When I wandered into the Royal College of Art yesterday, it dawned on me that it’s 21 years since I first visited the Vehicle Design degree show. Back in 1991, I had a couple of friends graduating from the course and I visited them now and again.

What really struck me was the difference between the design approach of the class of 1991 and the class of 2012. It’s a difference that will feed through into the cars we can buy.

You will recognise some of the names - or their work - from 1991. Marek Reichman (now design boss at Aston Martin), Niels Loeb (pen behind the VX220 and a big cheese at Opel for many years), Geoff Gardiner (Citroen, Ford and now Renault) and Thomas Ingelath (VW, Skoda and now the new Volvo design boss).

There was a very distinct feel to the Class of 1991. They put a huge emphasis on illustration and high quality model making. Renderings were of an astonishing standard, probably never bettered since. Designs were extremely refined, polished and sophisticated.

You can see how these guys - now in their mid-40s and running design studios - have influenced production cars. The incredibly polished Aston Rapide is a good example, as are Audis of the last 10 years and the new VW design language. Indeed, Audi design boss Stefan Sielaff graduated from the RCA in 1990.

Today’s RCA is not nearly so concerned with artistry. Tutor Sam Livingstone told me yesterday that the college was now much more interested in the depth of the idea behind a design. “We get criticised for the quality of out models but we’ve always said we’re not a finishing school for cars designers. The approach of 20 years ago could be described as shallow”.

Indeed, many of today’s students do not make the 3D models, farming them out to be created from the computer data they have created.I’m not sure about this. I had a front row seat watching my contemporaries rendering using markers, ball points and pastels (which were scraped with a scalpel and the shavings mixed with talcum powder) and cotton wool to produce stunning sketches. They also lovingly sculpted their own clay models and finished the glass-fibre scale models to astonishing standards.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that students learning these hands-on techniques was the reason car styling has risen to today’s high standards. Such commitment to finish and integration is a key to the success of premium brands. Whether today’s intellectual approach will turn out to be better for the future of car design is something we won’t know for a decade or so.

It was graduating RCA students of around two decades ago that created landmarks such as the Rolls Phantom and Mk3 Range Rover. For my money, I think they’ll still be setting the standard in another two decades.