By on February 22, 2012


TTAC Commentator halftruth writes:

Hey Sajeev,

I see a lot of manufacturers using the binocular style gauge motif (see Hyundai Elantra, 2011 Avalon, Chevy Cruze for example) and I hate it! I also see a lot of carmakers using the upside down triangle motif in a lot of their steering wheel designs.  We can even throw in the obligatory fuel AND coolant gauge.. they all seem to do this same thing with little variation. That said, if we look thru history, this mimicking has always gone on.

But why? Sometimes a bad idea is just that and shouldn’t be copied: I am reminded of huge gaudy consoles that take up legroom- for an automatic.

Sajeev answers:

Many, many moons ago, I studied Industrial Design at the College for Creative Studies. I was deluded enough to think I could be the next Harley Earl/Bill Mitchell/Jack Telnack. Instead I learned a truth of the car business from the perspective of an idealistic college student.

And if you notice an undercurrent of bitterness and sarcasm in my writings, well that’s also a byproduct of my time in design school. But I digress…

Binocular style gauge clusters?  They make you feel like you’re on a motorcycle.  Which is cool, even if you don’t get it.  After all, who doesn’t want a crotch rocket over a family sedan? I guarantee you that every clinic-demographic study done by the automakers justifies this styling trend.

Upside down triangle wheels?  Actually, I am okay with this one: tillers are more than just a way to steer and save your bacon (airbag) in a head-on collision. Thanks to cruise control, audio control, climate control and SYNC-like interfaces, the wheel should be a charming piece of design to keep you interested in the technology…when parked.

My point: the car business is a lead-then-follow industry.  Someone has the balls to do something nuts, and when said loony activity makes money, everyone jumps on the bandwagon.  Cadillacs got tailfins. BMWs got Bangle-Butts, Ford made the Taurus/Sable. Chrysler produced the Minivan. Nissan put clear taillights on the Altima. Technology like SYNC gave new purpose to an old steering wheel. And people like a sedan/CUV that’s influenced by a sporty motorcycle, too.

It all brings home the bacon. As Grandmaster Flash said:

“Cause it’s all about the Money, ain’t a damn thing Funny.

You got to have a con in this land of Milk and Honey.”

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

When did you realize this sad truth about car design?

I learned about copycat designs with my favorite car, a 1983 (Fox Body) Lincoln Continental that’s been in the Mehta garage since 1986.  At the time, the Hooper inspired “bustleback” coachwork from Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler proved that everyone had the same idea. And I am not sure if any other moment in history made the point quite this clear!

Hooper’s designs were famous for a long hood, short deck and a sweeping beltline that dramatically tapered down to the rear bumper: the 1980 Cadillac Seville was the first to see gold in that pre-war styling notion.  Chrysler was certainly the wildest with the 1981 Imperial coupe, yet I thought the 1982 Fox Continental’s incorporation of the fake tire hump and Rolls Royce style grille (both Lincoln hallmarks for decades) worked the best on the retro-British theme. Plus, the automotive experts at Motor Trend liked the Foxy Conti better than the Seville, so now I know I’m 100% right.

Who knows, maybe disco music and endless lines of coke was part of the problem in the years leading up to those three redesigns. Or not.



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47 Comments on “Piston Slap: Automotive Design Studio Inbreeding?...”

  • avatar

    It’s the perpetuation of bad ideas that bother me.

    The white clear lens tail lights became a plague on just about EVERY car a few years ago, as did the fad of the double perpendicular semicircular outlines EVERY car has that somehow count for wheel arches an no one can think of anything better.

    What really got under my skin was when the Ferrin carmakers started to make trucks they started to put the shifter in the CENTER console, taking up a crapton of space, instead of keeping with the column shifter as all the agricultural American vehicles had.

    Some of us really like bench seats and the fact that “captain’s chairs” are all the rage upsets us.

    • 0 avatar

      “fad of the double perpendicular semicircular outlines EVERY car has that somehow count for wheel arches an no one can think of anything better.”

      YES! When will people realize that this makes the car look chunky, high, and terrible?

  • avatar

    I for one can’t wait for everyone else to start copying Ford’s 4-post steering wheels like the one in the Focus.

