Drive Flashback: Struck by the ugly stick


First published in Drive on 19 July, 1998


London’s Daily Telegraph didn’t beat about the bush.

“First drive of BMW’s hideous new M coupe” trumpeted last Saturday’s headline.

British motoring weekly Autocar was more subtle. But only just.

The “Monster from Munich”, it predicted, would leave nobody indifferent: “At least half of you are absolutely going to hate the way this new coupe looks.”

BMW, long admired for its evocative styling, is unrepentant.

The company’s chief of product development said the M coupe – variously described as a cross between the Batmobile, a hearse and a mutant bread van – is “not built to be everybody’s darling”.

Ugliness as a shock tactic is the latest trend for an industry desperately reaching for the next design breakthrough: the 21st century equivalent of the tail fin, the Beetle or the aerodynamic look of the ’80s.

Car designers are trying to break the mould, but seem stuck between the whitegoods on wheels formula of the Koreans and the tired school of the Euro-smoothies.

Retro is but one symptom of the malaise. Bereft of new ideas, the carmakers have taken to reprising their old ones: the VW Beetle, the Mini, the MG, the Porsche Boxster and soon the Citroen 2CV, Ford Thunderbird and Jaguar S-type.

Watch out for the ugly stick… and more cars like the M coupe.


Scratch a car designer and the response suggests this is your fault.

Consumer research says customers around the world are sick to death of look-alike cars. Give us something different is the chorus, something that stands out from the clones.

In designer-speak, the key factor is something called DRG, short for ‘down-the-road graphic’. The world’s most recognisable cars have it in spades.

Translated, DRG is the instant visual impression a car creates, that millisecond mental snapshot that tells you “it’s a Mercedes”, or even more emphatically, a Porsche, a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce.

Most car companies would kill for such visual identity but, unlike the blue-blood brands, have shown no commitment to consistency of design. For 30 years they have followed the fashion of the day.

Ford Australia uses pragmatic language to describe this problem.

The new AU series Falcon was designed to pass what the designers call the ‘100-metre test’. At that distance, the new car must easily be recognised as a Falcon, and nothing else.

The new model’s starched creases and piano-grin grille are calculated to give it instant visual snap against the more conventional looks of the Holden Commodore (at the risk of shocking more conservative Falcon buyers).

One of the biggest criticisms from local customers is that our top two sellers are hard to tell apart.

The 100-metre rule was also a part of the design brief for the Ford Edsel, one of history’s fabled flops. It had DRG by the bucket load – but it was the wrong sort.

The same desperate need to stand apart is evident in many new models. Honda’s Prelude is hardly a thing of beauty when parked alongside Peugeot’s classic 406 coupe, but those outsized headlamps telegraph a unique identity.

Improvements in headlamp technology have recently allowed designers much more freedom, with not always gorgeous results.

This is why we’re seeing the alien-eyed Lexus LX 470, the bug-eyed Honda Civic and the heavily hooded slits of cars such as Chrysler’s Voyager.

The Prelude is a paragon of style compared with Ford’s egg-shaped Taurus, perhaps the best recent example of the designed-to-shock school. The car’s chief designer lauded it as such a progressive shape it deserved comparisons to the Opera House.

Lofty though these aspirations may be, Australians still aren’t sure which end is which.

From Japan, for very different reasons, comes the startled shoe-box style of Suzuki’s Wagon R – a hot seller in Japan. The Tokyo locals reckon it’s a good look (which speaks volumes about cultural differences) and it crams big interior dimensions into a pocket-sized package.

In reality, Japanese government rules that link body width to registration charges laid down the blueprint for the Wagon R. The designers seem to have joined up the dots while paying plenty of attention to the vehicle’s “face”.


This is a serious concept among Japanese car stylists, who spend inordinate hours designing front ends described earnestly as happy, sad, male, female, joyous, angry, powerful or serene.

A flounder fish inspired the Honda Civic, while Toyota Celica is water flowing over rocks. The Honda Legend is a 12-metre yacht with living animal eyes. Seriously.

Memorable car design is rarely so contrived. It reflects national character, driving conditions and culture. And sometimes it’s a fluke.


An example: Mazda’s 121 ‘Bubble’ car, a smash hit in Australia and lauded for its style, was a flop elsewhere, even in Japan where it was designed. The Poms called it a Noddy and Big Ears car.

In Seoul, Hyundai was praised by the locals for its latest concept car, the SLV. Here in Sydney, it was removed from the motor show stand after just one day, such was the derision.


The flip side: many Japanese designers are genuinely nonplussed at why the Falcon and Commodore are Australia’s top sellers. Too fat, they say, too big.

There is, of course, a fine line between different and ugly.

Bill Mitchell, the famed chief designer at General Motors, regularly chided his stylists thus: “Walking through the foyer of the Waldorf Astoria with your fly undone is definitely different, but it’s not necessarily better.”

What some of your favourite automotive stinkers? Let us know in the comments below.

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