Engineers and ‘Designers’.

You may be surprised to hear that there is not always perfect harmony between so called ‘designers’ and the engineers that actually make a car reality.

In fact even the word ‘designer’ is contentious, for what actually is a design? Is it a general sketch of the outside of the car or is it the detailed drawings that parts can be made from? Taken to extremes could I draw a picture of a blue box with a flashing light on top and say I have designed a time machine? Clearly not, but at the other extreme is the chap who draws out the blueprint for a gearbox support bracket a car designer? Again clearly not.

So what is design? It turns out to be a word that is used to mean subtly different things to different people, the dictionary really doesn’t help either with definitions varying from ‘a drawing that shows how something is to be made’ to ‘the general form or arrangement of something’.

And if you think about it the same vagueness exists for the word ‘engineer’ too, in my profession an engineer is someone with a degree in engineering who uses science to solve technical problems in order to create new technology. It’s a complex job with a good mix of practical and academic skills, in other countries such as Germany a professional engineer has the same social status as a doctor. But to British Gas an engineer is the bloke who fixes boilers. So when I create a new thingumyjig after deciding its form and function am I an engineer or a designer?

Maybe it’s ‘engineering design’….

If creating the drawings and working out the form and function is design then it could be argued that what the traditional car ‘designer’ does is actually styling and not design at all.

Either way the few people in the crayon department get lots of credit and go to posh shows to drink bubbly, whilst the many who toiled long hours wrestling near impossible problems in order to actually create a car simply get rewarded with more work. No champers for us just quiet anonymity, although to be fair that’s the way most of us like it.

The tension between the two departments stems from ‘designs’ that make the engineering either difficult or impossible.

In the late ’90s I had the privilege of working at Bentley on ‘Project Bali’ which was the successor to the Continental R/T and would eventually become the Continental GT. The designer there was a very talented chap by the name of Simon Loasby, back then he had to use traditional clay modelling on a rolling chassis made of girders. His studio had the full size clay in the middle and all round were inspirational pictures of older Bentleys and all sorts of stylish items associated with sophisticated high society, it was quite a wonderful place to be, even if rather chilly in the winter months due to the feeble gas heater left over from the war!

Anyway, he created a truly beautiful shape, not entirely different to the car we see today but somehow a touch more elegant. I went to look at it every few weeks as it evolved because I was working on bits of the engine design and crucially wanted to make sure the airflow through the radiator and charge coolers would be enough to let the engine meet the power targets. Critically this means that the apertures in the front have at least the bare minimum area to do the job, but also that the design allowed the hot air out of the engine bay. If the air couldn’t get out as fast as it got in then it backs up, the flow reduces and the engine overheats, so it’s quite important.

Initially the car had nice big air scoops at the front for the charge coolers and a very useful set of side gills to let the air out, I did some flow calculations and all was well.

Then the style changed, the front smoothed out, the holes got smaller and catastrophically the gills went! Undoubtedly the car looked smoother, but did it need to? And now we had to design for the air escaping underneath, which generates lift at high speed and never works quite as well. Simon knew what shape he had to design, and I knew how much air had to go through it, but the two didn’t go together and long conversations ensued.

But before we could go any further on that project the company was sold to a variety of German companies and the whole design was taken over by some other people with stronger accents.

My point here is that both Simon and myself had valid points that contradict each other. Engineers rarely admire ‘designers’, but often study with great enthusiasm the works of great engineers instead. As an aside at Crewe back in the day a Rolls Royce was commonly abbreviated to a ‘Royce’ rather than a ‘Rolls’ because Henry Royce was the engineer.

Designers sometimes complain that engineers keep saying no to everything, and engineers may complain that designers simply don’t understand the implications of their design. So who is right? Well as much as it pains me to say, probably a bit of both.

Engineers have to design a car that works in the real world, restricted by the laws of nature, legislation, finance and time. But designers have to create a shape the will engage the minds of customers, and most customers don’t give a fig for what’s under the shiny paint as long as it works. Occasionally in big companies the two groups are unwittingly assigned briefs that will inevitably result in conflict.

Sometimes in smaller teams these traditional roles are blurred, and it seems to work better that way, the McLaren F1 road car is a prime example.

Have a look at the original engineering prototype cars for the Range Rover back in the ’60s. They, Spen King & co, recognised all the key features a customer would want, packaged it all together in a way that worked very well indeed but looked very slightly unpleasant. Add a touch of styling and the car was transformed, but without ruining the engineering. That is, I think you will find, the way to do it.

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