The Road to Design Runs Through Pebble Beach

The “Concept Lawn” at The Lodge during this year’s Concours offers a glimpse into the future.

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    Brian Douglas

Automotive design can be pretty subjective. One person’s stylish ride is another’s funky contraption. And I constantly get car design critiques from gearhead friends about whatever new test vehicle I’m driving each week. No need for me to take it personally; after all, it’s not mine and I’ll drive something different next week.

Bentley EXP 100 GT Interior

When I evaluate new vehicles for readers, I try to be as objective as possible. I’ll share what I’ve learned about how well the vehicle meets the expectations of its intended audience. If that includes people who I caught staring in joyful ecstasy at the machine, I’m betting the designer nailed it. For example, during Monterey Classic Car Week, I took part in the Pebble Beach Concours Tour down Carmel’s Ocean Avenue, behind the wheel of a stunning red Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible. A group of locals had gathered with scoring signs to rate the classics. They gave my car a perfect 10, and that’s a win for the RR team.

Back in the early ’90s, when electric vehicles were first timidly testing California’s roads, I received quite a different reaction. When I returned to my GM EV-1 with groceries in hand, I found a Post-it note on the windshield. Apparently, someone was so offended by the EV’s styling, he or she went to considerable trouble to share with me that, “It’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen.” I lost not a moment’s sleep over that critique, but I’m always impressed with how much passion car design can ignite.

Electric Opportunity

Many of the new designs at the Concept Lawn this year were battery powered, and creative style is no longer an oxymoron when applied to EVs. A perfect example is Bentley’s EXP 100 GT coupe. When my designer friend Tom Matano first looked at the classic proportions—a long hood flowing into a short greenhouse and deck—he asked if it was really electric. The car’s style shouts front petrol engine, rear-wheel drive. Moreover, the big grille is a clue that a radiator might reside right behind it.

When assured that this was an EV, Matano weighed in on the design opportunities that occur when large quantities of air to cool an internal combustion engine are no longer required. Now the car’s front view is a canvas for the designer to make a statement. The design question becomes, do we create a face or go minimalist? I’m personally fond of a face like the grill the first Tesla Model S sported rather than its current razor-like, cutting-edge style. Perhaps that’s because I’m so used to a vehicle making a brand statement.

Above: De Tomaso P72

Future Designers

My takeaways from conversations with design professionals are that new offerings are based on the objectives of the automaker. Is the life of the new design expected to be long or short? Long-lasting style like BMW’s 7-Series may not have been popular in the beginning, but it passed the test of time with flying colors as each new edition became just a bit more refined.

Another design objective might prefer drama over a longer shelf life. Supercars like the new De Tomaso P72 fit this high-fashion category. The need to be expressive intersects nicely with the reality of hand-built, low-production models. If the style isn’t necessarily enduring, the bet wasn’t really that big a risk.

Out on the Pebble Beach Concours field, I asked Matano what he thought of the De Tomaso design. His quick response was that it was a bit “fat” for his taste. Fat may be a bit harsh in my opinion; I’d settle for voluptuous in Rembrandt’s fashion to best describe the supercar’s sensuous styling. And that’s the fun of automotive design: beauty is clearly in the eyes of the beholders.

On the subject of longevity, VW Beetles, MINI Coopers, and Fiat 500 models were so iconic in their design that they were recreated decades later. There is a limit to how long automakers can milk their icons, and that limit seems to be arriving for the cute trio. VW will end New Beetle production this year, Fiat has stopped bringing the little 500 models to North America, and the BMW dealers who created separate MINI stores are rumored to be unhappy. Perhaps everyone who wanted to revisit the ’60s has made that trip.

Professional Opinions

Styling may well be subjective, but for those professionals who make their livelihood designing new vehicles, a successful outcome is vital. That doesn’t mean the new look gets instant acclaim, but it must resonate with the target buyer. Because when automakers bet millions on a new design, success has many parents but failure is an unloved orphan.

When I decided to weigh in on the most innovative new designs that appeared on what has become Pebble Beach’s Concept Lawn, a manicured carpet of grass in front of The Lodge, I sought some high-level help. My good friend Matano was the principal designer of the iconic Mazda Miata. He’s also Executive Director of the Industrial Design School at Academy of Art University, and many of his automotive design students have gone on to successful careers at major automaker studios. In addition, he has served as an honorary judge at Pebble Beach and other prestigious car events.

I tasked Matano, along with his Design School Director Antonio Borja, to share their professional opinions of seven new car concepts from this year’s Pebble Beach display. I also suggested that a couple of their top students, David Kim and Ash Lewin, weigh in, since these youthful enthusiasts and trendsetters are the target of today’s design exercises. We’ve shared this professional commentary below, along with photography of the candidates we picked from Pebble Beach, and we invite readers to also offer their opinions. After all, the vote that counts comes when you choose your next new vehicle.

