October 16, 2021

Mvagustaoftampa

Automotive and technology

How’d You Think of That? Cars with surprising design origins

6 min read

Not every vehicle has a smooth — or expected — incubation period

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Designing a new car is no easy task. Automakers need to blend a cohesive mix of elements which are friendly to the wind for efficiency, realistic enough to be constructed in a factory without exorbitant cost, and actually look like something that consumers would actually want to buy with their own money. This is not to mention a litany of ‘brand design cues’ that must be incorporated plus — allegedly — a decent amount of hubris on the part of some team members. It’s a wonder we’re not all riding around in featureless transportation appliances.

Some machines have very surprising design origins. We’ve assembled a roundup of car designs which are purported to have some very strange pedigrees, ranging from the back of a napkin to the crayons of a child. Understand there is a good bit of urban legend and Internet scuttlebutt to some of these stories — did Harley J. Earl really carry a corduroy teddy bear in his briefcase? — but they all make for a fascinating window into the world of car design.

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Now, where’s my box of crayons?

Mobility Ventures MV-1

VPG MV-1

Built as an alternative to expensive van conversions that are usually pressed into service as an accessible vehicle, the MV-1 was built as a universal vehicle that can accept mobility scooters or a wheelchair and its user, supporting the mobility community with a solution that fits their requirements. The builders recognized vehicles converted for mobility purposes can have mechanical failures since it was not originally designed for that duty. The MV-1 was crafted from the ground up with a mobility ramp and its user as a forethought, not an aftermarket add-on.

VPG MV-1

Interestingly, the car’s final design was truly inspired by a crayon drawing. Nick Grande, a driving force in the development, cited a sketch made by his daughter, who was four years old at the time and drew a vehicle that she thought looked like the vehicle her dad was attempting to construct, as inspiration for some of the MV-1’s body lines. Looking at the illustration and finished product, there are similarities. What happened to the drawing? It was framed and placed in the company’s head office, of course.

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The Original Mini

While it does seem like a tired old trope, designer Alec Issigonis really did outline the genesis for the original Mini on a napkin after stopping into a restaurant for lunch. Back in 1956, Issigonis had the goal of creating a car no more than 10 feet long that could carry four people and their luggage.

His colleague, Jack Daniels (no, not that Jack Daniels) turned the Issigonis drawing into actual mechanical illustrations, eventually including working out how to fit an engine and transmission in just 18 inches of available space. That initial napkin sketch is said to have contained a few detailed notes on how the car would ideally be built, including a requirement that the 120-inch machine fit in a container measuring four feet wide and four feet tall.

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KITT

Speaking of impromptu scribblings, the overall design for Knight Rider‘s hero car was originally drawn on a bar napkin during a meeting between John Schinella — leader of the studio responsible for the new-for-’82 Pontiac Firebird’s exterior design — and a television producer for the show. Apparently, Schinella enjoyed working on home renovations when not in the design studio, and was finishing a project at the residence of Pontiac’s west coast PR agency when asked about the possibility of including the brand’s new Firebird in an upcoming television show.

Putting their heads together, with the gearhead providing fuel for what the real car would look like, and the TV suit describing his vision for the on-screen vehicle, a sketch developed on a napkin was what would go on to be called KITT, complete with the now-familiar red light on its front fascia. Where’d that design cue come from? Blame (or credit) a fascination with Cyclons, a fictional race of robots in Battlestar Galactica.

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Alfa Concept Tipo 33 Stradale Drawing

Alfa Concept Tipo 33 Stradale Drawing
Alfa Concept Tipo 33 Stradale Drawing Photo by @nells18/Instagram

No, this isn’t a real car — yet — nor is it the historic and outrageously expensive classic Alfa of roughly the same name. The machine you see imagined in the above photograph from Instagram is actually the collaboration of a senior designer at Reebok, a design lead at Ford, and a keen eight-year old gearhead named Nik.

Brian Rinella, the Reebok designer, learned a friend of his son was very interested in car design, to the point where the young man had a goal of drawing a new car every day. Seeking to encourage the lad, Rinella — despite being in the shoe biz — sketched out a car and put it on Instagram which caught the eye of Michael Smith from Ford design. Using a program called Gravity Sketch, the two designers collaborated online to develop this 3D rendering. And as for young Nik? He got a front-seat ride in the process and an encouragement to chase his dreams.

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Ford Taurus / Mercury Sable

Ford Taurus

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Ford Motor Company stood at something of a crossroads. Seeing machines like the Chevy Citation from General Motors, plus more than a few cars from import brands, eating the Blue Oval’s lunch and stealing market share, plans were put in motion to develop a family sedan that would claw back some of those losses. But a front-wheel drive design for these models wasn’t always a forgone conclusion, despite the sales success being enjoyed by FWD machines at GM.

According to records of the era, a meeting was convened in August 1979 at Ford HQ to hammer out a driveline decision for a pair of cars slated to appear in 1985. Yes, planning that far ahead was required 40 years ago and what was decided that day would be the basis for machines that wouldn’t see the showroom lights for nearly six years. Allegedly, a detailed engineering study which rated the two plans on an open-ended scale gave 175 points and 174 to front- and rear-drive, respectively — essentially a draw. It was only after ten hours of meeting on a hot Monday in August that Ford’s managers chose front-wheel drive and set their project in motion for what would eventually become America’s best-selling car. The rest, as they say, is history.

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