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The best car designers of all time

The best car designers who have influenced our state of being.

The cultural impact of great cars is often underestimated and the car designer’s craft is often overlooked. I’d argue that best car designers influence more people every day than other forms of artistry, architecture and design. But the Jaguar E-Type would rarely be mentioned in the same awe-tinged tones as one would historic masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel. Yet, the designers of these indelible icons influence the motoring landscape for generations, inspiring creators everywhere. 

Malcolm Sayer

Think about Malcolm Sayer. He left the Bristol Aeroplane Company after World War II to join Jaguar’s engineering drawing office. He brought a fresh ideology into automotive design, with his knowledge of aircraft fuselage construction and aerodynamic mathematical principles to inspire some of Jaguar’s most memorable designs: from the C- D- and E-Type to the XJ13 and XJS.

Giorgetto Giugiaro

Giorgetto Giugiaro spent time at Bertone, Ghia and Italdesign, and went on to win ‘Car Designer of the Century’ in 1999. Responsible for classic designs like the Volkswagen Golf, Fiat Punto, Maserati Quattroporte, Lotus Esprit and the Back to the Future DMC DeLorean, Giugiaro’s flat surfaces and sharp edges are still relevant today.

The best car designers of all time 1

Chris Bangle

After designing various Opels from 1981 to 1985, Chris Bangle later designed Fiat’s brilliant coupe before rising to design chief at BMW, working across BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce brands. His designs polarised the automotive community, drawing withering criticism or gushing admiration for his work. His design influence can be seen throughout the entire BMW line-up, including the earlier BMW 1 Series, 3 Series, 5 Series and 7 Series.

Marcello Gandini

Marcello Gandini was known primarily for his work with the design firm Bertone. He was credited with the creation of two of Lamborghini’s prettiest vehicles: the sublime Miura and the outrageous Countach. He penned designs for Alfa Romeo, BMW, Citroën Ferrari, Maserati and Renault. He was even responsible for conventional cars that became known for their own practical traits, like the earlier BMW 5 Series and the Citroën BX.

The best car designers of all time 2

Battista Farina

Given the nickname of ‘Pinin’ in his early years, car designer Battista Farina formed Carrozzeria Pinin Farina in 1930. His distinct take on automotive design quickly caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari, where he designed the Dino 206 GT, 275 GTB and Testarossa. Commissions from Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Peugeot being among his most distinctive designs, like the Alfa Romeo Spider Duetto, Peugeot 403 and Lancia Aurelia B24 Spyder.

Alec Issogonis

How many cars can claim to be as recognisable as the Mini? A true cult car loved by influencers, racers and people the world over. Car designer Alec Issogonis’s brief was to design a ‘proper miniature car’ – the Mini Mk 1 – in response to the mid-50s petrol shortages, and in competition with German bubble cars and the diminutive Fiats from Italy. The Mini’s compact proportions and timeless style gave rise to one of the most significant cars of our time. 

Ian Callum

The transition of design for electric cars has tested designers – like Ian Callum – sitting at the crucible of old school and new-school thinking. He’s responsible for the Aston Martin DB7, Vanquish and today’s Jaguar I-Pace. I met Callum during the launch of the Jaguar F-Type, which he also designed, and I remember him telling me that a Jaguar always needs to have a sense of excitement. ‘Everything you look at has to be beautiful,’ he said. 

Electrification presents challenges for design; conversely, it opens a world of opportunities. I think EV designers can struggle with their design language, sometimes forgetting that cars should be beautiful to look at, regardless of their powerplant.

The best car designers of all time 3

Peter Schreyer

No matter how the world of motoring will look in the decades to come, we can look forward to some future classic designs that will continue to shape and influence our lives. Keep an eye out for car designer Peter Schreyer. He’d previously created Volkswagen’s modern Beetle, and the Audi TT. Now, as Chief Design Officer for Kia Motors, his designs have removed cultural barriers between Western and Eastern design and we are seeing some pleasing shapes from Kia, Hyundai and Genesis. 

The best car designers of all time 4

Jon Mayer

Volvo’s car designer Jon Mayer is another to watch, as he showcases the clean Scandinavian design language that brings style and a premium feel to the exterior of Volvo and Polestar products as they evolve to be a 100% electric car brand by 2030. 

These designers are deeply influential on the modern psyche. From the time we leave home to arriving back, our perception of the world we live in is constantly challenged by every car silhouette and contour we see on our roads. 

They deeply influence our feelings and our emotions – our essential state of being. Next time you look admiringly at a car that inspires you, spare a thought for the design greats that made it happen.

By Richard Webb

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