Bentley EXP 100 GT

Tom Matano: It’s a rather bold design for the Marque, striking at first glance by its sheer size, but with a presence that is required at the top level. Since a grill is not required for an electric vehicle, the designer had the freedom to create a centerpiece.

David Kim: The EXP 100 comes off as one of the brand’s most courageous concepts so far. It was controversial when it first came out, but the vehicle is strong and fresh while still being a Bentley.

Ash Lewin: The sheer scale of this vehicle is captivating.

Above: Bentley EXP 100 GT

BMW Vision M

TM: This is a continuation of a youthful design direction that began with BMW’s i3 model, but it’s hard to tell what performance this car is capable of in the design language.

DK: The design choice was a bit confusing at first. If it’s an electric car, why did they go with the red color over the “i” sub-brand’s blue color? To separate the “M” brand and not have it associated with their “i” electric badging, they took a different approach. The driver-centric interior design is probably the best “sporty” or radical approach.

AL: I think the brand deserves credit for being experimental, particularly with the broad color breaks. However, I feel that their embracing of the kidney grill has pushed its exaggerated proportion to become overpowering and distracting.

De Tomaso P72

TM: A romantic design approach that captures the essence of the golden era of Italian sports racers. And the P72’s limited production run allowed the stylish Mechano-Romantic interior.

DK: This is it. This is what the brand needed for a revival: a mix of classic Italian overall design with modern design elements (headlights, modern fender-to-front fascia treatment). The car doesn’t scream to be a De Tomaso, however; it’s a mix of Alfa Romeo Stradale 33 and Ferrari 250 LM. Nonetheless, a strikingly beautiful car with modern essence.

AL: This concept is interesting in that, at first glance, it would not feel out of place in 1969 at LeMans. But with a closer look, the embellishment of each and every detail becomes apparent.

Genesis Mint Concept

TM: This is a nice tidy package and a fresh departure from some of the over-designed show cars of late. It’s nicely executed, with the best view coming from the back three-quarters of the vehicle. However, this style could have come from other manufacturers.

DK: Genesis made a smart choice by breaking the stigma of “size matters” for luxury cars. While the grille is missing (and unnecessary, as there is no radiator), Genesis implemented their signature fascia by putting in a triangular point that stretches to the bottom. The cargo space is positioned high, but the lowered door-cut solves the problem. When opened, the doors are out of a person’s way so that the cargo space is easily accessible and manageable. It’s a real smart car while not being an actual Smart-branded car.

AL: This concept is a nice departure from traditional luxury. I enjoyed seeing this in person because it shows that luxury can be compact and energetic.

Above: Lotus Evija

Karma SCI Vision

TM: A timeless approach with classic proportions, and the absence of many facets or gimmicky details make this design striking. The non-grill may provide an advantage to companies without historical identity.

DK: This is a vehicle that screams for the need of a bit more volume on the front fenders and hood. While its proportion is striking with the cabin being pushed all the way to the back, the car overall is bland and asks for more attention to the basics rather than the details. The interior is a great design as it clearly divides the driver and the passenger, but the exterior is a Hot Wheels car.

AL: I appreciate the finesse of lines on this concept. I feel it captures the sense of drama and tension that would come straight from a quick sketch.

Lotus Evija

TM: It’s difficult to bring in a new car to this highly contested mid-ship sports car arena, since competitive brands have established their own identities through their design language. This Lotus has achieved that tight target using bold yet cohesive elements.

DK: An unexpected concept from the brand. With every automaker, whether it’s Koenigsegg or a Chinese start-up chasing to make a super/hyper-car, the market is fierce and highly competitive. But Lotus managed extremely well to create yet another striking and potent vehicle. While the front could be any brand, the rear is distinctively and definitely a Lotus. Thankfully, unlike many student works, all lines and design elements are cohesive and play well within each other. The design elements (floating dash versus rear deck of the car) flow into the interior.

AL: I was so happy to see this in person. The Evija elevates Lotus into new territory, and as a fan of the brand I am glad they are setting a new benchmark. Though, as one of the great underdogs of motorsports, I hope they can downscale this new language and technology and translate it into their smaller and more affordable models.

Lincoln Continental Coach Doors

TM: It makes an interesting addition to the lineup but could have a better greenhouse.

DK: The “concept’s” purpose is understandable but isn’t necessarily needed. It appears to be a dying brand trying to give minimal changes to attract the older generations back to their vehicles. However, in this case, having the door handles implemented into the chrome-molded beltline makes sense, while it seems gimmicky for the regular Continental.

AL: I have not seen this car in person, but appreciate that Lincoln is continuing to bring its trademark approach to the American luxury car.

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