Vellum Venom: Uwe Bahnsen, Car Designer, RIP
Never forget: people make all the difference. This often overlooked fact in the glamorous world of automotive styling rings true for the life of Mr. Uwe Bahnsen. I froze in my tracks when I heard of his passing on Car Design News. His work at Ford and with the Industrial Design community influenced me, and every American who loved cars in the 1980s.
How ironic that Mr. Bahnsen’s passing was the week TTAC’s own Ford Sierra passed its citizenship test in Texas: so here’s a great Germanic-Texas Beer for you, Mr. Bahnsen.
Every car is designed by a team–not a person—but the kind words spoken about Uwe’s life say he was no ordinary designer. And he was a good man: so instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia and the great work by Car Design News, let’s see what he did for us.
Bahnsen’s work with the “bathtub” Ford Taunus P3 and second generation Escort/Capri are impressive alone. Especially the P3, a progressive–if not radical–design for the early 1960s. But what’s the Super Bowl of a car designer’s career? Being the VP of Design, making a paradigm-shifting sedan that sells well around the world. A vehicle that lives long enough to go from radical to mainstream over the course of a decade.
That work is the 1982 Ford Sierra. Unlike more exotic brands (Audi 100 and beyond) that went “Aero” thanks to pricey Italian design and/or expensive engineering for limited production, the Sierra was wholly affordable and completely common. A people’s car like the Model T and VW Beetle…just not to that famous of an extent.
Sierra meets the big fan…
But you catch my drift. Us Yanks only know the Sierra in Cosworth/Merkur drag, so perhaps the firsthand experience of Bahnsen’s hard work as told by Mr. John Topley says it best:
“It’s difficult for me to convey just how radical the Sierra was when it was launched. This was the car that replaced twenty years of the Ford Cortina, a favourite with both fleet and family buyers in Britain. By 1982 the Cortina was looking pretty tired. It was still a best seller but by all accounts it wasn’t a great drive and the technology was pretty agricultural. In spite of which, Britain was still buying masses of them.
By contrast, the new Sierra looked like nothing else around, aside from the even more radical Audi 100 which came out at the same time. I think the Sierra was more important though because it was a mass market rather than executive car.”
Moments in time like these are rare, how often does a design change the way a person moves? On multiple continents, for over a decade? This moment elevated the car design game thanks in part to Ford’s Aerospace division, the beginnings of finite element analysis, and usage of new technologies that made the Sierra’s wraparound bumpers and ergonomic dashboards so cutting-edge. It’s a most fertile ground for a designer.
While we (probably) live in the Golden Age of technology, Uwe Bahnsen’s world experienced a far more dramatic change from far less technology. Aside from the aforementioned Audi, most carmakers embraced this technology/design philosophy years later. Boo to them: Uwe and his team were on the cusp of something special…the future!
Uwe Bahnsen made the most of this opportunity, take it from the guy that owns one of his creations. To this day, the original Ford Sierra looks more futuristic than a Toyota Prius, providing an ownership experience that satisfies the senses like a far more expensive BMW. This doesn’t happen often, especially in America.
More to the point, the Sierra is an ergonomic and aesthetic treat. I’d love to ask Mr. Bahnsen hundreds of questions about his life, but the fact remains: his contribution to the Automobile shall never be forgotten.
Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a lovely week.
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Great article and the beer is worthy!
I also own a Bahnsen design, a Ford (Merkur) Scorpio. While I like the Sierra/XR, I think the Scorpio evolved the styling to another level with lots of exquisite details when you really start examining the car with a designer's eye. The interior was also much more modern (and still contemporary looking today in some ways) and cohesive than the Sierra interior, although I don't think Bahnsen had anything to do with the inside of the Scorpio - I want to say that honor goes to Trevor Creed. In either case they are both very forward looking and radical designs for their time and I'm sorry to see the man who penned them go.