Test the tastes of tomorrow with the best ideas of today

London's Royal College of Art is the world's leading institute for the study of vehicle design. Stephen Bayley looks to the future
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"YOU throw a billiard ball at a guy and he puts it down. But a baseball! He'll keep playing with it because of the stitches." Thus Bill Mitchell on the sacred mysteries of car design. And Mitchell was one of the greatest car designers of them all.

"YOU throw a billiard ball at a guy and he puts it down. But a baseball! He'll keep playing with it because of the stitches." Thus Bill Mitchell on the sacred mysteries of car design. And Mitchell was one of the greatest car designers of them all.

The successor at General Motors to the legendary Harley Earl, Mitchell drew the 1965 Buick Riviera and the 1968 Oldsmobile Tornado: in these cars he created a thrillingly complex formal language at once confident, luxurious, novel and utterly, utterly American. Elegiac too, because they were the end of an era.

He also drew the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, a razor-edged classic whose style he explained by saying: "I wanted to put a crease in the trousers," revealing a nice knack for metaphoric quotability that has ever since marked successful designers.

It might be five minutes to midnight for the car business, but automobile manufacturing remains the industry of all industries. It is quite literally the engine of entire economies and, since technological distinctions have been eroded through shared supplier technologies, it is design that powers it. The fate of nations can be decided by the consumer's reaction to a rear lamp moulding. And, fascinatingly, there is only a handful of places where such things are considered academically.

There is Art Center in Pasadena, California and a school in Detroit itself. Coventry University is an emerging force, but it is London's Royal College of Art that is outstanding.

The class of '04 is about to reveal itself, appropriately in a building facing the Kensington Garden site of the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. Ever since the first students graduated from the Vehicle Design course in 1969 it has been as international as the industry it feeds.

The alumni include Peter Stevens (1969), designer of the McLaren F1; Gerry McGovern (1977) who worked on the MGF and Land Rover Freelander; Pinky Lai (1980) who drew the last old-style Porsche 911; Erwin Himmel (1982) once with Volkswagen, now operates his own studio; Murat Gunak (1983) of Mercedes-Benz; Dirk Van Braeckl (1984) author of the Skoda revival as well as the new Bentley Continental and Julian Thomson (1984) in charge of Jaguar's Advanced Design studio in the Midlands.

There are 17 outgoing students of nine different nationalities, all of them wondering about baseball-stitching rear lamp mouldings. The Royal College of Art is a post-graduate establishment, so the source of first degrees are revealing. There is Hong Ik University, Seoul; The National Technical University, Athens; Lahti Institute of Design, Finland; Pforzheim University, Germany and North Carolina State University. Many of the students arrive with established industrial links and sponsors include Citroën, JCB, Ford, Jaguar and Bentley.

At The Royal College of Art, Vehicle Design is divided into three broad areas, branded like premium products. The first is Automark, where students work on innovative ideas for vehicles of the generation after next. Many of the styrofoam ideas sitting in boxes on the studio floor will be manufactured in about 15 years time. Next is Inside Out where students study the interface of materials and the last is Urban Flow where the subject is "advanced solutions to inclusive mobility".

No one mentions "styling" nowadays, but just to prove the spirit of creative whimsy has not been crushed under the obligation of industrial duties and shareholder value, one student is working on a glass Bentley. And just to prove that this course is broad-based "vehicle" design, not narrowly specialised on the single issue of cars, another student has designed a triangular scooter, and another is working on a human-powered submarine. After you to The Serpentine.

Dale Harrow is the head of department. I asked him, picking my way through the artful chaos of students preparing for a degree show, if vehicle design was a distinct discipline. He said: "Yes, absolutely, because the most important creative aspect is 'surface development'."

There are two broad aspects in conceptualising the appearance of a new car: graphics and sculpture. The graphic element is the simpler: it is the silhouette and the details that animate the surface, whether the jewellery of lights or chrome, or the more subtle choreography of cutlines. The sculptural component is more sophisticated and much more significant, in that the customer's perceptions of the whole depend absolutely on what is, essentially, the artifice of the sculptor. We may not call it styling any more, but despite obfuscatory social and technological justifications, car design is in all essentials a willfully creative aesthetic activity.

And, again, despite the research, it is an ad hoc process. Yes, they can use computer-controlled milling machines to create shapes from digital data, but the process is really more about modelling clay by hand. The use of a clay model was one of Harley Earl's innovations and it soon became an industry norm. George Walker, designer of the 1949 Ford, a bullet-nosed classic of suburban Americana said: "When you have a clay model, you study it to see what what is going to be the best way for the door to open. You start fooling around, and you start all over again."

Today, one of the high priests of car design, Walter de'Silva (whose right hand man is Peter Schreyer, a Royal College alumnus), speaks of, say, his new A6, in terms which Donatello would have understood.

Walking around his latest creation he waves hands and points to " un piccolo ombra", he mutters, " luce, luce". A little shadow here, some light there.

Car design is certainly about a very physical sort of seduction, but a more complex and demanding world will soon require cerebral satisfaction too. Dale Harrow acknowledges this, saying that one of his academic ambitions is to broaden the intellectual basis of Vehicle Design. Some of us are tempted to mutter "and not before time", but this is a creative priority for the industry which as a whole has never been thought over-intellectual. Signs are that this might change. J Mays of Ford said to me that what he was trying to do was no longer simply "own the product, but own the customer as well".

So there is a volatile cocktail of ideas and feelings in this Vehicle Design course. These students are designing the future: predicting, even directing, the tastes of tomorrow with ideas available today.

The pioneer industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a catch phrase: "MAYA" (much admired by Renault's daring Patrick le Quément) which stands for "most advanced yet acceptable". Royal College students test acceptability.

It is one of the majestic constructs of the designer business that adepts have privileged access to the future. But the sober truth is that today's novelty is 15 years old just as 2019's novelty was designed yesterday in South Kensington. The industry likes to disguise this.

Whether it is a glimpse of a future that has already been designed, the stitching on the baseball or the crease in the trousers, designers are always looking for that something which excites desire because desire leads to fascination and purchase decisions follow.

And the industry of industries rumbles on. This is why, for all its vanities, cruelties and absurdities, the car and its many supporting structures are so engrossing. In 1999 I commissioned an article from the plummily waspish motoring apologist, controversialist and art critic, Brian Sewell, for a book I was editing to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Royal College's Vehicle Design course. Mr Sewell, I think unforgettably, wrote: "Motoring is like masturbation -- unstoppable and here to stay."

Better spare The Royal College's blushes not to explore the extensions of this simile, but it does suggest the permanence of the car's place in our hands ... and in our imaginations. At least for the time being.

The RCA Vehicle Design degree show runs until 4 July

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