If they made cars in heavenThere was this joke. It probably came out of the European Union HQ in Strasbourg, and it went something like this: Heaven would be a place run by the Germans, with accounts done by the Swiss, catered by the French, and clothed by the Italians. Hell, on the other hand, would be run by the French, with accounts done by the Italians, catered by the Germans, and clothed by the Swiss.
Which got me thinking: a heavenly car would be designed by the Italians and built by the Germans (maybe that's why the Giugiaro-styled MkI Golf was such a success, in Europe at least). And that's it. Everyone else can get lost.
Of course, you couldn't have a hellish car designed by the Germans, as they're rather good at that kind of thing. Think Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz SLR Gullwing. When you really think about it, Mercedes-Benz is of the few makers to produce consistently good-looking cars over the years. Just no one mention the R-Class and everything will be OK.
What about the Audi TT? A quintessentially German car if ever there was one. Uh-uh. The TT was designed by Freeman Thomas, who doesn't sound at all German. Which goes to prove that good car design in general is not the monopoly of one country. Look at the classic American cars: the 1965 Ford Mustang fastback, the Ford GT40, the 1963 Corvette Stingray. Two words: Harley Earl. And that's before we start talking about other areas of great American design like guitars, architecture and Coca-Cola bottles.
Even the Brits are good sometimes. Look at all the many and varied designs Ian Callum has come out with: the Aston Martin DB7, the DB9, the Vanquish and Vantage V8, plus the new Jaguar XK. Hang on a second, these aren't varied at all. This guy is selling the same design time and again.
So Callum's a one-trick pony. At least it's a damn nice-looking pony. And he wouldn't be the first. Marcello Gandini did a beautiful job on the Lamborghini Diablo. But he probably didn't work nights and weekends when he trotted out his design for the Cizeta-Moroder V16T.
There's something about Italian design that excites, inspires and stimulates. I visited Giugiaro's Turin studios and saw some of the many cars he's designed over the years, from truly beautiful Alfa Romeos to functional-yet-cute Daewoos. And is there a more wonderful car design than Bertone's Lamborghini Miura? What about the fabulous Ferraris styled by Pininfarina, from the 250 GT to the Dino 246 GT to the F50? Now imagine them all with reliable drivetrains and electronics, over-engineered like Mercs of old.
The most hellish car would be designed by the French. And built by the French. Americans were spared cars like the diabolical Renault Safrane and its successor, the Vel Satis. The Safrane was dull and incompetent. Well, maybe incompetent is a bit harsh, but it didn't handle particularly well and looked... actually, it was so forgettable to look at that I've forgotten what it looked like. It's the nearest any car has come to being a slice of slightly stale white bread.
The Vel Satis (even the name gives it away, doesn't it?) was weird and incompetent. It looked awkward and handled like a bus. It was quietly taken out of production not long after its debut. It makes you wonder how these things ever make it past the development stage. Someone, or most likely a group of people, must have said: "Yeah, this is great. It's going to do wonders for the company and can proudly stand against its rivals-even the German ones-and knock the motoring public dead. Let's sign that baby off and celebrate." How can such well-educated people on such high salaries get it so wrong? The Vel Satis didn't knock the motoring public dead, but it made many of us feel pretty ill.
And these crimes against good taste and good sense were compounded by Renault's patchy (at best) build quality. American drivers sure dodged a couple of bullets there.
In the real world, we have to put up with cars that are great in some ways and flawed in others. It's frustrating, yes. But at least it can be interesting. For instance, you can get a Chris Bangle-designed car. The upside is that it's built by BMW.