsible for what was then known as the Art & Color studio, Earl was tasked with building everything from the ground up. Credited with designing the very first concept car, the 1938 Buick Y-Job (pictured), Earl nevertheless had to cool his jets in the 1940s when the General turned over its production lines to feed the war effort. Earl came roaring back in the ‘50s with some of the most ornate, flamboyant designs ever to grace the streets. Tailfins, dagmars, jet-like fuselages – they were cues that would spawn imitators worldwide, and initiated GM’s mid-century domination of the automotive market. (Photo: GM Media Archive)

  • Earl's 1951 Buick LeSabre Concept

    (Photo: GM Media Archive, via Newspress)

  • Peter Schreyer (Kia)

    Kia started life as a producer of bicycles and motorcycles. Its effort to break into automotive production was short-lived, as the Korean government dictated that the company develop light trucks for the army. Eventually it began building passenger cars and briefly collaborated with shareholder Ford. None of these developments, mind, helped it sell cars. But in 2006, executives made the decision to become a design-led company and recruited Audi design chief Peter Schreyer. Since taking the helm, Schreyer has transformed Kia’s lacklustre line-up, developing a clear identity for its products that has resonated globally with buyers. Perhaps his biggest production hit thus far is the Optima, which offers premium sedan values without a hefty price tag. (Photo: Kia Motor)

  • Schreyer's 2011 Kia Optima

    (Photo: Kia Motor)

  • Simon Cox (Infiniti)

    Nissan’s luxury offshoot was launched in the US in 1989, the same year as its Japanese arch-rival, Toyota’s Lexus. Though the Q45, a direct competitor to the Lexus LS400, and later J30 sedans were design-led luxury products, Infiniti has struggled to create statement vehicles that would distinguish it in the marketplace. Enter Simon Cox, whose CV includes the Cadillac Cien and Converj concepts, as well as the bonkers (and beloved) Isuzu VehiCross. Cox also worked as a consultant on the sinuous Infiniti Emerg-E concept, which made its debut at the 2012 Geneva motor show. If distinctiveness is what Infiniti needs, Cox is an inspired choice to deliver it. He will be working out of the brand’s new studio in London, reporting to design chief Alfonso Albaisa in Hong Kong. (Photo: Nissan)

  • Infiniti Emerg-E Concept

    On which Cox was a consultant. (Photo: Newspress)

  • Flaminio Bertoni (Citroën)

    Founded in 1919, André Citroën’s small car company launched the 5CV and the first steel-bodied car, the B10, following World War I. Competitors followed suit, and were soon threatening the French company’s existence. That all changed with the arrival of Italian designer Flaminio Bertoni. Under his watch, the brand saw the creation of the innovative Traction Avant, which sold nearly 760,000 examples during its 23-year production run, and the seminal DS, “The Goddess”. Citroën sold nearly 1.5m examples of the technically advanced DS over 20 years. Even rudimentary vehicles like the 2CV were massively successful designs, and because of them, Citroën survived – and thrived – garnering an undisputed reputation for daring design. (Photo: PSA Peugeot-Citroën)

  • Bertoni's Citroën Traction Avant

    (Photo: Newspress)

  • Laurens van den Acker (Renault)

    Dutchman van den Acker replaced retiring Patrick le Quement in 2009. Though the highly successful Twingo and Megane models were developed during le Quement’s tenure, the well-designed Vel Satis and Avantime failed to find favour with buyers. Upon his arrival, van den Acker went to work on redefining Renault’s product portfolio, exploring themes through a “life-cycle” sequence of concepts that included the DeZir, Captur, R-Space, Frendzy and, more recently, the Twin'Z – created in collaboration with British industrial designer Ross Lovegrove. Crucially, the organic and sensual language of these concepts has made the leap to production in the form of the Clio and Captur, which have resonated with buyers. (Photo: Renault)

  • Van den Acker's 2010 Renault DeZir Concept

    (Photo: Newspress)

  • Walter de’Silva (Volkswagen)

    Since creating the watershed Alfa Romeo 156 sedan during his tenure at Fiat Group, Walter de’Silva has gone on to apply his deceptively simple aesthetic to numerous brands in the Volkswagen Group. He’s also surrounded himself with some very good stylists. Under his direction, former Lamborghini design director Luc Donckervolke created the Murciélago and Gallardo, Wolfgang Egger redefined Audi’s face and evolved the brand’s interiors, and Klaus Bischoff applied a clean and simple design ethos to Volkswagen cars. From a common “people’s car” like the VW Up to the planned Bentley SUV, de’Silva’s vision and leadership, combined with his penchant for purity in form, has had outsize impact on an outsize conglomerate. (Photo: Volkswagen Group)

  • De'Silva's Audi R8

    (Photo: Audi)