  • avatar

    I used to dislike the binocular style gauges too, but they are beginning to grow on me where done tastefully such as on the Jetta Sportwagen and CC. The Focus has the strange trapezoidal binocular style which I’m not so sure about.

    More concerning on the instrument panel is the removal of oil temp and fuel gauges in low end models, substituted by cheap electronic readouts. The Elantra and non-GLI Jetta are good illustrations of this. Additionally the unreadable numbering on the tach and speedo is annoying, check the ‘italics’ style numbers on the Focus and upcoming Escape. Why oh why, Ford?

    If you want a beautiful steering wheel, look no further than the Audi A6 or A7. The stock wheel, not the rounded one with the sport package. It is a work of art IMO. Agreed the Focus’ wheel is very nice too.

    • 0 avatar

      “More concerning on the instrument panel is the removal of oil temp and fuel gauges in low end models, substituted by cheap electronic readouts.”

      Do you know how many drivers don’t even know what an oil or coolant temp gauge is or why you should care?

      My wife is a smart woman, and practical — but didn’t know why on earth my car had either (her car doesn’t have them). Me and my ScanGauge (which she bought for me) were a bit flummoxed — I just want to know what’s going on under the hood more than most people (apparently), even my smart and practical wife.

  • avatar

    I’m a tad claustrophobic. I am 6’3, 190 lbs. So, although I easily fit into most new cars, I am having a great deal of trouble getting comfortable in them. The dash is pushing at me. The console is crowding me. The steering wheel is demanding that I see it. The beltline is too high. The A pillar the size of a horse’s leg. Frankly, an old Festiva seems roomier than a new Accord or Camry to me, even though I know it was smaller. I will not buy many new cars because I hate how they smother me. What the hell happened? Am I to hunt down old Volvos and Subarus in order not to feel like I am splunking in a vehicle?

    I know the excuses – safety. F’ that, that’s a lie. What we got is a bunch of lemmings incestuously copying each other’s designs in order to prevent a marketing failure. They are not designing for success, they are designing to prevent failing. So, we end up with claustrophobic car designs today.

    A leading auto designer needs to take one of their hands and reach down into their pants to check if they got the equipment necessary to lead us out of this.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s the cockpit design, and like you said, EVERY surface from the doors, to the central console, to the wheel and dash is encroaching upon any driver more than 6 feet tall.

      I assumed this was just a problem with Japanese and European cars where the usual drivers were smaller and considerably less fat than we are, but to see new cars of all makes coccooning the drivers in a shell of plastic is troubling. I guess the designers equate all that space with grandpa cars like the Panthers.

      It’s why the last car I bought was a work truck because no one at GMC got the memo and still don’t mind if you want to stretch out on the sofas they call seats. Ironically it’s the ONLY vehicle I’ve owned, aside from the LC, where I didn’t have to move the driver’s seat all the way back and crank it all the way down.

      Oh, and the GMC instruments, lots of big gauges, none are combined/integrated and nothing is missing except for AT temp, which can be brought up on the odo. Speedo, tach, fuel, oil pressure, coolant temp are all there in giant green displays where function rules over form.

    • 0 avatar

      Totally agree. I am 6’4 240 (too many carbs). Perhaps the most egregious offender is the new Taurus. Massive car on the outside, yet the driver feels totally constrained. Stupid massive center console.

      My 2011 Accord is fairly open feeling, even if less so than in days past.

      Of course, my 2005 Sienna is stellar in this regard. Tons of head room, and no console to speak of.

      • 0 avatar

        The center console was indeed a deal-killer on the new Taurus. Loved everything about the car, including the look, but hours on end with being constrained by that console took the car off my very short list. I wasn’t even bothered so much by the rear window only showing the upper grill of trucks. The Accord has taken it’s place, same interior room but smaller trunk. I’ll keep the old Acura for a bit longer.

    • 0 avatar

      The dash is pushing at me. The console is crowding me. The steering wheel is demanding that I see it. The beltline is too high. The A pillar the size of a horse’s leg.

