Look At That Escargot!

car design sketch

Dogleg. Rocker panel. Tumblehome. Daylight opening. Strake. Mohican Line.

Do these terms bring to mind something in your garage? Well, they should! They’re automotive design terms that describe just a few of the styling cues that make your car look the way it does.

I’m far from your typical car guy—horsepower has always been less interesting to me than form & function—but I’ve long since been fascinated with the design choices, compromises, and risks that automobile creators take that ultimately shape (and continually reshape) what we perceive as appealing. It’s amazing how easily automakers can tweak their designs to visually imply capabilities or imbue their creations with certain assumed characteristics:

  • Want a muscle car? Oversize the rear fender flares like the beefy haunches of an animal, emphasize the front wheel arches, and add sculpted swage lines to suggest bulging, sinewy biceps. Also lower the front to again emphasize the hips and reduce the metal-to-glass ratio.
  • Want to make a car seem nimble? Shift the cab forward (increasing visibility and shortening the hood), radically reduce the rear overhang, set the chassis higher on the suspension, and black out the turnunders so it appears perched for attack. An arched beltline also suggests sprightliness and affords a taller DLO without it seeming like, well, a greenhouse.
  • Want a robust and sturdy vehicle? Increase ground clearance, carve out chunky, squarish bumpers, scale up the fenders, and use an imposing, monolithic grill & fascia to communicate ruggedness. Also, be sure to use wheels that borrow heavily from industrial themes wrapped in large knobby rubber. Wheels and wheelarches pulled out from the body sides help imply aggression. Here too, you’ll want to reduce the height of the greenhouse so there’s a higher metal-to-glass ratio.
  • Want a ride that seems lightning quick? Slide the cabin backwards, sharpen the rake (the windshield angle), emphasize the swag and beltlines, and hug the body to the ground. Adding scoops and gills, even if non-functional, implies that this beast runs so hot you have to make extra efforts to draw in cooling air. A spoiler, even if little more than an integral bump off the trunk lid, suggests sportscar-like performance.

Mind you, all of this is largely irrespective of the underlying mechanics. The design of the vehicle makes subliminal “claims” that you subconsciously associate with that car—regardless of whether it’s true or not. These design “tricks” work even if the car in question is, for example, neither fast or agile—used effectively, overall stance and sharply contoured bodylines connote movement, or dynamism, even when the car is sitting still.

Now sure, form does generally follow function and automakers do usually try to back up the implied “claims” that their highly-sculpted exteriors make with complementary powertain, suspension, etc., but for many buyers, aesthetics remain the key draw. And automobile designers have an exhaustive toolkit to tweak those aesthetics to wordlessly convey volumes.

Does the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor rev you up even though it’s simply 8″ of added muscular fiberglass and a chunky grill rework? Do the subtle waves in the sides of the Mazda 5 do anything for you? What’re your favorite automotive styling cues? Or maybe you have some distinct car design peeves? Did the 2015 Mustang break too many ties to its visual heritage to still live up to the name? Does the squashed roofline of the 2014 Volkswagen New Beetle destroy the iconic shape for you? Leave a comment and share car designs that you love or hate!