Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Math of Car Styling

As I've been thinking about these curvaceous Italian cars of the 50's, I was reminded of several conversations I've had on the subject with automotive designers. I'm no designer myself and won't claim any expertise on the subject, but I have had the opportunity to work closely with several automotive designers, one who is both very talented and a friend and several others of strong opinions and varying skill levels.

Now there are lots of things that go into good car design. The basic concept, the vision of the driving experience, the packaging and the way that interacts with the overall design are examples. In a way, the surface of the car can be the result of many other choices, yet is often the most important thing in the way we react emotionally to a car.

These designers all had different ways they approached the surface of a car, but in the many conversations with them, I reduced it all to a way that an engineer can understand. What is pleasing to our eye is most often curved like most things in nature. In particular, one designer talked about 'lines on a car that show acceleration'. What I understood that he meant by that are curves that are always changing curvature and, in fact, the curvature increases or decreases smoothly along the shape. Mathematically, that means curves like a parabola. In nature, that means shapes like a raindrop.

So, look at the Giaur or the OSCA or any of your favorite cars and you can see parabolas and surfaces of rotated parabolas everywhere. The photo above is the Bosley and it shows accelerated lines everywhere. The way that the designer combines them in long lines the run the length of the car and shorter lines that react to a wheel or a radiator opening, the way that he combines them into a smooth surface, that is the art of car design.

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