The History of Automotive Design
The Germans’ favourite Toy

Audi 100 Coupé S
Audi 100 Coupé S | Photo (detail): Audi Archives

Bernd Polster, designer and publicist, answers some questions on the history of automotive design, fleet design and classic cars.

Mr Polster, what makes a car classic?

The new Mini-Fashion: Mini Special - Advertisement in 'Motorrad' 7/1977 The new Mini-Fashion: Mini Special - Advertisement in 'Motorrad' 7/1977 | by Leyland GmbH, Düsseldorf There is no need for a definition. Strangely enough, everyone seems to agree on this. If we find someone attractive, we don’t need to explain why. The 1955 Citroën DS 19 model is rated as the goddess in car design. Close behind in second place is the Austin Mini, then the Fiat 500, followed by the E-type Jaguar and the Porsche 911. It is interesting to note that these ultra classic models all originate from the nineteen fifties and sixties. This can be no mere coincidence. Another interesting aspect is that today, practically everyone knows these car models, but no one can name their designers.

How important is the designer?

These car models did not just appear out of the blue. Top people were required to create them. Today this would probably be referred to as the creative industry. Back then, however, it was just a person who was in the right place at the right time. There were a noticeable number of émigré designers among them, including one major designer who also remained largely unknown. This was the Frenchman, Paul Bracq, who was a qualified joiner and car body builder. During his military service in the French army he was based in the Black Forest and he used one of his day’s off to go for an interview at Mercedes in Stuttgart. This is when his career started and where he designed the Mercedes 600, the 230 SL and the ultra fast sports car C 111 in the nineteen sixties – all of them legendary classic cars. Bracq was a Utopian with brilliant drawing skills and later on became the first émigré designer to be appointed head of stylistics at BMW. This remained the name of the department right up until the nineteen eighties. Bracq, however, considered himself a “Carossier”. Master designers of automobiles were also to be found in Italy. Just like the Italian painters who used to be appointed to Europe’s royal courts, the “Carrozzieris” from Turin and Milan were sought after by car manufacturers all over the world.

Giorgio Giugiaro is one of the last of his kind and has worked for practically every major brand in the industry. He first became famous for his design of the VW Golf that more or less saved Volkswagen from ruin. Giugiaro was an artist at heart.

So he entered the profession through the side door as a lateral entrant. Were there others like him?

Yes, lots. Flaminio Bertoni for instance. An Italian artist who created the Citroën DS 19, and also the 2CV by the way. He was a sculptor. There were no computers in those days. The car had to be designed like a piece of sculpture. Something a sculptor was obviously able to do. Another important lateral entrant was Alexander Issigonis, who created the Mini. Referred to as a “one-box vehicle” this mouse on wheels is the fundamental design on which three quarters of all cars on the road today are based. Issigonis, who has a Greek mother and a German father, grew up in Turkey and later emigrated to England. He had no university training and was an autodidact. Something that is hardly heard of today. But Bertoni and Issigonis had another thing in common, they were both extremely headstrong – something I consider to be absolutely essential for trailblazing design.

Who are the main German car designers?

  • Jaguar XK-E Roadster (BJ 1963) Foto: Dan Smith
    Jaguar XK-E Roadster (BJ 1963)
  • Mercedes-Benz 230 SL, Pagode (Bj 1964) Foto: Lothar Spurzem, 2009
    Mercedes-Benz 230 SL, Pagode (Bj 1964)
  • VW Phaeton Foto: Rudolf Stricke, 2009
    VW Phaeton
  • Austin Mini Super-Deluxe (Bj 1963) Foto: Steve Baker 2005
    Austin Mini Super-Deluxe (Bj 1963)
  • Audi 100 Coupé S Foto: Audi Archiv
    Audi 100 Coupé S
  • Citroën DS 19, Bj 1955, Series 1 (1955–1962) Foto: Radek Weigel, 2008
    Citroën DS 19, Bj 1955, Series 1 (1955–1962)
  • Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Landaulet für den Papst Foto: DaimlerChryslerAG 2006
    Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman Landaulet für den Papst
  • Porsche Classic 911 Foto: Outletvalve, 2006
    Porsche Classic 911
  • 911 T Coupé Foto: Pressearchiv Porsche
    911 T Coupé
  • Fiat 500 ©
    Fiat 500
  • Volkswagen Garbus, 1951 Foto: Lothar Spurzem
    Volkswagen Garbus, 1951
Hartmut Warkuss was the grey eminence in German automotive design. He also exerted significant influence on the brand Audi – the first car manufacturer to give top priority to design.

Warkuss, however, who initially trained as an engraver, does not really like this word at all. Later on, as head of the design department at Volkswagen, he put the entire company on track, from the tiny Lupo right up to the spacious Pheaton saloon car. During his time at Audi in Ingolstadt, his department acted as a creative cell that produced an abundance of young talent, most of whom are now head designers themselves, like Peter Schreyer at Kia, for example.

What has changed in this branch of industry since then?

Practically everything. In the nineteen eighties the first round of design graduates took up leading positions. Car design had not really been appreciated until then. When I published a series of lexicons on design about ten years ago, presenting car design for the first time, I realised that companies had no idea of their own design history. I was involved in fundamental research. And it also marked the moment when ‘design’ became a marketing tool.

What happens when car design becomes more and more a part of a creative industry?

Attempts are being made to steer the creative processes using an army of professional designers and a network of studios that spans the globe. This is where everything now runs very efficiently. Never before have so many models been designed so rapidly. Whether the results are always in accord with this development is debatable. In addition to this, we are experiencing unparalleled advertising and show activities. I believe “creative industry” is a term taken from the pop music industry. It rather looks as if this sector is heading along the show business path. Star designers are being treated like opera tenors.

What does this indicate?

Creative potential is being bought and a corresponding management developed. Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t.

Are cars still being purchased for their design or is it the technology that’s more important? Also, does new technology change the design?

The aesthetic design of a car has always been extremely important. Since focusing on the word “design” it has also been consciously applied. Nowadays, car manufacturers hardly differ when it comes to the vehicle technology applied. The car is a status symbol and an integral part of our way of life, or even our self. And to the Germans, leading car brands have now become a symbol of national identity. Technology and design do, of course, interact. But basically design is there to conceal the used technology. And to such a degree that we don’t actually notice what is going on. These complex shapes that we intuitively grasp but are hardly able to describe would not be possible without the use of today’s software.

Does the car still offer an image of distinction?

The fleet design is extremely important. This creates brand awareness. A Mercedes always used to be unmistakeable, for example, but this is not the case anymore. Now that Volvo is Chinese-owned and Rolls Royce is German, hardly anyone can keep track of things. There is a strong focus on the nose of the car and the radiator grille that form the car’s face. But the rear end should also not be underestimated. This, after all, is what is looked at most.

Bernd Polster is author and publisher, but was also initially a concept developer and designer.