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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 10:29 GMT
British cars, by design at least
RCA graduate Christian Wichmann Brandt's updating of a Bristol car
On the road out of London soon?
test hello test
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online
Good news for the UK car industry is often hard to come by. But now it seems the global manufacturers are flocking to London to have their vehicles designed.

What sort of thing gets the creative juices going for a modern car designer? The glint of raw steel? The crash of heavy machinery? The expectant faces of factory workers?

Not according to the biggest names in vehicle manufacture. As jobs on the production line migrate abroad, it's London shops, galleries and street life which are proving a magnet for the major design studios.

Ford car workers
"I'd rather be in Soho."
Ford is already putting the design think-tanks for its stable of famous marques under a single London roof. The Ingeni studio, in the ever-trendy Soho area, will dream up future models for Volvo, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Lincoln, as well as for Ford itself.

Nissan - which assembles 300,000 cars in Sunderland - is also closing European design studios in favour of a multi-million-pound development in a converted railway depot near Paddington.

German manufacturer Audi - which owns the Italian Lamborghini brand - is also said to be beefing up its design presence in London.

Fair-weather friends?

So to what does London owe this new interest? Presumably it's not the English weather.

For many years California has dominated the car design world and not solely because the US state is the world's largest car market.

Unkind voices have suggested the designers preferred to sun themselves by the Pacific, rather than brave the icy winters in such car capitals as Detroit.

Austin Allegro
The Allegro, no design classic
Nissan design boss Shiro Nakamura says it is the "vibrancy" and "multiculturalism" of London that makes it so attractive a base for his car stylists.

Also instrumental, Mr Nakamura hinted, was the acclaimed vehicle design school at the Royal College of Art (RCA).

While the British car industry was coming up with such stinkers as the Mini Metro and the Austin Allegro, London-trained designers were creating motoring gems for foreign firms, says Dale Harrow, who heads the RCA department.

Today companies such as BMW, Audi and Cadillac have British chief designers.

Buy British... designed

Mr Harrow says that if London is producing the cream of car designers, it is only sensible that studios should base themselves in the city too.

"Car design is not only technical, but takes account of the cultural and social as well. Good car designers have a radar to pick up on trends from other disciplines and London is great for that - it leads the way in so many other fields."

The Queen inspects a car in Korea
But possibly designed by one of her subjects
While Mr Harrow says the peculiarly British trait of rebelliousness makes home-grown talent particularly exciting to foreign firms, the current buzz is not just a domestic product.

The Royal College's workshops house vehicle design students from more than 14 countries - lured to London for Mr Harrow's course and by the city's cultural life.

Brett Patterson, automotive designer and editor of Car Design News, himself swapped Australia for London. He predicts that the car industry's interest in London "has yet to peak".

Engineering too

Aside from being an "inspiring place", he says the city is also "reasonably close to the prototyping facilities and other engineering support used in developing a design through to the production stage".

These facilities have already helped the UK's south east become the centre of the motor sport world. Even Ferrari and BMW boast car development centres near London, which contribute to the 1.3bn-a-year industry.

Audi TT
The Audi TT made it to the road
While the capital's fashionable car designers maintain that they no longer have to sit beside a clanking production line in a grim industrial town to come up with the goods, will their London-inspired cars ever actually make it off the drawing board?

Manufacturers have long mocked-up stunning concept cars to prove their avant garde credentials - only to fill the car dealers' forecourts with boring stodge.

"That used to be the way," says Mr Harrow, "even when the Audi TT concept was shown, people predicted it was too radical to go into production, but it did make it to the streets."

So while cars made by British firms might soon become a rarity, British designers will certainly have a hand in what the world drives for decades to come.

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