Even the most eminent automotive designers have at least one black sheep in their herd.
You wouldn’t think Giorgetto Giugiaro could draw a boring car but his name appears on a bargain-priced Daewoo made in the 1990s. And, the same hand that penned the Alfa Romeo 166’s sagging face triumphantly resurrected Volkswagen’s Scirocco nameplate on an energetic sporty breadvan a decade later. Designers regularly explore opposite ends of the same spectrum as the environment and the era they work in come together to influence their creations.
Join us for a look at the hits and misses from some of the world’s greatest car designers - please note in some cases the people involved oversaw the designs as opposed to directly penning them:
Chris Bangle’s hit: 2003 BMW 5 Series (E60)
America's Chris Bangle (born 1956) is that rare car designer who has become a household name, at least in BMW-owning households anyway. Many of the designs he oversaw were controversial, but his influence remains enormous. And he decisively moved BMW away from ‘Russian doll’ design principles, establishing independent model identities. Surely his most successful yet still daring design is this, the 2003 BMW 5 Series.
The design exudes comfortable 21st century confidence, and the way the rear lights flare out exclaims, well, flair and flourish. One sign of car design greatness is how well they endure – and we reckon the E60 still looks great today. Bangle departed BMW in 2009 and, what do you know? BMWs today all appear like slightly larger versions of the model below them once again.
Chris Bangle’s miss: 2017 REDS concept
Bangle penned the REDS concept for a Chinese company named REDSPACE. The box-like car surfs every wave sweeping across the automotive industry: it’s electric, it’s at least partially autonomous and it’s envisioned as a vehicle people share. To us, it looks like the hidden child of a Kia Soul and a United States Postal Service mail truck.
Franz Von Holzhausen’s hit: 2012 Tesla Model S
Automotive designers have taken two distinctly different approaches to drawing electric vehicles. Some choose to think far outside of the box and leverage the possibilities created by electrification to break the mold. Refer to the Jaguar I-Pace if you need an illustration. Others decide to draw a good-looking car that just happens to run on batteries. America's Franz Von Holzhausen (born 1968) chose option number two when he started drawing the Tesla Model S.
The Model S was a hugely significant car for Tesla and the wider industry; it was the first vehicle the firm designed in-house. Getting it wrong would have likely sent it to the pantheon of automotive history. Von Holzhausen and his team created a car whose design was perfectly suited to its electric powertrain without shouting about it, and they forged the design language that later shaped the Model X and the Model 3. And the rest of the car industry were stunned by the sheer impudence of a tiny company signposting the road ahead - and have been in catch-up mode ever since.
Franz Von Holzhausen’s miss: 2006 Mazda Kabura concept
Von Holzhausen drew the Kabura concept during his time at the helm of Mazda’s North American design department. Officially, it signaled the beginning of a new era for the Japanese firm. It took the form of a sporty-looking, RX-8-like coupe with a fastback-like roofline, which we’re on-board with, but we never got accustomed to its front end. View it from the right angle and it’s almost Citroën 2CV-like.
Freeman Thomas’ hit: Audi TT (first generation)
At first, the American Freeman Thomas (born 1957) didn’t envision the Audi TT as a production car. It was a project he worked on quietly in his spare time. Audi’s top managers gave the coupe the green light after examining his sketches. It looked like nothing else the firm had ever built and yet careful observers could identify where Thomas incorporated styling cues from Audi’s illustrious past.
The TT’s crisp, Bauhaus-inspired lines helped Audi establish itself as a credible alternative to BMW and Mercedes-Benz. In 2019, the TT is well into its third generation but it remains the design icon in the company’s portfolio of models.
Freeman Thomas’ miss: Jeep Treo concept
Jeep declared that the 2003 Treo concept styled with input from Thomas was capable enough totake motorists to the future. It embodied how the brand’s core values could evolve in the decades following its unveiling. The design study consequently took the form of a zero-emissions, fuel cell-powered Jeep developed for active urbanites who presumably wanted a vehicle that was less truck-like than a Wrangler.
The only parts of the Treo’s design that screamed “Jeep!” were the seven-slot grille and the round headlights. It belonged to an unclassified segment of the market and, in hindsight, it was a better preview of the Renault Twizy than of any model Jeep has released since 2003.
In 2019, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT and the later GTV are often colloquially called the Bertone coupes. That’s a little bit misleading. The Sprint GT was styled by Bertone, true, but it was the work of a young Italian designer named Giorgetto Giugiaro (born 1938). Every variant of the GT stood out with sumptuous proportions and an elegant, sophisticated design that didn’t need gaping vents or bench-sized wings to convey performance.
Giorgetto Giugiaro’s miss: 1997 Daewoo Leganza
With the Leganza, Giugiaro attempted to give Daewoo its own design identity. It looked much more distinctive than the Espero, its value-focused predecessor, but its grille was the only original part of the design. The rest of the car was as exciting as waiting in line at an airport check-in counter.
Giovanni Michelotti’s hit: 1961 Alpine A110
Italy's Giovanni Michelotti (1921-80) started his association with France's Alpine in 1955, when he designed the A106, the firm’s first car. He worked on the A108 and evolved it into the A110. The two carsshared many styling cues but Michelotti lengthened the A110’s rear end to make space for a bigger engine and consequently tweaked its proportions.
The design was spot-on, the A110 was the quintessential berlinette, and it stood the test of time well. Alpine built its 21st century renaissance on the A110's timeless desirability.
