Motoring Insight Magazine Online Subscribe About Us Contact Us Motoring Insight Home Finance Reviews Under The Hood Motorsport Business Profiles Archive Jobs I am looking for in Get your business listed Related Tags: stephen harper, car designer stephen harper INTERVIEW: car designer Stephen Harper sheds light on the problems facing the automotive industry By: Danny Hewitt Ref:A0727 Published: 14 October 2013

Above: The MG Icon, the car which Stephen Harper oversaw the design of while working for SAIC.

What is the most challenging aspect of designing new cars suitable for the production line?For me, the most challenging thing and the most important thing today is creating enough difference between cars that people buy because the brands are becoming much regimented in their design. Yes, you can instantly recognise a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz and customers are becoming increasingly polarised into buying particular brands, but once upon a time, and I’m hoping it still can happen, something comes along that breaks convention and helps you go ‘wow, I don’t care who makes it or wants it’. And that’s the biggest challenge that has the ‘wow’ factor and the ‘must-have’ factor that breaks away from everything being just the same. Realistically, where do you see both interior car design and exterior car design heading in the next few years?Interior design is becoming an interesting area because right now there is very much a case of information overload. If you take the BMW Y Drive in many ways, it’s giving you options to boil your kettle in the car or find where your local Mexican restaurant is. And you’re supposed to be doing this as you’re driving along. So we either have to make a choice. Either we have to say, okay, the car becomes autonomous and we can therefore spend more time playing around on the internet as we’re going along. Or we have to make the car a little bit simpler and easier to use when you’re less distracted. For instance, if you are in a situation where you’re about to make a turn and your telephone rings, it is incredibly distracting and that could be the point where you have an accident. So maybe there should be systems in cars that don’t allow your telephone to ring while you’re making manoeuvres. In terms of interior design, for me, the key for interior design right now is to be simpler and less confusing – not to dumb it down but to be cleverer in the way it’s displayed or information is provided. If you then take that to an extreme, what instrumentation do you actually need in the car?You need something to tell you how fast you’re going, what your trip distance is, and how much fuel you have left, but that’s pretty much the only information you need to know. Everything else is secondary. Today, electronics seem to be focussed on providing lots of extra information. But if you only analyse the information that you need at any one time, then perhaps we should be looking more at tablet technology. Rather than having a huge instrument panel and technology in cars that is out of date by the time it arrives as it takes between three to five years to develop a car. The technology that is around when you first design it is already two to three years out of date by the time the car is launched and by the time the car is five or ten years old, it’s archaic. If you were to get into a ten-year-old BMW, it probably wouldn’t have any track player because the world’s moved on. And everyone today has their own tablet or iPhone or iPad and will simply carry their own music and GPS with them. So the introduction and integration of your own personal tablet into the interior is going to be a much more important part into interior development into the future. Do you feel you’ve reached a peak in terms of interior or exterior car design?No, no, no, no, we’re not near any form of peak. There are always two areas of manufacturing that are fighting against you and the main one is always cost. So the question is how do you get the cost down and then we’ve got the other whammies these days of how do you make it more ecological, friendly kind of ‘don’t step on the whales kind of attitude’, you know?So you have to then balance all those things. And the cost thing can sometimes make it go down a route of having more and more plastic because it is cheaper to do that. But then the best designs today are the ones that look away from that and say well, do we need a big amount of plastic in front of you? What do we actually need to have in front of us? Something much simpler. And that’s where you say, ‘well, why don’t we make it out of different materials or do something different?’And that’s the challenge for all interior designers now – how to break away from convention, provide the customer with something that’s interesting and desirable and can be made at a cost that is affordable. If you look at the German motor industry, for instance, just at Frankfurt, Audi are now up to 700 horsepower with the Audi Quattro and there’s an Audi A6 with 500 horsepower. These cars are not affordable. We all grew up on cars like the Ford Escort or the Austin 1100 that you could actually refer to as affordable motoring. It’s gone. And we’re in a situation now where most people cannot afford to buy cars and they end up leasing cars. Affordable motoring has now gone so the idea of the freedom of the open road has now become the death of the 25 mile traffic jam on the M25. The fun has gone out of motoring. Now we have super-fantastic cars that do incredible speeds around the Nurburgring but you’re actually sat in a traffic jam driving it. One car may be able to do 150mph or 200mph but you use it to go to Sainsbury’s. There is something wrong there and I think this is where the auto industry needs to do bit of searching into itself, saying, okay guys, we can produce 600 horsepower in Jaguars and Audis and there will always be an audience for those cars but what does the white van man really want when he gets home and gets into his own car? I think that’s an area that’s been quietly forgotten about. Everything’s gone to the extreme. Yes, there are Dacia Dusters if you really fancy plodding that way and one day, the Dacia Duster will be a greatly sought after car, I’m sure, but right now, it’s the automotive equivalent of a washing machine. It’s the same with Toyotas really. They do a job, they get you from A to B with as little hassle as possible but they are as exciting as cold custard. Volvo and Google are really pushing forward with autonomous driving technology and want it on our roads. Do you feel that it could take away the fun aspect of driving?    