Bono: Popstar to CarCzar

Bono’s latest editorial in Sunday’s New York Times on the state of automotive design certainly struck a sweet chord with me.

The auto industry’s dismal collection of minivans, SUVs and un-sexy sedans of the last few decades has stuffed our roads with a lot of visual jalopies. His proposed installation of figures like Marc Newson, Steve Jobs and Frank Gehry as auto-supremos might seem flighty but we need only look back to the automotive heyday to see that these new hires could really make the industry rock again.

In the 1960s, Detroit was run by the engineering departments. Born of these development teams were products like the Mustang, the GTO and some very elegant Lincolns. All became icons of American ingenuity and creativity. The 1970s saw direction go from the gearheads to the beancounters and what we have is our present day tedium. We have our “safe” solutions, our “family feeling” where all the cars in the brand share the same styling flavors. The big problem is that all the world’s brands (with a couple of exceptions) are getting their flavor from the same spice rack.

The important difference to acknowledge is that the 1960s had a more design-driven approach while subsequent decades opted for a corporate approach with shareholders affecting the decision-making. This is an environment that stifles the bold solitary visionary while embracing a design by committee product development method.

There is abundant talent in the car styling studios of the world. Note ex-BMW design director Chris Bangle. His flame surfaced Z4 is still the coolest BMW of the last decade and his “Bangle butt” 7 Series while the butt of much criticism continues to be copied today. Mazda consistently holds up the design torch and can make even a smaller car like the new Mazda 3 Sport look lovely.

The ability is there but its fruits are not always sold to the market. For example, Renault continues to captivate with its show cars but the latest Clio and Megane models are quite dull.

So Bono, I vote with you. Let’s make the designers the vocalists and lead guitarists of the auto industry and not the background singers.

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