      That’s why I bought the GTI over the WRX or C30 – it felt so much bigger and more expansive. Also, at 6’2″ it’s one of the few cars I don’t have to keep the seat all the way back. I get in some car’s, even big SUVs and I swear something is jammed in the seat track. But, no, that’s as far back as the seat goes.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m only 6′, but I feel the same thing. In fact this is one of the main reasons I ended up buying an Element last year. I really liked the sense of space it had compared to other vehicles I tried. Now I even feel cramped driving my wife’s Grand Caravan, and I absolutely hate having to look around the rear view mirror (because it’s so high in the Element that you have a clear field of vision ahead of you).

      People tend to copy what seems to sell, however, and vehicle design is as subject to the whims of fashion as any other area or field.

      Of all the things, I think it is the high beltline and horrendous rear visibility that unnerve me the most these days. It really limits the choices of those who want a more spacious feeling vehicle.

      • 0 avatar

        What you tall/hefty guys (I’m 6’1″, 220 lbs, no snark) want is a 1997-2005 full size Buick LeSabre. That had a column shifter and bench front seat. The Park Avenue had buckets but you could put the center arm rest up and have a sort of bench, and it had the column shifter too. Or you could try a panther if you want a bench front seat, or a pre-2007 Avalon. The era of the 6-passenger full size car is over, unfortunately.

      • 0 avatar

        Lorenzo, the last gen of LeSabre is an awful parody of the 92-99 LeSabre. Mom had a 92 that was roomy and reasonably comfortable, the 04 we looked at was awful in comparison, no room in the back seat, smaller trunk, less visible sightlines. Still not sure how they did that and still keep the same overall size, and claim more room.

        I’d rock the slightly updated 97-99 model. Make it even more interesting by swapping in the Ultra drivetrain or SSEi clone.

        One of the reasons I love my 2nd gen Explorer, lots of room, and just the right size with great visiblity.

  • avatar

    I can’t wait for fixed rear sideglass on coupes, gunslit windows, blob designs and plastic bumper covers to go out of style! Oh, yes – grey/charcoal bland interiors as well.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget the “pedestrian-friendly” duckbill front ends and mailbox-slot trunklids. I’d like to see those disappear too. And for you angry pedestrians – you stay off the roads, except in crosswalks, and I won’t drive on the sidewalks.

    • 0 avatar

      And 20″ rims that really don’t enhance traction and handling but have tires on them that cost $400 a corner.

  • avatar

    I like the new gauges and steering wheels in cars. For too long too many cars had bland gauges that were just stamped on a black piece of plastic. And how many cars used to all have the same ugly steering wheel? At least there’s some style now.

  • avatar

    Just a bit mystified as to why someone would feel so strongly about the “binocular” gauges. Apparently you’re missing the subtle, underlying inspiration: they are a pair of breasts staring back at you while you drive.

  • avatar

    Ok, a couple of things.. I ride a motorcycle and prefer the real thing to this supposed assimilation carmakers are trying to put across. My biggest complaint is that depending on your angle of view, it is almost as if a small part of one gauge is cut off. Makes no sense to me.

    mdensch->If that is what you would even remotely call a pair of breasts, well, my point stands even more. Again, I’ll take the real thing..

    Clear lights, suffocating interiors, high belt lines.. No thanks.
    I was really surprised that the Sonic’s Mattel-styled-looking dashboard received such positive responses from the reviewer and commentators as well.

    Great responses though, glad I am not alone!

  • avatar

    “Binocular style gauge clusters? They make you feel like you’re on a motorcycle.” Specifically, a “crotch rocket”.

    And again, the car industry is behind the times by about two decades. The vast, overarching majority of motorcycles gave up the binocular gauge cluster around 1990 or 1995. I’ve been riding since 2001, and all my bikes’ IPs (save only the Harley, which is deliberately anachronistic) look like the one in the Chevy Cruze. I wouldn’t mind that catching on.

    At a glance, the large format digital speedo closely inset to the analog tach is easy and fast to read, so the rider/driver can pay attention to getting ass-packed by the Home Depot dually with the automatic transmission that shares a floor console with Jimmy Hoffa.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you mean the Chevy Sonic. The Cruze has a setup similar to the rest out there. I also agree that the style of the tach with a digital speed readout is great

    • 0 avatar

      Ditto that. My soon to be dearly departed Mini has a speedo in the tach, it’s a great feature, especially if you drive stick.