What’s fun about sitting in a traffic jam on the M25? Wouldn’t you much rather plug the car into auto and get on and do your Facebook instead of sitting there staring at the bumper of the car in front, wondering if next time you brake, you’re going to hit the back of him? Or staring at the guy who’s sitting in the BMW next to you picking his nose? There is an advantage of having autonomous cars. Yes, once you get onto a nice A road going into the Scottish Highlands or a B road through the mountains of North Wales, yes, put the roof down, turn the stereo up to full and just drive like the wind. That is the fun of motoring. But at the end of the day, most of us never get there. We’re stuck in this traffic jam. Most people drive between the hours of 7:30am and 9:30am in the morning. They’re staring at everybody else’s smoking exhausts or thinking about all the other things they have to do that day. So to a point, autonomous motoring is a saviour for our souls potentially. Yes, you can switch it off and go into normal mode if you do get a chance to go onto the open road but in reality, most people would be happy to be playing on their iPhones or Twittering or whatever they do, instead of sitting there. I mean, I drive automatics now. For years, I was a big fan of manual cars. I thought that anybody who drove an automatic was a wimp. But today you can’t get a Porsche in manual. It’s very difficult. It’s a special order to get a Porsche as a manual because people have learnt to drive in a different way. Thank god I’ve got an auto when I’m sometimes driving up to Heathrow. You hit that traffic jam and the last thing you want to do is you know... A bit like with the Escort, I’ve got an Escort Cosworth and after a journey, you come out of the car and your left leg is twice as wide as your right leg because you’ve been operating a big heavy clutch. There is room for autonomous motoring. The fact that Volvo is involved in it shows that we all know the most dangerous thing in the motor car is people. You can make a motor car as safe as possible but at the end of the day, the most dangerous thing is that nut behind the wheel. Having worked for eight years at Volvo, one of the things you realise is that you can make a car prevent accidents but over the years what that’s done is made cars heavier and heavier because you’re trying to make cars survive accidents against four tonne trucks or three tonne SUVs. Therefore, your car has to be able to survive that kind of impact. If you then take it to the other extreme and say if you avoid the situation of accidents, you could actually make lighter cars which would then become more fuel efficient. The autonomous car also has the advantage of, if it takes away the problems of accidents, therefore your car can become lighter and more efficient and enables you to do other things while you’re doing that boring journey. We don’t want to go on public transport. The last thing we want to do is all be stuck on buses. We want to go from the front door or inside your garage without even going out into the rain and arrive at work, get to work, get out of the car and you want that door-to-door convenience. The motor car is still the best means of transport for doing that. We still want that individual freedom. When we get onto the motorway, we want to go as fast as we’re allowed to go without being caught. We’re doing 77.7mph and that’s what it says on our speedometer. This is the sort of thing we want. But we don’t want to be having to watch out for police cars. I mean, one of the worst things I find about driving in Britain is that I spend more time looking at my speedometer on the motorway than actually concentrating on driving. You’re so conscious that if you go over the speed limit, there could be a white van parked up there. In Germany I never have that problem. I drive. I drive comfortably. And I don’t worry about the police. And then I’m enjoying my driving more. So in a society where we’re now being restricted, in a society where it says ‘thou shall not cross the road without blinking twice’, autonomous cars, yes please, take them. I’d be quite happy to use an autonomous car to take me if I had to go to Central London. It’s either that or sit on a train. Yes, it’s very nice to sit on a train but there’s always somebody burping, farting or making too much noise next to you. Please give them their own little personal pod. How do safety regulations affect how creative you can be as a designer?They’re becoming increasingly difficult. I mean, if somebody had said ten years ago that I would be discussing how a child’s head bounces off the bonnet of my car as I was designing it, they would have put me away for child abuse. But today, when we’re designing the front of a car, or any part of the car, one of the biggest considerations we have to have is where the child’s head is going to hit the car in the case of an accident and how much that part of the car collapses so the child is not killed outright, whether you’re doing 20mph or 30mph. That is a major consideration. You’ve now have the insurance companies. We have something called the Allianz Rating. When we’re designing cars today, we also have to take into account the Allianz Rating. It annoys me intensely because that kills creativity even more as you can’t design something which might be too expensive to repair because that puts the insurance costs up too highly and therefore, your repair costs go up. So there’s pressure now to design cars that are less expensive to repair, which, if you start to design around all these small little differences, the difference between where the bumper needs to be for child impact