Motoring: Our designers are the best - what a pity there is no large indigenous car maker left to work for

BRITAIN MAY be a motor industry minnow, without a single large car maker to call our own, but we still play a crucial role in designing some of the world's finest cars.

Just the other day I attended a presentation to launch the new Mercedes S-class, probably the world's most accomplished car. And during the speeches/video presentation/meal/handing over of press kits, it emerged that an English designer was responsible for the looks.

Steve Mattin, from Bedford, is a graduate of Coventry University's excellent car design course. Designs are team efforts, of course, and Mercedes has a vast design department with studios in Germany, Japan and America. Yet Mattin is given the credit for the S-class's look - a great achievement, for it is one of the beautiful cars of the fin de siecle, mixing grace, modernity and Mercedes tradition.

Mattin is also responsible for the external styling of the baby A-class, probably the decade's most radical car.

It's not just in Stuttgart - Mercedes' home town - where English auto artists prosper. Anthony Grade, nephew of the late Sir Lew, is vice-president for car design at Renault, in recent years perhaps Europe's most progressive maker in terms of form and function and renowned for its lateral thinking.

Its Scenic mini-MPV, which Grade helped conceive, created a whole new type of car. The latest Clio was also designed under his leadership, and he has had a big hand in the latest Espace and the Laguna. Grade, in turn, reports to Patrick Le Quement, who is responsible for all Renault design, including trucks. Le Quement, possibly Europe's greatest active vehicle designer, is an Anglo-Frenchman.

Volvo was never renowned for design, its cars - all square edges and boxy shapes - almost anti-style objects. That was until Englishman Peter Horbury came on the scene as chief designer. Horbury is responsible for the latest breed, including the S80 saloon and handsome V40 estate. He has made Volvos sexy.

Audi's street style, on the other hand, has been noted for years. Ask designers to list the best-designed cars, and most will mention Audi. Much of that good work is down to an Englishman, Chris Bird. He was responsible for the exteriors of the Audi A4 and A8 and had a big say in the A6 and the new TT sports car. These Michelangelos-of-the-motorway are four of the finest-looking production cars ever.

Admirers of Bird include Ford. The US giant, which has been in a very acquisitive mood recently, has just hired him to be its director of design for small- and medium-sized cars - a huge coup for Ford. Bird, 42, is a Royal College of Art graduate who began working for Ford in 1981 before moving to Audi in 1986.

There are many more talented Brits, big on road vogue. Martin Smith was one of the key designers of the original Audi Quattro. Based in Germany, he's now responsible for the look of upcoming small- and medium-sized Opels and Vauxhalls. Geoff Lawson, Jaguar's director of design, has the XK8 sports car on his CV, and that is reckoned to be one of the best shapes of the Nineties. He also did the current XJ saloon. Ian Callum designed the drop-dead gorgeous Aston Martin DB7 and the equally enticing Aston Project Vantage concept car, whose styling is set to hit production in a few years.

The list could go on and on. They are all making the streets a more cheerful and stimulating place and improving our visual environment, just as good architects and clothes designers do. It is just a pity that there is no large UK-owned car maker that they can work for. The biggest indigenous maker we've got now is tiny TVR. And what's TVR's main strength? You guessed it - great style.

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