Austin Rover unveils £5m design unit
Motoring by Peter Waymark
Ask any car designer about his job and he will probably say something about the need to reconcile the practical requirements of the vehicle with what is called showroom appeal – the ability to excite the customer and, even better, persuade him to buy. It is impossible to say how many sales have been lost because, without even getting into the car, let alone driving it, a potential owner has been dissuaded by the vehicle’s appearance. Judging from casual conversations, it happens a lot more frequently than might be thought.
This week Austin Rover lifted the curtain just a little on its design operation, which must of necessity be subject to the utmost security so that what is being planned for models due to be launched in five, even ten years time, does not leak to the opposition. Astonishing as it may seem, though with what used to be called British Leyland nothing surprises, the company’s design department was until recently scattered across three sites with inadequate facilities. Hardly conducive to dynamic creation. Then the old Triumph factory at Canley, near Coventry, stopped production. BL tried to sell it but were hampered by covenants and decided to make a virtue out of necessity be pulling together under one roof most of the functions of Austin Rover, its volume car division.
Among the facilities housed at Canley are new design studies, which, when they are completed, will have cost more than £5m and be able to claim the latest in computer and other technology. Computers now play a crucial part in the development of car design, not only making the process more accurate but so speeding it up that according to Austin Rover the average lead time on a new model has been cut from six years to four.
The importance of this is that unlike, say, his opposite number in the fashion business, who only has to plan ahead a few moths, the car designer has somehow to gauge the tastes and needs of motorists in several years’ time when conditions may be quite different from those obtaining today. The Austin Rover design director is Mr Roy Axe, a passable double for Eric Morecambe who until he took up his job two years ago had spent his career with Rootes and then Chrysler, latterly in the United States. Given the lead times referred to the first Austin Rover model to bear what might be called the Axe marks is the XX executive saloon due next year.
This is the car that BL has developed jointly with Honda of Japan and it will be fascinating to see how the collaboration works out. Each company is producing its own version of the XX from a basic common design and the biggest difference will be in external appearance. With each new model after that Mr Axe and his 110-strong design learn will be aiming for a family resemblance to a greater extent than the company has attempted so far though when the LM11 medium saloon is launched in April, keen eyes may spot something of the flavour of its mechanically similar stablemate, the Maestro.
Mr Axe says his aim is “to produce designs which are contemporary in every way. Designs which create eye appeal but not at the expense of practical virtues. Our philosophy is to achieve a balance between all functional requirements, coupled with an appearance that generated excitement.”
Excitement stems largely from individuality, but are not cars tending to look more and more alike and is that not inevitable, given the various constraints upon a designer, from the technical to the functional and the legislative. In other words, once you have created sufficient space for the engine. powertrain and suspension units; provided ample seating, leg room and head room for four or five people, and met legal requirements on lights, bumper heights and crash-worthiness, is not the look of the vehicle going to come out very much the same, whether the manufacturer is Austin Rover, General Motors, Nissan or anyone else?
Mr Axe is naturally alive to the danger and realizes that his creations will be judged on how successfully he manages to avoid it. The XX must somehow offer everything that the customer expects from an executive car in ride, comfort, performance and so on, while looking quite distinctive from the Audi 100 and the Volvo 760 and indeed the current Rover which eventually it is likely to supersede.
One of the biggest factors producing conformity in recent car designs has been aerodynamics. Once fuel saving became issue number one in the wake of the oil crisis. so aerodynamics which involves creating more streamlined shapes setting up less air resistance and hence giving more miles to the gallon was the new sacred cow. But as far as Austin Rover is concerned it will be a sacred cow no longer.
As Mr Axe’s colleague responsible for exterior design, Mr Gordon Sked, puts it, “slavish obedience to aerodynamic characteristics must not reduce individuality. If it is sometimes difficult for designers to differentiate vehicles, how can the public tell the difference? “‘Designers in the 1970s were criticized for encouraging a Euro-look, particularly in front end design. I am determined that we shall not be similarly rebuked for allowing aerodynamics to encourage a similar lack of individual identity.”