allowance and other allowances, it gives you about 5mm of freedom. If you’re designing a Focus-sized car, you can’t make it bigger because then you’re going to the next size up so you’re stuck at 4.5 metres or 4.6 metres or thereabouts. But you can’t really change much. The engine’s roughly about the same size and you’ve got to have about 70mm above those to allow for the head to depress so that they don’t hit the engine when the child bounces off the bonnet or whatever. So that sets the height of your bonnet. And therefore, all bonnets of cars are roughly in the same place. And your headlamp has to perform certain things so your headlamp legally has to be in the same sort of place and legally, they want your headlamp on Company One to be the same as the headlamp on Company Two. They want their performance to be as good as everybody else’s. So you end up designing around a very tight set of parameters. And safety is one of those. I’m not saying it’s a negative thing. I mean, yes, great, make things safer. There’s no problem with that, but in terms of creativity for designers, it’s just another rope around your small personal parts. How important is the emotional aspect of designing for a designer? And to what extent does emotion affect the design of the car?If you were to design a product that you didn’t actually like, it would show in the way that you designed it because there would be this ‘couldn’t care less’ aura about it. You have to be as emotional and as involved in designing a Daihatsu Sirion as designing the next Ferrari. The emotional attachment still has to be there. You have to feel that if you were given that car to drive and told that it was the only car that you could drive, you would actually smile slightly. How much of it is emotional? How much of it is right side of the brain verses left side of the brain? I still say that given a choice between car A, car B and car C, price is one consideration, brand is one consideration but sometimes it’s a case of, ‘I like it. I want it. I’m going to have it’. We try to make sure that we put something into the vehicle that is a sweet spot. We don’t know with the customer what’s necessarily going to turn them on in five years time, but you try to find things that you think they’re going to look at and think, ‘oh that’s a reason to buy that particular vehicle’ over something else. What pressures are designers facing over the next few years?To try to create this individuality, fresh ideas, bringing in technology and using it sensibly and also maintain that unique emotional feel for the vehicle so it doesn’t become another washing machine. To what extent do you feel car design has become graphic design? Your influences when you design a car come from different places. I could often use architecture, nature or anything to help me find a theme for a car. The face, the proportion. They’re all there. You’re influenced by the strangest things. I was doing some design work the other day and I tried something on the clay model that I’d never tried before and it’s because I’d seen something happening in a Japanese restaurant with a sharp knife. I looked at the way that the chef was using the sharp knife to cut through a piece of fish. I suddenly thought, hey, let’s try that on the surface of the car. And it created a very interesting shape. Whether it’s a colour that you pick from nature or it’s something that you see or it’s something that’s subconscious that drives you, there are elements there and as long as you can tell the story of why you’ve done this, then the management and the marketing team can understand because from a management point of view, they just want a motor car that they can go out and sell to compete with car X, car Y and car Z. Or, if you work for the Chinese, they want a car that’s exactly the same as whatever. But you have to try and find that one little thing that people say, ‘oh, that’s a nice design’. And it may be just a little influence of something that you’ve seen on the street, heard perhaps, a piece of music that influences the way you make the door sound when it closes. We as human beings have all these wonderful senses – smell, sight, hearing and touch – and products that we actually love usually cover the senses. If you feel something and it feels nice, ‘wow, oh that’s good’. And if you open the car and it smells of fish, that’s not good. Even the sense of smell makes a difference. If you open it and there’s a nice fresh leather smell, that’s good.Even holding the key to a car in your hand, does it feel expensive? Does it feel like something you can just throw away or does it feel like something that has substance and therefore has value?So all the time, you’re using your sense and that’s what helps in your emotional attachment of your vehicle. How do manufacturing constraints affecting your creativity as a designer?They’re a challenge. I wouldn’t say they’re a restriction. They’re always a challenge because you can often find that by making something more difficult, you can sometimes find a better solution. Sometimes one and one can equal three. The cost constraint may make you look at a different material or a different way of doing something, which may actually help your design be better or feel different in its own way. How important is aerodynamics in saving fuel?Aerodynamics is a square of the speed. So if you’re travelling at 15mph in a traffic jam, aerodynamics plays very little effect in your daily driving. If you’re regularly driving at 100mph, aerodynamics has a huge effect on your car. It’s like everything else. It’s a balance. You can make a car absolutely perfectly aerodynamic but you wouldn’t be able to achieve rear headroom or the right cooling because to make cooling, you have to put a hole in the front of the car which causes drag. So aerodynamics, like everything else, has to be balanced with all the other needs and requirements. Ultimately, you have to give a passing nod to aerodynamics because you don’t want wind noise, you want the car to be efficient and you don’t want the car to be unstable at speed. So there are certain parts of aerodynamics that you do have to be