If you want to be a car designer you need to be well trained - and have a lot of talent, says Steve McCormack

However successful the Green lobby becomes in persuading us to use our cars less, it seems unlikely they could ever dent the powerful attraction millions of people have for car design. Some of the most enduring design icons of the last century have come on four wheels, and with fashions changing almost as fast as silhouettes on the catwalk, there seems little prospect that employment for car designers will ever dry up.

Despite the demise, over recent decades, of much British-owned mass production capacity, the UK retains a reputation for producing high quality design expertise, backed up by an expanding educational base supplying potential new recruits. British born, or taught, creative talent is behind much that's new on the inside and outside of cars all over the world.

Prominent among institutions with established departments is Coventry University, where the first UK course in transport design opened in the early 1970s, when the Midlands was still the hub of the British car industry. Since then Coventry has sent out an impressive succession of graduates who've found work in design departments of the biggest names in the global car industry here and abroad. Although the four year undergraduate course in automotive design is run within the school of art and design- underlining its credentials as principally an artistic and creative discipline - it is a degree that has to straddle the divide between engineering and art. Two of the full time lecturers in the department are qualified engineers.

"It's very much part of our business to teach students the fundamentals of materials, processes and dynamics, so that they can talk sense to the people they end up working with," explains David Browne, head of transport design. Although car design these days harnesses all available advances in computer technology, clay modelling is still a central part of the creative process that students learn. The ease of adding to, and slicing from, clay shapes ensures the material's endurance as a powerful component in the process of developing new designs.

The first two years at Coventry are spent on a generic transport and product design programme, after which students have to "win their place" on the automotive design course for the final two years. The university puts a cap of 30 places on this part of the course, which prepares students for the competitive nature of the job market awaiting them.

"Only the best get a job straightway," warns Browne. This is a caveat endorsed by Roland Emrich, editor of the ConceptCar website (www.conceptcar.co.uk), a news, resources, discussion and jobs exchange site for people inside and outside the car design industry. "In career terms it's very tight at the moment," he says, "and there are a limited number of new jobs every year."

This, he says, is partly because of a decline in the practice of car manufacturers asking outside design houses to come up with designs to, in effect, compete with their in- house design teams. At the same time, though, he argues, the design factor has become a more central part of the overall package when a car is launched - a point exemplified by the recent Renault Megane "shakin' that ass" campaign, centred on the simple design feature of a protruding boot.

But for every designer coming up with that sort of big idea, there are hundreds required lower down the chain. The BSc in automotive design technology at Bradford University, where 24 students began their first year last autumn, typifies courses aiming to place graduates in the middle and lower echelons of the design hierarchy. Director of design George Rosala looks for applicants who can show creativity mixed with some understanding of technology. He thinks their prospects for employment are good, as long as they don't necessarily expect to work for the main players.

"There is a whole horizontal automotive industry, where creativity is needed to design interiors and components that are supplied to the manufacturers," he explains. This advice is echoed by Andy Wheel, who graduated from the Coventry course in 1990 and who is now a senior designer with Land Rover.

"My advice is to focus as much time as possible on computer skills and all the software packages," he says. "That will enable you to move around all the design disciplines if necessary."

And everyone agrees that design is here to stay as a central part of our world, on and off the road.