Giovanni Michelotti’s miss: 1984 Reliant Scimitar SS1
Michelotti didn’t end his career on a high note. The last car he drew is the Reliant Scimitar SS1 which was released in 1984, four years after his death. It was a door stop-shaped roadster with boxy lines that lacked the allure of Michelotti’s earlier designs. It looked like a Volkswagen Beetle-based kit car.
As Autocar reported in 2011, Reliant optimistically planned to build 2000 examples of the Scimitar SS1 annually yet it only managed to sell 1507 cars over the course of a decade. We wonder if its awkward styling had something to do with the fiasco because a convertible with almost no rivals should have sold better.
J Mays’ hit: 1991 Audi Avus concept
By 1990, no one doubted Audi knew exactly how to build a high-performance car. Its Sport Quattro dominated Group B rallying during the 1980s. Could it build a supercar better than the Italians, though? America's J Mays (born 1954) defiantly argued “yes.”
The 1991 Avus concept showed a side of Audi no one had seen since former parent company Auto Union effortlessly broke records with its Silver Arrow race cars during the 1930s. Low-slung and wide, it paid homage to the Silver Arrow racers without cribbing any of their styling cues. Aluminum kept its weight in check and power came from a mid-mounted, 6.0-liter W12 engine rated at 502hp.
J Mays’ miss: 1999 Lincoln Blackwood concept
The unexpected success of the original Navigator SUV convinced decision-makers that adding a truck to the Lincoln line-up was the right thing to do. J Mays and his team brainstormed to find the best way to proceed. They collectively came up with the Blackwood concept, which was essentially a Navigator with a cargo box styled to look like – you guessed it – black wood.
The design study received the green light for production, surprisingly, but it arrived as a two-wheel drive-only model with a carpet-lined bed topped by a tonneau cover. 2002 was the Blackwood’s first, last and only model year on the American market.
Marcello Gandini’s hit: 1974 Lamborghini Countach
The Lamborghini Countach is remembered as one of the most emblematic sports cars of the 1970s -- scratch that; of all time. It’s also one of greatest hits ofItaly's Marcello Gandini (born 1938). Long, fluid lines characterized its silhouette while drawing inspiration from the many wedge-shaped concept cars Bertone designed around the turn of the 1970s.
The Countach was such an influential model that Mitja Borkert, Lamborghini’s current head of design, told Autocar it remains the backbone of the company’s design language in 2019. Even the Urus has some Countach in it.
Marcello Gandini’s miss: 2000 De Tomaso Bigua/Qvale Mangusta
De Tomaso planned the Bigua (which later received the Mangusta name) as an Italian alternative to the TVR Griffith. Memories of the Pantera had started to fade, and precious few enthusiasts remembered the original Mangusta from the 1960s, so the firm couldn’t lean entirely on its heritage. The Mangusta needed to break new ground in order to stand out from the pack and lure power-hungry sports car buyers.
Gandini used broken lines to give the Mangusta a head-turning design. It certainly worked, but most enthusiasts weren’t staring in admiration. The polite ones called the Mangusta unconventional; harsher critics called it a curious amalgam of styling cues that looked like it was designed for a video game.
De Tomaso pulled out of the project and Qvale – a company who helped fund the car’s development – released it as the Qvale Mangusta. An odd-looking car with lukewarm performance made by an automaker no one had ever heard of didn’t exactly set the sports car segment on fire. For reasons unclear, flat-broke MG Rover then acquired the project and launched it in 2003 as the MG XPower SV, with Porsche 911-rivalling pricing. Just 82 or so were sold - yet another nail in that unfortunate company's coffin.
Tom Tjaarda’s hit: 1966 Fiat 124 Spider
For the American Tom Tjaarda (1934-2017), a young designer working at Pininfarina, turning the Fiat 124 into a convertible by simply shortening the four-door model and chopping off its roof was out of the question. He channeled his creativity into a gorgeous roadster that shared no styling cues with family car it stemmed from. Tjaarda superimposed unmistakably Italian lines onto a body with classic roadster proportions.
The 124 Spider’s design endured almost unchanged until production finally ended in 1985. Fiat drew inspiration from Tjaarda’s roadster to design the retro-styled, Mazda MX-5 Miata-based 124 Spider released at the 2016 Los Angeles auto show.
Tom Tjaarda’s miss: 1985 Rayton Fissore Magnum
Rayton Fissore enlisted the help of Tjaarda to help it turn an Iveco chassis developed primarily for military use into a posh SUV aimed at the Land Rover Range Rover. Named Magnum, the end result resembled a Fiat Uno too hopped up on steroids to fully hide its military background. The Magnum received the name LaForza and a Ford-sourced V8 engine before embarking on a trip to America.
Walter de Silva’s hit: 2008 Volkswagen Scirocco
Working with closely with Marc Lichte, who leads Audi design in 2019, Italy's Walter de Silva (born 1951) revived the Scirocco nameplate on a shooting brake-like coupe that managed to find its own spot on Volkswagen's family tree. It wasn’t a retro interpretation of the first two Scirocco models and it didn’t look like the fifth-generation Golf it was based on, either.
The end result was a sporty, desirable and practical coupe that looked fresh even 10 years after its release.
Walter de Silva’s miss: 1998 Alfa Romeo 166
De Silva knows how to make a good-looking, correctly-proportioned front-wheel drive Alfa Romeo. The 156 and the 147 are proof of his ability. The 166, however, is a good example of how not to design an Alfa. Its front overhang is big enough to park an Autobianchi A112 on and the model launched with droopy headlights that made it look like it hadn’t slept in three days.
Alfa Romeo completely redesigned the 166's front end in 2003. By that point, de Silva had already moved to the Volkswagen Group.