    • 0 avatar

      Regarding the digital speedometer, from a purely design standpoint I do like it, it’s cleaner and takes up less space, allowing more focus on how the rest of the IP blends in. However, I can’t say I’m a fan of it from a functional perspective.

      I recently purchased a car that has one. Once the novelty wore off, I found that I prefer the relativity of a needle. 51mph or 59mph doesn’t really look all that different at a quick glance, and well.. I’ve already gotten a couple of speeding tickets.

  • avatar

    It is a shame that you have ditched design – it is truly the last frontier of our post industrial age. Design of commonplace objects define our interaction with our world. I have seen cell phones morph from candy bars to star trekish flip tops, to the crrtent craze of largeish flat panels.

    As for cars, its all about design. I can remember as a small child being mystified at how suddenly, and without warning, in 1958, all cars grew 4 headlights. I still cant figure that one out. It was like a law was passed.

    Currently, the craze is not enough windows space, a trend i find most distressing as it makes it difficult to see out of the damm car. This adds to the endless distactions of modern life – countless entertainment choices, phones, movies, etc. in the car. Now, you cant even see out of them. Sigh.

    Dual hood instrumennt pamels? Just another in a long line of stuff that supposed to get and keep us interested in buying new products, thats all. Not good or bad, just different. Fins disappeared. Push button automatic transmissions (a real good idea i always thought) have disappeared. I find it amusing that most modern front wheel drive cars still have a transmission hump. Also huge clunky shifters in an oversized center console. Why? Most people drive automatics. Why all the real estate in the center console? Who knows.

    Mostly, these design elements keep me interested in new cars. A new stack of buttons to push, seats to adjust, steering wheels to feel, its like cheap sex. Frivilous and cotton candyish, the purpose as you said, is money. As in getting us to part with it. What will it take today?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s all great in theory. And while I have the utmost respect for many car designers, the industry as a whole is a meat grinder.

    • 0 avatar

      “What will it take today?”

      Exactly the opposite of what the industry gives us now. Ever notice that in many commercials featuring a man or woman driving, the car is not a current model? Most likely a model from the 1960’s-early 1970’s, either a hardtop or a convertible.

      THOSE are the types of car designs we really want. Something that doesn’t look like an egg fried on a sidewalk, devoid of any bright trim, an interior that you have room to move around in, glass you can see out of, and has a definitive front and back end with bumpers that actually look like they could withstand a minor impact, oh, and shine, too! Character.

      Rant over…

      • 0 avatar

        The only time I see those car commercials, I notice they are usually selling a reverse mortgage, or disposable catheters, or artificial limbs, or some kind of erection drug for limpies.

        I think they are selling to the folks who drove these cars, and now need two bathtubs for their Cialis medications.

  • avatar

    I like my steering wheel tilted pretty low, so that my shoulders are relaxed. (Especially in the many cars in which I can’t get the steering wheel as close to me as I would like without being too close to the pedals.) How about they design gauges whose top portion isn’t obscured from view by the steering wheel? I wouldn’t care that much what they looked like as long as I could, you know, actually see the damn things.

  • avatar

    “At the time, the Hooper inspired “bustleback” coachwork from Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler proved that everyone had the same idea.”

    “Me and my baby in my Cadillac,
    Fifth wheel on the back, ooh”

  • avatar

    “I can remember as a small child being mystified at how suddenly, and without warning, in 1958, all cars grew 4 headlights. I still cant figure that one out. It was like a law was passed.”

    It was, the same way rectangular headlights were introduced in 1975. In the US for about 40 years, WW II to mid 1980’s, sealed beam glass headlights of exact configurations were required. The auto stylists and suppliers like GE had to lobby the authorities for changes, so everyone did have the same thing at the same time.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Each time I walk through a parking lot, I like to pretend that I could choose any car there and transport it back in time to the 60s when I was in college. There are few, if any, that I would choose. Ugly is the name of the game…both inside and out. Yup, I know that the machines are infinitely better in every respect…but let’s face it…somewhere, somehow, we killed all the true stylists and replaced them with Bangle-clones.

