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Posts filed under ‘Aesthetics’

I Hate Black Wheels on Cars

October 10, 2016 by Matt

ford-mustang-black-wheels

It’s over. Done. Played. The party’s over. The fad has reached its tipping point, its 15 minute of fame are up, etc etc.

Black wheels, I mean. Cannot stand them. I maintain that they were never attractive to begin with, but even allowing for the ebb and flow of popular taste, the trend is decidedly far past its expiration date.

Why the hate? Simple: When the wheels are painted black, the wheel design does not stand out and does not complement the car’s lines. Might as well be running steelies with no hubcaps. Especially complicated wheel shapes, which otherwise would harmonize with the styling of the vehicle to which they’re fitted simply disappear in a mass of black nothingness.

jag-f-pace-black-wheels

This epidemic is present everywhere, from expected places like wheel-and-tire ads in magazines to muscle cars even to factory fitment on $100K luxury SUVs like Jaguar’s new F-Pace (above). Visually, it does not work and has never worked. The design intent may be to make the car seem more badass and muscular, but the effect is to erase any visual gains by making the car seem like it has an egregious brake dust problem on all 4 wheels.

It’s time for a de-escalation of the wheel size arms race anyway, and a side effect of black wheels is to camouflage its true diameter. Perhaps if a car’s wheels flaunted a brighter finish, people would recoil in horror at their vehicle’s stonking rollers and demand a bit more tire sidewall. One can only hope…

Image credits: autocar.co.uk, bauercdn.com

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The Sweet Spot: ’04-’05 Audi A8

August 27, 2016 by Matt

Audi A8 D3

As with the ’95-’97 Lexus LS400, I really like this car—but only in a very specific flavor.

In contrast to BMW and Mercedes’ practice of rolling out their most avant-garde technology (and design) with their respective top-of-the-line 7-series and S-class ranges, Audi’s flagship has charted a rather more gradual, evolutionary path since the original D2 platform’s arrival here in 1997. In the best Audi tradition, its styling has always been understated, if perfectly tasteful and proportionally spot-on.

Audi A8 D3

Unfortunately, for the mid-cycle design refresh of the 2nd-generation D3 A8 featured here, Audi decided to add its newly-minted corporate “deep grille,” intended to circumscribe the front license plate of cars so equipped. And while I understand the desire to give that bit of necessary evil some context, styling-wise, the A8’s look suffered for it—as did, admittedly, the rest of Audi’s lineup. That said, the pre-facelift D3 A8 stands out in my mind as the absolute pinnacle of the Ingolstadt automaker’s non-deep-grille look. It looks breathtakingly elegant, and in the flesh has a presence matched by few other vehicles. Every line resolves perfectly and there’s a real cohesiveness to its styling that was undone with the refresh. The pre-facelift car looks all-of-a-piece, machined from a single aluminum ingot, and has very real shades of that loveliest of Audi concept cars, the Avus quattro.

Audi A8 D3

Mechanically the D3 A8 was an upgraded carryover from the D2 platform, with 4.2l V8 and 6.0l W12 engines offered here, developing 335 and 444 horsepower, respectively. Audi’s quattro AWD system was naturally fitted to all US-bound cars, and the aluminum-intensive unibody kept weight reasonably low at around two tons.

Audi A8 D3 Interior Inside

The interior is Audi’s typical symphony in leather, wood and metal accents, ergonomically flawless and beautiful to behold and interact with. Mirroring the A8’s outside, it’s businesslike, without the fussiness or gratuitous flourishes typical of many other luxury car interiors. And best of all, the central screen is retractable into the dash.

Most range-topping luxury cars I would feel ostentatious driving; out of place, like I was behind the wheel of something that didn’t accurately reflect my income bracket. The pre-facelift D3 A8, though, in a similar way to the Mercedes W123 coupe, overwhelmingly exudes such a sense of good taste that it transcends petty concerns of class envy when it comes to cars. It’s a timelessly beautiful car, and one I could visualize with little difficulty parked in my garage.

