It’s incredibly difficult to get automotive design right in the modern era. Safety regulations and the desire to cheat the wind for improved performance and fuel economy make it easy for cars to end up all looking alike. But some designs go beyond fitting a car into a specific framework. They’re a monument to massive ego, penny-pinching cynicism or sheer cluelessness. Here’s what it looks like:
There are cars that take a long time to learn to hate. When the Infiniti J30 arrived in 1992, it was at a time when all cars had devolved into the “Bar of Soap” school of automotive design, but the J30 was a little different. In white, it didn’t look like a bar of soap. In white, it looked like someone had paid American Standard to design a new toilet fixture. It is a design that screams “I’M FROM 1992!!!”
The J30 came out of the studios at Nissan Design International, under the direction of Jerry Hirshberg. It’ difficult to remember it now, but at the time, Jerry Hirshberg was the most widely recognized automotive designer in America. He wrote a book titled The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business, and was generally regarded as a design powerhouse. He did, after all, design the 1971 Buick Riviera.
But looking back on the actual body of work at Nissan, Jerry Hirshberg was responsible for some of the most uninspiring, dated, anonymous cars ever built. Look at the vehicles included in his biography for his book: Nissan Altima (first generation), Nissan Maxima (the fourth generation and beyond), Nissan Pulsar NX, Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager. Looking back on it, there isn’t a single standout design in that entire resume.
It wasn’t until Hirshberg left and Renault took possession that any of Nissan’s cars started to be recognizable again, beginning with the Z33 that wasn’t announced until a year after Hirshberg left.
The Aztec is the car that everyone loves to hate. It’s so universally loathed that urban myths have surfaced about its design, like how it was “designed by committee,” and that the concept car was way cooler looking. Neither of those stories are true.
The apocryphal story is that the car was designed by committee, but Wayne Cherry was the design chief in charge at the time. If you’re going to take credit for things like the stunning Cadillac Sixteen concept, you have to take your lumps for the Aztec, too. Cherry was at the forefront of splitting GM design into brand-specific studios, which led to Tom Peters’ specific design influence on the Aztec.
Peters worked on the 2014 Corvette Stingray, the upcoming – and very handsomely styled – Silverado, so the man clearly knows what he’s doing. As far as the concept looking better, the only thing that’s remarkably different is the lack of obnoxious cladding which seemed to be popular at GM at the time (see the first-generation Avalanche – also a Tom Peters design – as evidence).
There’s probably some truth to the idea that the design department got undercut by the accounting department, since the Aztec had to ride on the TransSport’s platform, but come on: You work for General Motors. Platform engineering should be as familiar as the fact that tires are – and always will be – round. Unless you’re building a Corvette, you’re going to be sharing a platform with something else. That’s been true since the 1940s.
BMW had a lot of things right in the 1990s, and design was at the forefront. These weren’t cars with chrome portholes or fake fins. They were conservatively designed the way that a two-button Fitzgerald suit from Brooks Brothers is. You can buy something that looks a lot more hip and stylish, but nothing looked as good then, and nothing really looks as good now as a black E38 BMW 740i with the Sport wheels from the late 1990s.
Then along came Chris Bangle – BMW’s first American chief of design – in 1992. Some of the designs under his leadership were fantastic. The Z8, for example, looked fantastic, even if it never lived up to its performance potential. Some were an upturned middle finger in the face of convention, like the “Clown Shoe” Z3 M Coupe. Both of those cars were outliers, though: low-production one-offs built more on a whim than anything.
The E65 7-Series was the design that was going to carry the standard for BMW, though. It was shocking to see such a square-shouldered, tough car like the E38 morph into something that was a blend of sharp edges and amorphous blobs. The bustle-back rear deck recalled cars like the front-drive Cadillac Seville and the 1983 Chrysler Imperial, neither of which you’d ever like anyone to compare your hundred-thousand-dollar executive sedan to.
Then the designs got worse, until we were presented with the BMW GINA in 2008. It had a fabric body and looked like a gray raincoat stretched over a jungle gym. GINA was supposed to be an acronym for “Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations,” but I think it was actually named for the vagina-esque opening that revealed the engine. When its scissor-style doors opened, the fabric wrinkled like a fat, naked man getting out of a beanbag chair.
In 2009, Bangle quit BMW and launched his own design firm, which has mercifully never been heard from again.