PERSPECTIVE | Timeless questions.

Theseus’s ship.

That mean anything to you?

Explore the wikipedia entry about it, and it might give you a little start. What makes a “thing” a “thing”?

So now you’re asking why this guy’s writing about a 2,000-year-old paradox on a car design website.

Which means it’s time to talk about lines vis a vis collective and transferred memory.

An easy first example is Porsche’s 911, which has undergone hugely significant evolution in its almost 50 (!) years of production (longer if you, like Jeremy Clarkson, consider it to be nothing more than a VW Beetle “with mustard up its bottom”). At its core, it remains steadfastly committed to a shape very much dictated by its rear-engine configuration, and unique and unmistakeable profile. Today, though, it’s a much larger, heavier, and more powerful car, with a water-cooled engine, modern electronics and safety equipment, and a shamelessly curvaceous body.

In other words, completely different. Yet, somehow, the same. Some people criticize Porsche’s designers as the laziest in the business, but I am not one of them. Harm Lagaay, Porsche’s design director from 1989-2004, described their job as curators– ensuring the continuity of form and line despite making considerable change to both.

It’s like the performer spinning plates on sticks– move too fast in any direction and things break in a split-second spectacle.

Seeing a 997 next to a short-wheelbase ’68 is an education in every aspect of car design and engineering. Yet our brains say “that’s a 911.”

Ford’s Mustang took an altogether different evolutionary path. The late-Sixties and early-Seventies Mustangs changed significantly year by year; bigger, meaner, heavier, unto excess (I’ll confess that the ’69s are my favorite) until the Mustang II came along– based on the Pinto platform. Over the subsequent two generations, the Mustang would become an altogether different breed.

Forty years after its debut, the Mustang looked like this:

If a car enthusiast Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1964 and woke up in 2004, would he see that as a Mustang?

Beyond, arguably, the tri-bar taillights, the existence of a side scoop, and the pony badge, there’s nothing belying its origins.

That all changes in 2005.

Aside from having wheels and seats, it’s different in every way from the first-generation. Yet, this time, there’s a clear visual link with the original, whether it’s something about the roofline, the quarter vents, or the sharknose, people said “it looks just like the old ones.”

Except that it doesn’t. I think it’s mostly about the hood shutline into the headlights– the line to the eyes. As with the 911, it’s a completely different thing– bold, thoroughly modern surfaces, solid stance, devoid of superfluous ornamentation, not to mention the technology underneath the skin. But from a visual standpoint, there’s enough reference to our collective memory of what the essence of Mustang-ness is that our brains see this new shape as Classic Mustang.

As designers, we always strive to make something new– but new doesn’t mean anything without a context. Whether we’re trying to design the next Mustang or re-invent a brand’s visual language, our efforts are successful only when there’s a connection to the culture in which they will live. Sometimes that means a break from the past, as Cadillac proved with their Art and Science design language. They broke from the doughy, staid bloatmobiles of the decades preceding, and moved into a crisp, hard-edged future, and have seen considerable success because of it. Mazda, with the Miata, tapped into our collective memory of the English roadsters of the Sixties– something that they had no actual connection to. Yet, despite sharing nothing other than the characteristics inherent in a small, 2-seat, lightweight convertible, the Miata was labeled “retro” even though that little pumpkinseed was very modern for its time. Designers in California, from all over the world, designing a Japanese car, had embodied the collective memory of those Triumphs and MGs, except that this one would start every time you turned the key.

I’m neither egotistical or bold enough to think that I can solve an ancient paradox with a blog post. I’m more interested in hearing what you have to say about the essence, the “-ness” of something. What is it about certain cars that make us think that they have a spirit, or that most-overused word in every car magazine ever, a soul that remains, despite the fact that everything has changed, on top of the fact that every single example is different from its cohort?

Is it our memory fooling us with its lazy unwillingness to accept something new as truly new? Or is it that the whole really is more than the sum of its parts, because we have a memory, both personal and collective, of what something is, and when something that we’ve designed hits the right chords of your synapses, your brain hears that same old song?

We look forward to hearing from you.

Leave a Comment