Image credits: netcarshow.com

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Too Much Is Not Enough:
A Car Interior Fantasy

May 11, 2015 by Matt

Millennium Falcon Bridge Cockpit

I alluded to this in my “3 Interior Likes” post, but I think it bears fleshing out. The above picture, a shot of the Millennium Falcon‘s bridge from the film The Empire Strikes Back, represents my holy grail when it comes to car cockpit layouts. In a nutshell: The more instrumentation, gauges, readouts, lights and switches, the better. And it should have a certain ad hoc quality, cobbled together in such a way that only the owner can understand its intricacies.

The desire for such a look and feel is rooted in a few factors:

  • The need to personalize. Other car buffs express themselves through gaudy body kits and coffee-can mufflers; I’d rather my car distinguish itself (and its owner!) via a kind of über-tech interior layout—but one tied, naturally, to a high level of customization under the skin. If I had to give it a label, maybe it’s an expression of the nerd chic aesthetic philosophy.
  • It’s also related to the broader appeal of sleepers, Q-ships, cars that look humdrum but have “got it where it counts,” to borrow Han Solo’s phrase. There’s an appealing drama to a vehicle that has all the outward markings of a loser but sucks its rivals’ doors off when the light turns green. Call it the Susan Boyle effect; it speaks to the underdog in all of us.
  • I might be unique in this, but I derive a degree of comfort from being surrounded by lights, readouts and switches. Maybe they provide a feeling of control? Or perhaps I’m reassured by the fact that they’re passively providing me all the information I need to make a positive decision behind the wheel? On a quasi-primal level, I almost feel like the lights are “watching over me,” that they’re illuminated and vigilant even when my attention lapses, and that thought gives me a sense of security—warranted or no.

Boeing 747 Cockpit Bridge Controls

It’s understood that when they leave the factory, car dashboards don’t resemble the Boeing 747-400 cockpit shown above. The ideal path to achieving the goal, then would be to at least start with a car blessed with ample instrumentation out of the box and add from there. When I look through the steering wheel, I like to see at least 3 secondary gauges (fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, etc) in addition to the requisite speedometer and tach. I’ve been fortunate to have owned several cars with a total of 6 gauges staring back at me—a great starting point.

The closest I’ve come so far to my ideal layout occurred when I owned my 1988 Supra Turbo. Toyota gifted the car with 6 factory gauges, and to start with I added an air/fuel ratio and boost gauge on the A-pillar:

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 Maroon Brown 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Interior Inside Cockpit Cluster Dash Dashboard Momo Wheel Steering

In addition on that fairly standard instrumentation, I decided to go a step further and install some overhead switches and lights. As with many ’80s Japanese performance cars, the Supra was fitted with dampers (shock absorbers) with 3 settings—soft, medium and firm—controlled by servos placed atop the shock towers. The driver was able to toggle between soft and medium using buttons on the center console, but the car itself would automatically set the dampers to firm when a sensor detected sufficient acceleration in any direction. I wanted to be able to activate the firm setting manually, so I wired a pair of Radio Shack rocker switches and LEDs lights inline with a couple of override pins on the diagnostic connector under the hood, and placed them up in the plastic trim panel between the sun visors. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was satisfying to be able to reach up, flick an overhead switch, see a green LED illuminate and hear all 4 servos click in unison as the dampers firmed themselves up. Further instrumentation would have probably required at least the installation of a piggyback fuel computer, and a complete standalone system at the most, which is a tuning goal I’ve pursued for a long time. Who knows; one day I may be able to geek out in my very own Millennium Falcon cockpit.

Image credit: telegraph.co.uk, berghem.tweakdsl.nl

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Audi Concepts: The RSQ

December 28, 2014 by Matt

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ

More than any other automaker, Audi’s styling gives us a sense of “you can get there from here.”

