Tim Shih received a Bachelor's of Environmental Design/Architecture from North Carolina State University, a post-baccalaureate certificate from the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University, and a BS in Transportation Design from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He currently works as an Industrial Designer for Volvo Trucks North America. His pride: a 1973 2003 tii, and joy: a 1982 911 SC.
When I see two identical Honda Accords sitting side-by-side
(usually in that early-90's teal), I wonder if the two drivers will turn to
each other and wave hello as an acknowledgement of their mutual good taste.
So far, I have yet to see this happen, betwixt drivers of Accords, Camry's,
Tauruses (Tauri?) or any of the best-selling cars of the American Road.
Driving an older car, however, is inevitably a different
experience. If two classic cars are within a mile of each other, they will
adjust their trajectory and velocity as necessary to acknowledge the other
car and driver. This almost gravitational pull is a bond that unites
drivers of most unique cars--Corvette Stingrays, old Mustangs, 911's, and
the like. What's the significance of such encounters? What's to learn from
these strange road-borne social interactions? The lesson here points to
what some cars possess, and many seem to lack today: Character.
When two strangers wave to each other or flash their lights as they
drive by they're not only recognizing the other's car, but--more
significantly--their own, as well. This doesn't happen with an Accord or
Camry driver because, frankly, most drivers of such cars aren't thinking
too much of what they're driving. They bought their reliable four-door
sedan because that's what they wanted: a reliable four-door sedan. They
want to get into a car that they can immediately forget about so they can
concentrate on the task at hand--e.g., talking on their Motorola StarTac.
Those other drivers, however--the wavers and flashers out there--are
constantly aware of the car that they're driving. They relate to their car
and see it as an embodiment and extension of their own--um--personalities.
The car says something about the driver because the car has something to
say. These are the cars that are given names, become part of the family,
and are mourned when they've driven their last rusty mile. These cars, my
friends, have character.
So what is it that defines character in a car? That's like asking
what makes a memorable song or a hit movie. It would be nice to think that
there's a formula for such success: a little bit of element A, a dash of B,
plus some big rims and low-profile tires equals success. But of course it's
never that easy. One ingredient that does seem to be essential, however, is
the presence of an individual--designer and/or engineer--with a strong
vision of what the car can and should be; one person who has the foresight
and influence to guide a car along its long road to reality. Though that
can't guarantee success, it does help the car maintain cohesiveness and
clarity. The adage of chefs and soup certainly applies to design, and is
proven at every car show with each new line of anonymous cars. The cars
that do stick in our collective automotive memory, however, usually have a
name (or two) attached to them: the New Beetle (Freeman Thomas and Jay
Mays), the Original Beetle (Dr. Ferdinand Porsche), Mazda Miata (Tom Matano and
Mark Jordan), Austin Mini (Alec Issigonis), and Porsche 901/911 (Butzi
Porsche). And then there are the names to which cars are attached: the
Pinin Farina's, Marcello Gandini's, and Giorgetto Giugiaro's of the world.
Of course, it's presumptuous to credit one or two individuals with
a car's entire development from napkin sketch to production automobile;
there are certainly others behind the scene that help make ink into
reality. But it's the guiding vision and dedication of a select few that
keep the process from wandering too far from a given direction. Other
perspectives aren't necessarily wrong, but the successful car--like the
memorable song or hit movie--requires a consistency and clarity that comes
from the hand and mind of one composer, one designer. And even the designer
himself would confess to a sense of awe, a humility in the presence of this
creative process. That rare balance of technical expertise, artistic flair,
and divine inspiration is always difficult to achieve, but its rarity and
ephemeral nature are precisely what make it so precious. If it weren't so
difficult to attain, all cars on the road would possess this wonderful
sense of character and personality. Perhaps then Accords would be
conspicuous in their banality, and we would see their drivers wave to each
other as an acknowledgement of their mutual lack of individuality....
(no offense intended to car-lovers out there driving Accords, even the teal