  • avatar

    Never understood them. I like my Miata (06) but if they wanted to capture the look of an old British roadster why not make the gauges look like those beautiful ones from days of yor? They try to make them look higher teach but they just look cheap. I replaced the piano black plastic with the fake brushed chrome (better, not great) but it can’t be more expensive to complete the look. My TR’s dashboard was leather – I bet you can pull off that look with plastic?

  • avatar

    I’d think the advantage to seating a gauge within a tunnel like this would be to keep direct light from it, so it’s not blinded by direct light during the day and in low light, not darkness, the gauge is deep enough in shadow to make it legible when the headlights (and gauge illumination) are turned on.

  • avatar

    My Z has the triple cluster with RPMs being front and center (and big) while the fuel/temp is smaller on the right with speed on the left. Oil pressure and volts are on the top of the center console along with a LCD MFD (multi function display, fuel econ, tire pressure, outside temp). Its a pretty sweet setup.

    The problem I’ve seen with the binocular style is they are too deep, its like looking down into two tunnels. Depending on the angle of sunlight an entire side can disappear from view.

    The Mini is a prime example of what happens when some designer think too far outside the “norm”. My wife rejected a Mini just because of the crazy dash setup, looking at that mess every day was just too much. Our Volvo C30 has a nice, clean, logical setup.

    But my real complaint is with speedometers that go to crazy high values, thus compressing everything into 10-15 mph segments. Am I going 10 or 20? Who knows… the two values are like a millimeter apart! However when I hit 160 I’ll be sure of it. What logic is this? I spend way more time between 0-60 then I do between 60-160. Heck I think my truck has a speed displayed that is unreachable due to aero limits. For awhile Chevy had the opposite problem, with gauges that only went to 85 mph. It was almost like the gauge was tempting you to see if you reach the speed indicated.

    • 0 avatar

      85 was legislated in the days of the 55 national speed limit, either to put 55 straight up, or so that no one would even attempt going over 85. I agree on the Mini. That goofy dash is one of the reasons I ruled it out.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d be curious if there were a way to have an auxiliary speedometer for speeds above 80. For example if you are going up to 80 the main gauge would be working, but at speeds above 80 the main gauge would go dark, or the needle wouldn’t work and the aux gauge would come in. Most people don’t drive much above 80 most of the time anyway and would never know the difference.

      This would probably be even more confusing though.

      The cluster in my car tops out at 140 with 70 being straight at 12 o’clock. It’s numbered in 20 mph increments; 10 mph increments would be a bit much.

    • 0 avatar

      I liked the setup that that some Saabs, like the 2003-2011 9-3 had: 0-90 mph had larger numbers, while 100-160 had smaller numbers. As a result, the 12 o’clock position was 65 mph.

      I wonder why that setup never caught on.

      • 0 avatar

        Except that was 1997-2005 9-5.
        The referenced 9-3 has even spread of digits and font sizes. And very hard to read graphics, as if taken straight from an Opel or something.
        The 9-5 got the same POS-sy layout in 2006 update.

    • 0 avatar

      This drives me crazy too! I don’t need an econobox showing 140-160 on the speedo. All the useful numbers are crammed into half the space. 120 should be tops on any ‘normal’ car. Maybe they could do a supplimental digital display (so many cars have lcd info displays now anyway).

  • avatar

    I always admired Porsche’s design of the interior of the 911. They had clear gauges and no center console. The roof was high enough for my 6’4″ frame and the belt line was low so there was great visibility. I went to a PCA sponsored event at a local Porsche dealer last weekend for the debut of the new 911 (design 991) and was horrified to see they put a huge center console from the Panamera in the car.

  • avatar

    like the PC industry the auto makers are really assemblers of other vendors technology. the cut throat pricing nature of the mainstream market dictates that design is driven primarily by cost, and therefore centers around a best known method and the current investment in plant and tooling. the steering wheel thing is actually getting hilarious.. they look EXACTLY the same from the cadillac cts to the imports at 1/2 the price..

