Thursday, April 17, 2008

Flashes of Inspiration

Beauty, so they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But you can find some impressive pieces of automotive art in places you wouldn't really expect. Whilst we're used to elegant sports cars and the occasional finely-chiselled luxury saloon, form has traditionally trailed function by some way at the lower end of the market. Thankfully this isn't always the case.

This morning I was driving along the M25, when a blood red Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon went past me. At that moment something inexplicable came over me and instantly I wanted one. In strict terms, they're an obsolete, front wheel drive estate car, made from bits of leftover Fiat, yet right then I wanted one more than just about any other car I could think of. It just looked gorgeous. And it was an Alfa. And it was red.

Alfa's more recent saloon offering, the 159 (pictured above), is in a very similar position. It was designed to hurry reps and the occasional family man to the next appointment, but (as ever) a substantial dose of Italian flair was injected somewhere along the way. In fact, the same can be said of the entire Alfa Romeo range, with the 147 hatch, Brera coupe and Spider convertible all dripping with the sort of desirability normally only found in cars costing three times the price.

They're not alone either. Peugeot may lack the mystique of Alfa Romeo, but that makes it all the more remarkable that my next candidate should be based on the humble 406 saloon. When coachbuilders Pinifarina were commissioned to produce a coupe version, the long suffering repmobile was transformed into something altogether more exciting. Look carefully and 406 Coupe has more than a hint of Ferrari about it – perhaps not surprisingly as they were created by the same design house as many of Modena's finest.

It seems the critics agreed as the 406 Coupe clinched both the Milano Triennale award for the 'The Most Beautiful Coupe of the World' and the 'Car Design Award' in 1997, followed by the title 'Most Beautiful Car of the Year' at the Festival of Chamonix in 1998. Not bad for an affordable, mass produced run-around.

The Europeans don't have it all there own way either. The latest iteration of the Hyundai Coupe uses the same basic platform as the Kia Cee'd supermini (itself not a bad looking car) to produce a genuinely appealing 4 seat tourer. Likewise, Toyota's excellent Celica was based on the rather functional Corolla hatchback.

Perhaps the reason for this is that all cars are designed by enthusiasts. You simply don't spend your life fiddling with computer renderings and clay models unless you have a real passion for the subject. And sometimes, however functional the product is intended to be, you just can't suppress those urges. Just occasionally the designers and engineers responsible for a project manage to overcome the bean counters and a great car is born. I can only hope this begins to happen more often.

Images courtesy of

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