What do I mean? Examine the various generations of Audi cars and there’s a clear aesthetic progression from one to the next. There’s no jumping off the deep end design-wise, a la Bangle-helmed BMW in the 2000s; instead, Audi’s corporate styling themes seem to move forward in even, incremental steps. And while this approach sometimes raises the question of whether their aesthetic evolution is too gradual, the easily-traceable progression makes it easier to extrapolate Audi’s future styling direction. In other words, it’s easier to fill in the gaps between Audi’s present lineup and the look of its concept cars, which in turn makes the concepts seem nearer, less fanciful and more real. While that might be a downside for those who enjoy concept cars as pure flights of fancy, aesthetic puff pieces with no connection to an automaker’s current offerings, most car buffs at some point imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car rotating slowly on the dais. Cultivating that connection means that a less extreme suspension of disbelief is needed to fantasize about driving a concept car, and renders it more attainable, so to speak, and thus more desirable.

Audi RSQ

Audi RSQ Interior Inside Cockpit Console

Take the car featured in this post, the RSQ. Created in 2004 especially for the Will Smith sci-fi action flick I, Robot (itself nothing to write home about, but that’s another matter), the idea behind the car was to create a realistic vehicle for the year 2035, when the film is set. Naturally, it has futuristic overtones, especially the spherical wheels. But because of Audi’s progressive design philosophy, there’s still a connection with their present-day cars; when you see it there’s a sense that, “Yeah, I could drive that.” That attainable quality stands the RSQ in contrast to other sci-fi movie cars like Lexus’s vehicle in the Tom Cruise flick Minority Report. Compared to Audi’s concept, Lexus’s offering looks downright alien. Now, does that mean I consider the RSQ objectively desirable, in that I would choose it over other, present-day Audis? No, but I still appreciate its visual kinship with those models.

Image credits: netcarshow.com, audiworld.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing Audi’s rich history of noteworthy concept cars. Read the other installments here:

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Love It Or Hate It? BMW M Coupe

November 28, 2014 by Matt

BMW M Coupe Z3 Silver

It’s awkward. But is it awesome?

The 1998-2002 BMW M Coupe was the German automaker’s attempt to graft a roof onto their Z3 convertible, introduced in 1996. Eschewing a traditional fastback look, BMW graced its new coupe with a shooting-brake-style boxy profile, with a predominantly flat roof and a more upright backlight.

The automaker also offered a non-M Z3 Coupe concurrently with the top-of-the-line M model; the lesser car shared the M Coupe’s roofline without its swollen fender flares and other aero bits. For our purposes, I’d like to focus on the M Coupe, since it represents the fullest expression of BMW’s styling intentions.

BMW M Coupe Z3 Blue

Dynamically the car was a hoot. Powered by a 315-hp version of the M3’s S54 straight-6 for the last couple of years of its model run, the M Coupe’s compact wheelbase, muscular engine and warmed-over version of the then-15-year-old trailing arm rear suspension from the E30-generation 3-series made it quite a handful at the limit. While capable of a 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph, from a handling standpoint, Car and Driver noted “The M coupe provides the performance pieces and says, ‘Good luck.'”

BMW M Coupe Z3 Interior Inside Cockpit Console

The cockpit reflects the gothic pretensions of the exterior styling with its chrome-ringed instruments and secondary controls. It’s a bit of a jarring statement from an automaker known for its aesthetic restraint. On the other hand, maybe BMW finally “cut loose” with the M Coupe’s styling and dynamic qualities. As different as it was from the rest of their understated lineup at the time, it’s easy to view the M Coupe as a back-of-the-napkin project, the kind of endeavor designers and engineers cook up on their lunch breaks and weekends. That quality gives it a kind of “Skunk Works” appeal.

I hate the way it looks, but I can see why it’s the holy grail of many BMW enthusiasts. It integrates visual and driving character like few sports car have. It looks fast, fun and ugly—and that’s exactly how it drives. What you see is what you get. In many ways it’s the Dodge Viper of BMWs, but with an ever-so-slight dose of German refinement just to make the whole experience bearable.

The 1998-2002 M Coupe polarizes enthusiasts as few do. Maybe, in the end, that’s the measure of its success?

Image credits: netcarshow.com, caranddriver.com

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Styling Misfires:
The 1989-1997 Ford Thunderbird

October 29, 2014 by Matt

Ford Thunderbird Beige

They never could figure it out.

The nose, I mean. They tried four times—four—over the course of the tenth-generation T-bird’s eight-year model run and still couldn’t get it right.