    1 maybe 2 or 3 vendors at most control the vast majority of any given component market so the same technology is simply repackaged in whatever shape and connectors are required for a specific make and model.. in the case of the steering wheels we are all forced to look at the results.. in other words.. there is NO ONE at GM designing steering wheels… or even caring what the look like..

    given that hi-grade plastic work is expensive, it is beyond me why in the interest of brand identity and value why i have to look at the exact same climate control knobs in a cadillac dts as in a chevy rental car.. how much more can that really cost to order up 200,000 in a slightly different texture..? the destruction of brand value continues in detroit..

  • avatar

    I have a few points to make on this issue…
    1. Design aping. No doubt – But this seems to be the norm. Fins, round headlights, dual-beam round headlights, opera windows, padded vinyl roof coverings, ribbon spedometers, etc. In any generation, cars all basically look the same.
    2. Ergonomic fads. OK, I’ll not bemoan the loss of bench seats. I’m a stick-shift guy, and if there were a return to column shifters and bench seats, it would be the end of the stick-shift option in the few cars that still offer it. Think it’s hard to find one in anything that’s not a premium sport model or a Jeep Wrangler today? That would be the nail in the coffin. Also, bench seats are usually pretty uncomfortable for me… more on that in a sec:
    3. Control standardization: This is an area in which I kinda wish they WOULD copy one another. If you ONLY drive your own car, fine, you get used to the controls. Lately, I’ve gotten Fords fairly often as rental cars, and I hate playing the mental shift-a-roo. It’s bad enough driving an automatic in traffic, concentrating on NOT pushing the “clutch” to the floor and coming to an ABS-actuated quick-stop… Do I really need to remember where every other control has been relocated?
    Case in point, the overall standard in recent years seems to be:
    Headlights: Twist the turn-signal stalk forward towards the dash.
    Wipers: Push the stalk opposite the turn signals down to engage, up to “mist”, pull toward you to wash. If rear wiper is equipped, twist this lever to engage.
    Audio controls: left half of the steering wheel
    Cruise Control: Right half of the steering wheel.
    The Fusion was kooky – Headlights on the dash by the change tray, wipers on the turn signal stalk, and a crazy mix of buttons on the wheel, all tiny. A few years back I drove a Malibu with the cruise on the left side… more than once I tried to turn up the volume and found myself accelerating on the FL Turnpike. If memory serves, my grandmother had some old Detroit-beast (Crown Vic perhaps?) with the horn on the signal stalk!

    I don’t care who invented what layout… it would just be nice if they could put them in the same place. They all standardized on one location for the turn signal stalk, pedal order (no Model T craziness), P-R-N-D-L on the slushboxes. Stop reinventing the wheel!!!
    3. Ergonomics in general:
    This ties into my feelings on bench seats, and comments about the consoles. Different folks have different shapes, and fit better in different layouts. I hate sitting on a bench seat, or even a bucket with poor side bolsters. I want the seat to help hold me snugly in place, and I don’t want wide, flat surfaces like I seem to find in Fords lately (the Fusion, again – clearly designed for the wide-of-buttocks crowd).
    Describing a car as “too cramped for 6 footers” is misleading. I don’t need a lot of headroom, but I do need a LOT of legroom. I’m only 6’1, but I’ve got that gangly long limbs – short torso Daddy Long-legs configuration. The Fusion was a bit cramped. The Element had tons of pointless headroom, but I couldn’t get the seat far enough back. The Fit is terrible for my legs. For me, a low, squat car with a low seat and leg stretching space is golden. My current ride is a ’11 Scion tC: I’ve sat in very few cars that fit me so perfectly (the Hyundai Genesis comes to mind – The Accord Coupe is Okay, but the seat is a bit high for my tastes, and too wide and flat).
    The comments about different seat configurations do speak to a need for variation. When the automakers charge out lemming-like and follow the leader, there is less variety for people with different preferences. I couldn’t care less that the tC is on the list of cars that TTAC folks hate for various petty reasons: It met every requirement I had in a new car perfectly. Lots of legroom, no knee-banging console, clearance over my knees for the wheel/column (and the flat-bottom helps with that), low seat, thick bolsters, two doors (so that when the seat is all the way back, I have an armrest that is actually NEXT to me, instead of a chunky B-pillar.). On top of that, it handles securely with minimal float and wallow, is available with a manual transmission, and unlike most of the sportish coupes, has a usable back seat for when my kids are with me. A home run in every regard.

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