aware of. Do you feel synthetic leather is an environmentally friendly alternative to real leather?No. I don’t want synthetic leather. I’ve been a strong advocate for many, many years that if you see wood in a car, it should actually be wood, not from a plastic tree somewhere in Bavaria. Or a concrete carrier in Milton Keynes. For me, if it looks like leather and smells like leather, it should be leather. If it is neoprene and you want a neoprene interior in your funky car then it should be neoprene. It shouldn’t be leather trying to look like neoprene or neoprene trying to look like leather. For many years now, I can remember on hot summer days in my dad’s Austin Maxi going on a trip to North Wales wearing a pair of shorts. And you’d get off at the other end and the back of your legs would be the exact grain match to the testicles of an African rhinoceros because that was the grain that was on the seat at the time. For me, Mercedes-Benz always used to have this ‘testicular’ kind of grain on their steering wheels and that’s because they were trying to make in plastic something that looked like leather. Today, you actually cover it with leather or you use leather where you touch things and maybe you don’t use leather where you don’t touch things. So synthetic leather, no sorry. There is reconstituted leather. You can take leather and resave it and reuse it. Then you reuse it in another form as a carpet interior or something else but if it looks like leather and it smells like leather, it should be leather from the best Scottish cows.How do you feel China’s influence on the automotive industry is going to affect the European car market over the coming decade?It’s going to have a huge influence. You look at the history of the motor car. What happened in the 1950s was that America was a huge market and all our Fords and Vauxhalls started to look like smaller American cars. Then we had the big influence of Japan. And today we’re getting the Koreans, very much on the rise and the styling of Kia and Hyundai models are beautiful. They’re now more commonplace. You’re seeing them here, there and everywhere. Now, how many people live in Korea? 50 million? How many people live in China? Multiply that by a thousand times and we’re talking about several billion people there. These people will be buying the cars of the next generation. They are going to be the big car buyers to come. Their tastes and influences will affect everybody else in the same way that the tastes and affects for the changes of the American market in the ‘50s and ‘60s influenced the shapes of cars.Chinese cars will have a big influence on the cars of the future. On the flipside, from my experience working a lot in China, the Chinese still want to have cars that appear to be European in flavour. So the first cars we’re going to get out of China are going to be world cars. They fit in anywhere. That’s a political thing. They are cars that are designed so that they would fit in the streets of Beijing, Bangkok, Budapest or Birmingham. There will be a point in the future where Chinese car design becomes a little bit more rigid and their own national designers try to experiments a little bit more to try and find character that is true Chinese, in the same way as the Koreans have now created their own designs. The Japanese have created their own design brands and the Chinese will also do that. For a start, we’re going to get a very ‘world car’ out of the Chinese. They’re not going to create something that’s very, very different. It’ll have the odd quirky thing on which is a little bit of a signature but if you look at the MG3 that’s just been launched, it’s a Skoda Fabia, Fiat Uno, Ford Fiesta kind of car. There’s nothing particularly Chinese about it. And if you look at everything else that’s currently coming out of China, it doesn’t have a pointy hat on the top or anything. Or a pigtail. It doesn’t have dragons on it. It’s not the sort of thing that’s you’d say, ‘oh, that’s definitely Chinese’. It’s just a generic automobile. The influence of China is initially going to be like everything else. In time, Chinese vehicles will have an influence on the world. That’s because they are the largest market for cars in the world. Have you got anything else you would like to add?When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a car designer. They say ‘what does that do?’ I say I spend my days colouring in. And then I go and sit with the guy that plays with Plasticine, and then we go to the guys to dot on the computer. So it’s just like being at school really. It’s colouring in and doing dot to dot. It’s a great job. Would you say it’s the best job in the world for you?Oh, god no. There are far better jobs like being a pop star or a film star, which pay far much more and you can actually afford to go out and buy the cars that we designed. We design them fairly poor and therefore we can’t go around driving in some of the wonderful creations that we come up with. One of the nicest things you do as a designer is you get people coming up to you and saying, ‘That’s great. That’s a fantastic car. I love it. I’ve had five of those cars’. But having worked for many years now, and back in 1977 when I first started in the studio, there was a small company up in the Midlands called British Leyland. They designed a car called the Mini Metro. The Mini Metro was the great revolutionary... no it wasn’t. It was just another tin box. We worked on that. I contributed to the sketch programme. I saw it as a clay model. And then one day, I remember seeing it in the scrap yard. And that, actually, in many ways sums up what car design is all about. As an architect, you have an idea and create a building and maybe it stands for two generations, three generations, 100 years perhaps. If you make a motor car, you’re lucky if it lasts ten years. There are some that are much more sought after that people keep and treasure. Cars will one day become like race horses. They’ll be put away somewhere and taken out on holidays and that’s it. Right now, it’s nice to be designing cars that people use. 

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