Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tesla and Fisker Compared

I live right next to an upscale Seattle neighborhood that now seems to boast an owner of a Tesla S sedan. Actually, I've noticed several Teslas tooling around Seattle and its high-tech eastern suburbs in recent weeks. The Tesla S model is a luxury-priced four-door sedan powered by electricity with an exceptional (for its kind) range of more than 200 miles (300 km) and partial (but somewhat useful) battery re-changing time of around an hour. Its competitor was the Fisker Karma, but at the time I'm drafting this post, the Fisker company appears doomed to extinction.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the styling of the two cars because they were intended to occupy the same market niche -- a political "statement" car for buyers with plenty of spare cash as well as other, more practical cars in their garages.

The Fisker Karma was styled by the company founder, Henrik Fisker, a Danish stylist whose career included stints at BMW and Aston-Martin. The Tesla S was styled by Franz von Holzhausen who worked at General Motors' now defunct Pontiac division and Mazda, the Japanese manufacturer.

Here is a photo of Fisker in a styling studio with a Karma. Fisker is not longer with the company.

Let's examine the Tesla S and Fisker Karma by comparing side and three-quarter views.

Both stylists chose to make their cars low even though the sedan design fashion in recent years has been for taller cars. However, high-priced sports car continue to be built low to the ground to evoke racing cars, so they must have decided to incorporate that styling cue.

Fisker and von Holzhausen also proportioned their cars to look like gasoline-powered automobiles with the engine in the front with real-wheel drive, as has been BMW's practice, for example.  A car with the motor at the front with front-wheel drive would tend to exhibit greater front overhang than what we see here.

Other commonalities include fully exposed wheels with tight wheelhouse openings along with a side-window motif featuring convergence to a sharp point at the rear.  The top profiles are also similar, probably the result of wind tunnel testing. Differences include more pronounced fender bulges on the Karma.

Front three-quarter views show that the Karma's greenhouse sits more forward than the Tesla's (visible in the side views, but not so distinctly). The more curvacious fender bulges on the Karma serve to give its greenhouse a "nested" look, whereas the Tesla's body tends to stage downwards from the high point of the roof. The headlamp treatments also differ, the Karma's more vertical shape combines with the front fender bulge to emphasize fender height and enhance the greenhouse nesting. Since neither car requires a conventional radiator, the cars' "grille" treatments are essentially artifice. The Tesla is more "honest" here because most of the material inside the bright outline band is simply black-painted body surface.

Rear three-quarter views reveal conventional 2010 vintage styling. The Karma is more sculpted, the image below showing the fussy details slightly better. I'm not sure what the inserts in the false exhaust openings are supposed to do. The Tesla's design incorporates one oddity: rather than a trunk lid, the rear opening is a hatchback. For some reason, hatchbacks never proved popular in America so I wonder why this type of access was chosen for the Tesla. My best guess is that the rear window ("backlight") extended so far to the rear that there simply wasn't room to incorporate a conventional trunk lid.

In conclusion, my take is that both designs are flashy, imparting the feel of sports cars.  This is especially so for the Fisker Karma. Although the Tesla seems more conservatively styled when compared to the Karma in the photos above, its low profile and the pointed side window profile are un-conservative compared to most other cars on view in the same street. I find the Karma's styling a little too gimicky and the Tesla's "grille" area too phoney, but in general both cars are competently done.

Which might I want to buy? Neither, because electricity powered cars are impractical for a person who can afford only one automobile at a time. When they get recharging time down the the number of minutes it takes to fill a gas tank, I might change my mind.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hanomag 1.3 Litre

I don't have any data to prove this (alas, and me a numbers guy!) but my impression is that very few low-price and mid-price European cars were imported to the United States in the 1930s. Those that were, were probably mostly occasional instances of personal cars purchased overseas and shipped home. And there might have been a few British cars that trickled over the border from Canada. That's why I have no recollection of seeing pre-World War 2 cars of that type driving around Seattle's streets when I was young. I would imagine that others didn't notice many or any either.

One result of this is that even American car buffs might be ignorant of lesser Europeans brands that faded before the post-war import boom. Which is unfortunate, because a number of those unknown (to Americans) brands had interesting styling.

One such make was Germany's Hanomag, briefly described here. To me, the most interestingly styled Hanomag was its 1.3 Litre car introduced in 1939. There are few images of that car on the Internet, but I did manage to find a useful trove here, three of which are shown below.


The Hanomag 1.3 Litre was a low-priced car intended to compete at the high side of Volkswagen (at the time, called KdF-Wagen after Hitler's Strength Through Joy movement) that had not yet entered regular production.

The (likely) publicity photo at the bottom shows the scale of the car -- quite small. Yet the stylists were able to craft a trim fastback with nicely integrated 30s style teardrop profile fenders. Note that there is no exterior running board, a touch just being introduced in the USA at the time. A more archaic feature is the split rear window ("backlight" in stylist-speak).  But that feature is justifiable because the splitter is an extension of the central wind split extending from the center bar of the grille over the hood, between the windshield panes and over the top.  For some reason, I'm a sucker for wind splits, so this gimmick is okay by me. Oh, and it adds visual interest without quite becoming clutter.

In summary, a neat design for a small car. And maybe some day I'll finally have the pleasure of seeing a Hanomag 1.3 in person.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I've been blogging since 2005, first at the late, lamented Two Blowhards blog and since 2010 at Art Contrarian. At both blogs I wrote a number of posts dealing with automobile styling. I want to write more often about car styling, but I've been getting the feeling that Art Contrarian readers would prefer that I stick closer to the subjects of painting and illustration and minimize the styling content. The way out of this problem was to start the blog you are now reading.

Unlike Art Contrarian, I have no strong point of view or agenda. But I do have a minor one. Note that I use the word "Style" in this blog's name and not the word "Design." That's because, aside from two evolutionary periods, the appearance of cars has been driven more by fashion than evolution or the bold, clean-sheet-of-paper approach implicit in "design." You can read more about this in my e-book Automobile Styling. Really, it's all a matter of degree regarding what share of the effort of creating the appearance of a car is style as opposed to design, and I'll often apply the term "design" to its general appearance ("... the design of the 1949 Ford makes use of ...").

As for my qualifications, at one point I considered making automobile styling a career. However, I came to realize that I didn't have the stuff to be outstanding in that field. At the University of Washington I stared as an Industrial Design major, a field that required a year of basic architectural design. But I eventually shifted and ended up graduating in commercial art. After serving in the army, I entered graduate school and ended up as a Ph.D. (from Penn) demographer specializing in developing population forecasting software systems. This gave me a more rigorous scientific/engineering mindset than my undergraduate training offered. Throughout all those years my interest in automobile styling continued and I followed developments closely. I leave it to you, the reader, to judge the quality of the articles I will be posting here.

Due to my three posts per week commitment to Art Contrarian, my time for Car Style Critic will be limited to twice a week posting. Expect to find new posts on Mondays and Thursdays.