Writer Phil Patton is The New York Times‘ go-to journalist for automotive design and has written books on the Volkswagen Bug and the work of Michael Graves. And although we haven’t driven a car since the Clinton administration, we would brush up on our parallel parking for a chance to get behind the wheel of a Stout Scarab, the eccentric ancestral minivan (pictured below) that Patton wrote about recently and aptly described as “shaped like a loaf of home-baked bread.”
Next Monday evening, on the eve of the New York Auto Show, Patton will moderate a Times-sponsored discussion entitled “Designing the Car of the Future,” featuring speakers Franz von Holzhausen, director of design at Mazda North America; Joel Piaskowski, chief designer at Hyundai Kia; and Edward T. Welburn, Jr., GM vice president of global design. But before he could work on his questions for that gang, we asked Patton some of our own. Below, he tells us about the state of automotive design, what he considers to be “the bolo tie of cars,” and why the time is right to reread the zooming similes of F. T. Marinetti.
1. On March 17th, you’re moderating a panel on “Designing the Car of the Future.” What do you see as the most significant trend in car design today?
Energy crises and oil shocks change the way car companies operate. New technologies change the ways cars look. We are in a period of rapid tech change: Hybrids, fuel cells, all the new motive technologies are likely to change the basics of auto design. It happened with smaller engines and front wheel drive, it is happening again.
The early results during such periods are often gawky–think of the first “downsized” cars of the 1970s–but then the changes produce clever and fresh solutions, esthetically as well as practically. Good designers know that constraints spur creativity.
2. You’re the author of Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World’s Most Famous Automobile. What was the most surprising Bug-related story/fact that you encountered in the process of writing the book?
My favorite Bug is the two-foot metal toy one I own, made in Africa mostly of Coca-Cola cans. The VW bug shapes and the Coke bottle shape are both global icons, which seem to have fallen from the sky, as in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Now Volkswagen wants to create another global icon with the up!
3. What kind of car do you drive? / What is your dream car?
I often drive new models, such as, recently, the Smart For Two and Audi R8. I still dream of showing up places in some sort of vintage El Camino SS, the bolo tie of cars, or a Porsche 914 (the unmacho VW one) or Studebaker Hawk or a 1934 LaSalle.
4. Last film you saw?
I’m still recovering from Eastern Promises and the steam bath scene, which raises the design question: do gangsters from the ‘stans really use what appear to be linoleum knives and if so, why?
5. Last book you read?
Just finished the second volume of John Richardson‘s Picasso biography. I just came across the passage about how Picasso was visited and interviewed, almost exactly a hundred years ago, by the American humorist Gelett Burgess, famous for coining the word “blurb.” That and other of Burgess’s coinages are included in Burgess Unabridged. A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, published by Walker Press, which my editor friend George Gibson kindly gave me just last week. Coincidence? The point is that it if you keep your eyes open, it all connects.
It’s time to reread the Futurist Manifesto. Not long ago Bill Mitchell at the MIT Media lab reminded me that next year marks the centennial of the Futurist Manifesto. The Futurists were arguably the first people to proclaim the artistic power inherent in car design in the famous declaration that “the splendor of the world hasbeen enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed….A racing automobile…is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Unfortunately, the Futurists were also enamored of war and misogyny.
6. Best/most memorable design-related encounter?
Recently, Billy Gibbs of ZZ Top signing my copy of his book about the great guitars and cars he owns, including the immortal CadZZilla (pictured below), designed by the late Boyd Coddington.
7. Proudest design moment?
I hope it hasn’t come yet, but the display of my coffee cup lid collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum last year, thanks to director Aaron Betsky, was a thrill.