Standing the test of time | Features

I credit my good friend Cliff Ghetti from New Jersey for inspiring today’s column.

Cliff, once a Chrysler Corp. designer, drove to Michigan several days early to help me with the Aug. 12 Lake Bluff Concours. The inspiration was Cliff’s 2000 VW Golf Mk4 sedan, which he has owned since new.

Cliff and I met in 1963 in McDonel Hall at Michigan State University. I left my dorm room door ajar one evening, and as he walked by he spotted the car photo “pin-ups” on the wall. As I recall we stayed up nearly all night talking cars. We really haven’t stopped talking cars in the 54 years since our unexpected introduction.

So when Cliff drove into my driveway a couple of weeks ago, I was taken by how contemporary and attractive his 17-year old compact Golf looked – though the Mk4 version has been on the market for 20 years. While its rounded, almost soft, surfaces reveals its age somewhat, the car still looks fresh and original. A car that old and still looking good is a tribute to the designers at the German automaker.

Volkswagen since the 1970s has always been successful in producing what I consider really good-looking automobiles. On my “best looking new car list” is the current VW Golf. I loved it when the Mk7 version was introduced in 2014, and my eyes are still pleased every time I see one.

The German automaker has consistently crafted beautiful and tasteful vehicles that stand the test of time. For the past few decades it doesn’t seem to matter what Volkswagen (and VW Group division siblings Audi or Porsche) puts in the showroom, it is a design winner.

The company’s vehicles have a satisfying purity of design – free of gewgaw and unnecessary trim – that sets them apart. Rather akin to fashion designer Chanel’s little black dress. I’m thankful the Germans are still embracing the simplistic tenets of design and style espoused by the Bauhaus movement of the 1930s.

Another current automaker that has the knack for designs that appeal to my good design sense is Korea’s Kia. In the past few years a number of the vehicle offerings from Seoul have been home runs. Cars like the Optima, Sorento, Niro and Sportage come to mine. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the chief designer at Kia (and sister division Hyundai) is German-born and educated Peter Schreyer.

Schreyer is known for his design contributions to the Audi TT while with VW Group. He was appointed chief designer at Hyundai-Kia in 2006, and in 2012 was named as one of three presidents of the company, a lofty position seldom given to a designer.

Of the current batch of vehicles on the road today, I’d pick the VW Golf as one of my favorites because of its no nonsense, classic Teutonic looks. But if I broadened the search, what are some older vintage automobiles that rise to the top?

There are dozens of classic and timeless automobiles. For an automobile to qualify to be on my all-time best list it must pass a test. When I see a vehicle for first time and there isn’t a line I’d like to change, then it qualifies.

A number of automotive classic candidates appear on just about every Best Auto Design list and include such stunning beauties as the 1961 Jaguar XK-E, the 1939 Lincoln Continental, 1961 Lincoln Continental, many Full Classics from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, any number of Aston Martin DB (Bond, James Bond) and other English sports car models.

So what is possibly the most beautiful automobile ever built? Here’s my pick, and I have pretty good company. It’s English and it’s the Jaguar XK-E. On its release in March 1961 Enzo Ferrari called it “the most beautiful car ever made.” I checked in with a few of my car buddies who really, really know their cars. Not surprisingly, the Jaguar E-Type was the dominant pick.

Nearly everyone agrees with Ferrari’s opinion that Sir William Lyon’s 1961 Jaguar XK-E is a perfect auto design. I liken its looks to what one sees when walking near a clear water stream and spotting a small, elongated and elegantly shaped stone at the bottom of the riverbed. Smooth all over with soft edges at each corner, a river-created stone is nature perfected. The famous and much admired E-Type is close to ideal because all the design elements mesh. Other than those necessary (and damnable) bumpers, there is not a line or surface that does not belong.

Other automobiles that I consider masterpieces that come to mine are: Brook Stevens’ Jeep FC, Gordon Buehrig’s 1936-37 Cord 810/812, Ettore Bugatti’s Bugatti Type 57, Marcello Gandini’s Lamborghini Espada, Dave Hols’ 1963 and 1966 Riviera, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 1967 Maserati Ghibli and 1974 VW Golf, Harley Earl/Bill Mitchell’s 1960 Corvair and Bill Mitchell’s 1963 Corvette.

I could go on for paragraphs because I should list the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, the Aston-Martin’s DB4, DB5 and DB6 and many others as well.

By the way, the cars selected by my car friends on their Top 3 list, in addition to the XK-E, included the 1937 Talbot-Largo T-150C SS, 1953 Studebaker Starliner hardtop, 1955 Citroen DS/ID 19, 1964 Porsche 911/912 and the 2000 Honda S2000.

Today many automakers have embraced a design philosophy that is quite distasteful to me, and I’ve become dismissive of their misdirected effort to be modern and “cool.” Toyota, Nissan and GM, in particular, I’m pointing my finger at you.

Instead of being influenced by the grace and beauty of nature (such as those smooth rocks in the stream), it seems that auto design today is all about placing swooshes and air inlets over the automobile’s entire surface. GM’s Harley Earl used chrome for the same purpose in 1958, and we know how the 1958 Buick and Olds turned out.

Methinks that notable visual futurist designer Syd Mead said it best when he was recently quoted as saying, “Some of them (autos) are so ugly and contorted, you marvel that they were deliberately made to look that way … the headlight glass crawling up toward the A-pillar (Dar says hello Chevy Spark), crazy boundaries for the tail-light package (Dar says hello Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf) and weird body contours that sometimes resemble a dropped pizza.”

I couldn’t have said it any better.

Besides the Golf, do I have a favorite strong current offering? I do, and it’s the lovely recently introduced Land Rover Discovery. It hits all my love buttons. I like it’s size, its perfect proportions, it smooth and non-gimmicky body surfaces. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the company that created the brilliant Jaguar XK-E also created this masterpiece.

If you don’t recall what the vehicles mentioned above looks like, just use a search engine and type in year, make and model of the vehicle and you’ll be rewarded with many images.

Dar Davis is founder and entrant liaison of the annual Lake Bluff Concours d’Elegance of Southwest Michigan – St. Joseph car show held each August. He can be reached at drd43@sbcglobal.net.

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