Automotive Design in Transition – Of Great Rides and Big Fins

Renault R5 Automotive Design

When we think of automotive design, we often think of the glamorous and extreme prototypes, but the business is more diverse and often more factual than one would commonly think.
Without claiming to be exhaustive, it is worth taking a brief flight over design languages, personalities, trends and details.

Behind every car, no matter how inconspicuous and unassuming, there is a mature automotive design idea. It doesn’t always have to be sweeping tail fins or sharp breaks for a vehicle to be seen as a piece of design.

Like, for example, two of the vehicles that represent the epitome of objectivity: The VW Golf I and the FIAT Panda, both designed by Giorgio Giugiaro.


Volkswagen had held on to the Beetle for a very long time – some thought too long. In the mid-1970s, after the European competition increased the pressure on VW with new compact cars, it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that the concept of the air-cooled rear-mounted engine and the almost unchanged basic shapes of the Beetle were not really fit for the future.

So Giugiaro was entrusted with designing a new compact car that would lead Volkswagen out of the crisis and into a solid future. So he built a solid car – the Golf.

The engine, now water-cooled, was mounted transversely and drove the front wheels, making the best possible use of space. The shape of the first Golf can be described as striking and a break with the round Beetle shape.

The FIAT Panda from 1980 onwards was even clearer in terms of functionality and practicality. Smooth surfaces, two doors and a large tailgate, a spartan interior and either the 650 cm3 parallel-twin engine from the FIAT 126 or one of the two four-cylinder engines with 847 or 903 cm3 displacement – that’s all there was to the “great car”, as the Panda was marketed in Germany.

It is certainly not one of the most glamorous tasks to build unpretentious, functional cars, but someone has to do it. Ultimately, as in these two examples, it is also an opportunity to shine and, as Giugiaro did, to draw vehicles that are still on the road 40 years later in further generations and celebrated as a contemporary witness.


The focus on functionality in the Golf and Panda was a development that had already been initiated by other manufacturers. Mobilisation across the board, with a view to utility and lower fuel consumption, made it necessary to look beyond the limousines and coupés.

Station wagons gradually emerged from their niche as beasts of burden for craftsmen until they finally became “lifestyle station wagons” in the 1990s. But the compact car genre was also more in demand. A car that could easily find a parking space in the city, but was still comfortable and usable for medium and longer journeys, seemed to be more and more necessary to find its way into the manufacturers’ portfolios.

The ingredients for a successful compact car were easy to put together: compact dimensions, a large tailgate for easy loading and, at best, the ability to draw on components from existing models.

But each model still had to carry the brand’s DNA. In 1972, for example, the Renault 5 was launched, successfully implementing all these attributes. What’s more, it became Renault’s “little friend” and a successful model for decades, and it was also successful in rallying.

The designer of the R5, Michel Boué, remained in the background in the public eye.

The same fate of “unsung hero” is shared with Pio Manzù, who designed the Italian counterpart, the FIAT 127. A greater celebrity status could already be presented in Ingolstadt.

Marcello Gandini and Claus Luthe, two greats, were responsible for the design of the first Audi 50. Close to the VW Golf, but in a category below it, the Audi 50 broke new ground from 1974 onwards, and from 1975 onwards it was also a success in the simpler version as the VW Polo.

Another great designer should not be missing from this series: Tom Tjaarda designed the Fiesta for Ford with the European market in mind. Like the models mentioned above, Tjaarda’s compact vehicle was a lasting success for the brand.


But functionality does not always beat extravagance. To this day, automotive history is full of brands, models and people who have tried something new and have even ventured to swim against the tide.

Of course, the best way to swim is streamlined. The Citroën DS, for example, presented in 1955 and designed by Flaminio Bertoni, represented an antithesis to the mostly baroque pontoon bodies of the time. Of course, the “goddess” also impressed with all kinds of technical innovations, but it is also thanks to Bertoni’s lines that the DS has inspired people right from the start and continues to do so to this day.

When the image of swimming is used, there is no getting around an element of automotive design history: the tail fin. This is not so much a reference to the more or less implied lines at the rear of a Mercedes-Benz W 110 or W 111, but to the fins on the American road cruisers of the 1950s.

Somewhat for aerodynamic reasons, but mainly for aesthetic reasons, the sweeping tail fins were well received by designers and buyers at the time.

Two names symbolise the duel between two manufacturers who experimented with shapes and tried to outdo each other: Harley Earl was responsible for the design at General Motors, on the Chrysler side his counterpart was Virgil Exner.

Based on aviation models, they outdid each other with their sometimes extravagant interpretations of the tail fin. Measured purely in terms of sales figures, the GM vehicles ended up better.

The history of automotive design is therefore rich in the most diverse aspects, which cannot be outlined in a few pages. On closer inspection, however, even the most inconspicuous detail reveals more than just the arrangement of certain elements of the bodywork.

Behind every car is the consideration of what one wants to convey with this car, what tasks it should fulfil, from which era it originates and finally also the courage of the manufacturers to look at it this way and the creativity of the designers to cast all these aspects into a lasting form.

Text: Paolo Ollig Pictures: Bonhams, Citroën Deutschland GmbH, Ford-Werke GmbH, Renault Deutschland GmbH

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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