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A whole new top gear

Is this what cars will look like in 2021? Yes, if Britain's newest generation of auto designers have their way, says Jamie Merrill

What will the car of the future look like? Much the same as today's sombre saloons and humble hatchbacks if next month's RAC Future Car Challenge 2011 is anything to go by. The challenge, on Saturday 5 November (the day before the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run), will see 70-odd ultra energy-efficient cars, from the latest hybrid Toyota and the new Nissan Leaf to Vauxhall's electric Ampera and a host of one-off Heath Robinson creations, attempt to travel the 60 miles from Brighton to London on the least amount of energy possible.

And while these cars represent the pinnacle of automotive design and the latest battery technology, they hardly set design pulses racing. Where are the sleek lines, futuristic curves and that endless sense of possibility for the 21st century? Too many of the cars hitting our streets look, well, much the same.

Enter the students of the Royal College of the Art's (RCA) VehicleDesign programme, who've been set the challenge of creating an artwork to represent what the RAC Future Car Challenge might look like in 2021 for an exhibition at the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall, London. Richard Winsor, the RCA course tutor, explains: "We set 18 of our first-year students the challenge of designing a vehicle and creating an artwork to represent the spirit of the event set in 10 years' time."

The students' designs range from futuristic sports cars to utilitarian runarounds. The RCA's is the world's only dedicated postgraduate course in vehicle design and its alumni include Jaguar's Ian Callum, who is credited with rescuing the company from the design doldrums, and Ken Melville of Renault. "One of our graduates from last year walked straight into a design job at a major European car manufacturer, and it's more than likely that our current students will be designing the cars we drive in the next 10 years," says Winsor.

Following in Callum and Melville's footsteps is student Henry Cloke, 24, who created a sleek design (pictured, main) which incorporates the landmarks of London and Brighton for the 2021 Challenge: "We're at the back end of a period of car design where we are starting to use exciting new technologies, but falling back on existing designs and styling. What's exciting about this project is that we can look forward to the possibilities of the future, rather than just adapt what we live with now."