Sure, the various noses were representative of certain engine options and trim packages, and it’s common for automakers to tweak a car’s appearance based on the extras the buyer specifies, but still—it’s noteworthy that none of Ford’s fascia treatments of the ’89-’97 car is successful.

Ford Thunderbird Red

The design of the rest of the car isn’t much to write home about either. It clearly apes the proportions of the BMW E24 6-Series in profile—not a bad car to copy styling-wise—though with far less panache and character. That said, the lines are relatively straightforward, so it shouldn’t be that hard to pen a fascia that coheres with the rest of the car, right?

Ford Thunderbird Blue

What’s the issue? Simply put, the bumper is too big relative to the headlight-grille area. The bumper-to-grille ratio of the ’89-’97 T-bird’s inspiration, the BMW E24, is much more balanced and thus, successful. Compounding the problem is the fact that in two iterations of the car’s nose, prominent bumper intakes draw far too much attention to the ill-proportioned area, like a pimple on an oversized nose. Furthermore, the later “refresh” cars’ bumpers and headlights (shown above and at top) have a curvy, organic quality completely at odds with the boxiness of the rest of the car. There’s a huge disconnect.

Ford Thunderbird Blue

Arguably the most successful nose is that of the pre-refresh non-Super Coupe car, shown above. The area around the emblem is closed, and the visually-overpowering bumper intakes are absent. It’s more understated—but very bland, and still a long way from attractive.

Underneath the skin, the tenth-gen T-bird was a nice car, if a couple hundred pounds overweight. It was technically interesting, featuring independent rear suspension and the option of a supercharged V6 and 5-speed manual transmission. Later cars could be spec’d with the 4.6l SOHC version of Ford’s very competent Modular V8 engine, albeit only with an automatic attached to the back. It’s a shame the styling didn’t live up to the chassis and powertrain’s promise, contributing to the ’89-’97 car’s demise, and ultimately, except for the last-gasp, retro-themed ’00-’05 car, the end of Ford’s storied line of personal coupes.

Image credits: binatani.com, auctionsamerica.com, autoevolution.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein we discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

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Underrated Lookers:
The ’89-’91 Oldsmobile
Cutlass Supreme Coupe

October 17, 2014 by Matt

1991 Olds Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme White

Let’s get a few things out of the way here:

  1. Am I reaching a bit? Maybe.
  2. I hate the name. Hate everything about it. As I wrote in my post on car names, it sounds like a pirate’s dessert. Yarrrgh.
  3. Is it FWD and a turd to drive? Yes and probably.

Still—whenever I come across an ’89-’91 Olds Cutlass Supreme coupe during my commute, I notice it. It’s the proportions that really distinguish it. Examine the car in profile, and a clean, if somewhat boxy teardrop shape emerges. Most of the credit for that goes to the expansive, gently-tapering backlight and the way the rear quarterlights meet the back glass in such a way that they conceal the C-pillar, creating a kind of wraparound “cockpit” look. The nose detailing, too, is very understated and clean. The front overhang is a bit long—thank the Cutlass’ FWD platform for the way the wheels are pushed back—and keeps the car from exhibiting truly European sports sedan proportions, but it’s not a glaring aesthetic flaw in the vein of Chrysler’s cab-forward styling phase. The mounting of the door handles on the B-pillars is an unnecessary touch, but it’s not a debit, and it does clean up the car’s flanks a bit.

1991 Olds Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme White

The ’89-’91 Cutlass coupe’s cheapness and the fact that it’s a bit of an unsung hero from a design standpoint means more than a few have been uglified and tarted up with all kinds of stripes, stickers and chrome appendages, obscuring the fact that underneath it all, it’s basically a very handsome car. The big Olds coupe underwent a styling refresh for the 1992 model year, in the process adding a dollop of superfluous body cladding and replacing the crisp headlight treatment with an ill-advised “hex-mini-light” design. The proportions are still there, but the details are overdone and distracting. As for the original ’89-’91 Cutlass coupe, it’s a shame it doesn’t get more credit.

Image credits: cardomain.com, edmunds.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series featuring cars whose design we find appealing, in contrast to mainstream opinion. Read the other installments here:

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