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Car-making meets cutlery

A look at the maths behind designing an Aston Martin

Simon Willis | January/February 2015

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It was Sheffield, it was the 1970s, and Marek Reich­­man’s mates spent their Saturdays trashing bus-stops. But not him. He would go and watch a man making knives. Just outside the city was a big circular studio belonging to the industrial designer David Mellor, who for a long time was cutler to the Queen. The studio had an elevated gallery from which Reichman—the 11-year-old son of a blacksmith, who loved to see steel being cast and “stuff being made”—would watch Mellor work. It was an example of invention within strict limits. “You can look at a knife from 200BC,” Reichman says, “and then a knife from two days ago. It’s the same, but fresh.” That phrase—“the same, but fresh”—could almost work as Reichman’s job description. He grew up to be the head of design at Aston Martin, which is about as close as car-making comes to cutlery.

Look at its most famous products: the DB5, which Sean Connery totalled in “Goldfinger” in 1964, and the Vanquish, which Pierce Brosnan did his best to total in “Die Another Day” in 2002. The cars share a grille with a distinctive S-curve, the mouthpiece of Aston design since the 1950s. They share a side-strake: an aperture behind the front wheels with a ridge of bodywork slashing backwards from it, as though applied by a nonchalant flick of the designer’s wrist. And they share the same gentle down-slope of a rear-end, tailed with a lip like a low-altitude ski-jump. The genetic line is obvious, a series of features as particular to Astons as your nose and eyebrows are to you. But the most important strand of the DNA, the thing that holds these features together, is also the oldest design trick in the book—indeed, older than the book. These cars are covered in golden sections.

Seen side-on, there’s a line on a Vanquish that is clearly divisible into two parts. The first runs from the front of the bonnet to the back of the driver’s door; the second from there to the tail. You can see the division reflected in the bodywork. If you trace its line from the headlight, it flows smoothly until it reaches the dividing point, and then, like river water forced over a stone, it rises over the back wheel. The first part of that line is 1.6 times longer than the second part—the ratio variously called the “golden ratio” or the “golden section”. It is the number hidden in the curl of bracken fronds and snail shells, in the Parthenon and the concrete boxes of Le Corbusier.

The eye can’t get enough of it, which is just as well because on an Aston it’s everywhere you look. Follow a line the other way this time, from the tail over the roof to where the windscreen meets the bonnet: 1.6. Where the tail-light sits in relation to the top of the boot: 1.6. The size of the door in relation to the window: 1.6. One happy consequence is that an Aston Martin always looks as though it’s getting away from itself—even when it’s not moving. Ever since the DB2, which inaugurated the classic shape in 1950, the backs of the cars have been abrupt, so that all the momentum is going forward.

“One of the things that make a design last”, Reichman says, “is that proportion.” But it isn’t merely the fact that features and forms have lasted that proves their longevity, but rather the way they’ve lasted. Like a cutler giving a simple, functional knife a twist, Reichman twists and torques the grille, the tail and the side-strake to renew them but not destroy them. The most extreme example is the recent One-77, where the side-strake looks as if it’s been inflicted by Wolverine’s giant claws, the grille gapes more aggressively than ever, and the bonnet has overhangs and gills. The result is X-Men-meets-Savile-Row, but put the car next to its forebears and the lineage is clear. “When I’m designing, I’m looking for something that is modern in its context, and that’s very much about having a definitive set of criteria to design to. The challenge is to both keep and push the heritage.”

There was a time when all Aston did was push. In the late 1970s and 1980s, with a failing business and in search of new buyers, the company started designing with America in mind. It followed a fashion for muscle cars, and came up with new models that were angular, beastly and looked more like Mustangs. Nowadays these models show their age like shoulder-pads.

That was a sacrifice of elegance for ferocity, which in the cars before and since have been as balanced as Bond delivering his dapper punches. But, to tweak Le Corbusier’s mantra, these are machines for driving, and when you look again at those lines running from nose to tail, and then picture someone in the cabin, you see that the pivot on which the design is balanced—the point of the golden section itself—is the driver. However good it looks on the outside, it’s all done for the person sitting inside, the whole construction built around you as though you’re the unmoved mover. It’s design as flattery. And flattery, in this case, will get you everywhere.

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