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The Need for Speed: The Art and Evolution of Fast Car Design


The Need for Speed: The Art and Evolution of Fast Car Design

corvette sketch

Lee Walton muses over the biggest post WWII influences in aggressive car design, and ponders what the future might hold. Sketches by Lee Walton

In the same way the animal kingdom sends us primeval warnings about threatening creatures, cars can often suggest emotions to us - have you ever heard someone say “look at that fast car” while looking at a static vehicle? Some cars look faster or more aggressive than others. How is this achieved? How did they know it was fast?

Nearly all cars have a small amount of speed designed into their look. This is due to them being moving objects - and the design is usually intended to be directional. Basic principles affect every car - packaging, component hard points etc, and this affects the size and proportions. Certain packages are associated with speed, a mid-engine layout, with the engine stationed behind the driver, is strongly intertwined with sports cars, supercars and the fastest form of motorsport - Formula One. Beyond this, a designer's inspiration can be channeled from many different sources - nature, science fiction, architecture, pop culture, technology - thus historically influences have constantly evolved over time in regards to speed and style. A simple rule however always applies - to make something look fast, copy fast things!

50s inspired retro fast car sketch

In the 50’s and 60’s for example, American car design borrowed heavily from some of the fastest vehicles designers could think of - Jet planes, and Rockets. This was the age of the Space Race after all and Detroit caught the fever. Cars quickly sported huge fins, and were often very long- thin and barrel shaped. This was also the time the Bonneville Speed Trials were at their zenith, so all sorts of slippery shapes were mimicked with the rear wheels often enclosed within the body. The economy was booming and the optimism was reflected - as each manufacturers’ pockets swelled so did the footprint of their vehicles, and the cubic capacity of their engines, giving birth to the muscle car. In Europe however, things were different. A recovering economy saw a drive towards more compact and efficient cars such as the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500, but there were exceptions - the front of the Lamborghini Miura was famously inspired by an aircraft’s wing, quickly accompanied by a stereotypical dismissive shrug when the subject of lift at high speed arose.

wedge philosophy car design

Like the economy, design moves with the times and in cycles, and in the 70’s the excess was stripped back as the oil crisis hit hard and the cold war loomed. Sharp, minimalist straight lines with aggressive angles and origami surfacing became the trend, and the centre of the car design universe found its way back to Italy. The most obvious aspect of this is what we will call the “wedge” and the “taper”. Wedge simply means that the front of the car is lower than the back when viewed from the side profile. All cars have it, but faster cars exaggerate it - during the ‘70s wedge even came to signal what could best be described as a movement, and it all started with one concept car - the 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero, penned by the godfather of the look, Marcello Gandini of Bertone.

So shocking was this design, the two other members of the great Italian triumvirate, Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign and Leonardo Fioravanti of Pininfarina quickly adapted. Nearly every supercar doubled down on the look - the Lotus Esprit, DeTomaso Mangusta, Maserati Ghibli, Lancia Stratos and perhaps most famously, the Lamborghini Countach. It was the Italian philosophy of outsourcing design to the coachbuilders, or ‘Carrozzeria’ that permitted such thinking to flourish. Such design houses were elevated and revered within Italian vocations, and they mixed it up - ItalDesign’s reach went as far as shaving razors and handguns, meaning imaginations were constantly challenged and boundaries pushed.

lamborghini countach sketch

Mainstream manufacturers took notice and either sought out the Carrozzeria, copied the idea behind a standalone studio on foreign soil, or in some cases outright purchased one in the case of Ford with Ghia. Eventually, the Wedge style filtered down to mass production sports cars - the Triumph TR7 and Toyota MR2, not to mention the TVR Tasmin were heavy adopters. This design language lasted well into the 80’s and was often facilitated by iconic pop-up headlights, which sadly became outlawed by legislation, signalling the end of the era.

Since the dawn of disco however, another influence had been applying pressure - Motorsport. Motorsport has become the defining image of fast driving in the modern age, form follows function and race cars are designed with one goal in mind - speed - so it follows the connection is made by the consumer. Put an aerodynamic device on a road car and it instantly looks faster and more exciting. Can you imagine the Ferrari F40 without its trademark hooped rear wing? Would the Sierra Cosworth have made such an impact if it wasn’t for its outlandish whale tale?

porsche le mans sketch

There is more to it than simply adding a wing however. Race car design is purely functional, and that function is speed. The resulting shapes and lines can often look very fast, even when stationary. Road cars often use the same dynamic lines and surfaces as race cars, either for pure styling purposes or homologation requirements - an Audi Quattro’s box arches reflect the need to accommodate its wider track, every panel of an E30 M3 is different to the three series upon which it is based in the pursuit of speed, a Lancia Delta Intergrale’s gruff front end is the result of cooling requirements for its mammoth turbocharger. Each car cleaned up within its respective field, and those trophies transferred into the psyche of the public...race on Sunday, sell on Monday.

Consumers are currently so conditioned to this connection they often modify their own vehicles (which are not actually fast, or intended to look fast) using race car inspired accessories. Car modification is a global car culture, which has become amazingly popular. Interestingly cars modified in completely different countries actually end up looking very similar. This is due to them all being influenced by the same thing.

Car designers often directly acknowledge motorsport in their designs. The Aston Martin Valkyrie and McLaren Senna prove the dark arts of aerodynamics continue to dominate present day direction. Another example of an extreme high-performance machine that is intended to link a company’s road car division to its Formula One team is the Ferrari Enzo. It has a front-end design inspired by the nose of the Formula One race car - you can actually see similar influences in the F50 and La Ferrari. The Mercedes SLR also had the Grand Prix image thrust upon it, but the aesthetic didn’t quite gel on a front engine super GT.

Koenigsegg RAW by Esa Mustonen

And what of the future? Car designers are constantly living in it. The delay of an idea to production is at least 2 years, sometimes as much as 10 years, so by definition their job is to be well ahead of current reality. If you want to know how the future of fast will look, you need to pick up on a few trends but mostly check what young and fresh car design graduates are doing. Graduation projects are a great indicator, when students are allowed to get creative. Sometimes we get glimpses of what has been going on behind the scenes at car studios, such as the Porsche Unseen project, and Instagram posts of “throwback” sketches. Current unusual fast car shapes include 3 box supercars such as the Polestar 1, and the Genesis X coupe concept.

As ever, motorsport will lead the way. The gathering momentum of battery powered racing and the uptake of hybrid technology in existing forms will place a growing emphasis on efficiency as well as pure speed. Such technology requires new platforms, a different set of cooling requirements and packaging headaches requiring new manufacturing solutions, meaning we could see revolutionary new thinking come to the fore. The BMW i8 is one innovative example that has already come and gone.

Cyberpunk Countach by Khyzyl Saleem

What I can guarantee is future speed aesthetics will come from much more modern influences, such as movies and games. Cyberpunk, already a huge hit game with the same title, has always been a future aesthetic, but the people that grew up dreaming of it are now in the position to make it happen. We could see a return to the space-age with the forthcoming missions to Mars and Elon Musk’s Space-X venture. More sci-fi inspiration and styling for concepts and road cars, less race-car influence.

Deconstructionism is also a trend that we will see in vehicles- as has been shown in architecture from Hadid etc. Mobility services are going to be less about speed and more about convenience, but designers will figure out a way to create desirable shapes or designs even within this space of shared mobile pods or cubes. If the future does turn autonomous, don’t for one second fear the art of speed and design will die. Our attention will simply span a wider horizon - to the sky, or perhaps even the stars.

2050 Nissan GTR X by Jaebum Choi

Written by

Lee Walton


14 April 2023

Last Updated


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