Less is more for Peter Brock who helped build and design iconic sport cars
The most beautiful cars are expressions of aerodynamics, says Brock who takes his inspiration from the 30s and thinks all car designers deserve their due
At 81, Peter Brock’s hang gliding days are behind him. “But it was pretty thrilling to be up there on a thermal with an eagle,” the American recalls. “In fact, it was more exciting than anything else I’ve done.”
That is saying something. After all, Brock had a brief career as a racing driver, but also a much longer one as both a builder of racing cars and – the feats for which he is legendary in petrol-head circles – as a designer of cars too.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, even his hobby turned into a design challenge: by the time he quit it, he had rethought the wing tips to create a hang glider with greater stability, and built a team that won six out of the seven world cross-country championships it entered.
But it’s the cars for which he is lauded. And small wonder: Brock – who was head-hunted to join General Motors’ then groundbreaking design department when he was just 19, then their youngest ever appointment – helped develop the Shelby Cobra and designed the Corvette Sting Ray, the Datsun 2000, Datsun 240Z and the prototype for what would become the Triumph TR7. Perhaps most famously, he also designed the Shelby Daytona Coupe – still available in kit form as the Brock Daytona – with its revolutionary, distinctive, bluntly chopped off rear end. It’s a design echoed today in many cars, including the Toyota Prius.
“The most beautiful cars are expressions of aerodynamics – and the great thing about the period I worked in was that it was all about aerodynamics,” says Brock. “That chopped off back end meant messing with some lovely flowing lines that just weren’t aerodynamically efficient. That blunt end was ugly but kind of beautiful for the way it worked. Other designers had that kind of idea before but the time was right when I proposed my take on it. Even then it wasn’t easy to convince people. Any new idea gets laughed at first, but it becomes self-evidently right.”
There is a sense that Brock could have been as much a far-ranging product designer as a car specialist: a few years ago he designed the Aerovault, the first aerodynamic car trailer (he will proudly note that it improved the aerodynamic performance of car trailers by 30 per cent), something akin to an Airstream remodelled by Buck Rogers. “Designing that trailer was harder than any performance car I’ve ever designed,” he says, laughing.
And to commemorate the Daytona, he has just co-designed a watch with Baume & Mercier, transporting the car’s original blue-and-white striped racing colours to the dial, echoing details like the foot pedals in the watch’s push buttons.
“You essentially apply the same principles whatever the object, whether it’s a watch or a car,” Brock explains. “It’s all about good taste. Getting that refinement right when you still want the impact is not easy, though.”
Indeed, while he concedes that he took perhaps the easier route of specialising in high-performance race cars, he still laments what he considers the poor quality of a lot of car design now. He partly blames the rise of software. “It’s allowed designers to work without the sensitivity required to spend months getting forms together in clay,” he argues, saying the industry has come to be dominated more by fashion.
“It’s why a lot of designers put lines all over the place. And the results are ugly,” he says. “I spend a lot of time now speaking at car design school and I get a sense that students have this great desire to do radical design too, so I have to keep reminding them that the human form is never going to change and any car design has to work around that. And anyone can design something radical really – it’s doing that while also making it into something that can be made and commercially that matters.”
“That said,” Brock adds, “these students will get to work with all sorts of new materials, the likes of carbon fibre, which are set to make all sorts of new forms in cars possible. I would have loved to have worked with some of those. Not that I’m complaining. I still think I worked in a golden age.”
Indeed, Brock’s eye for car design was born on the streets of California at a time when some cutting and shunting was all part of the fun. He grew up a keen hot rodder inspired by the cars of the 1930s, among the most visually striking ever made, he contends. It’s one reason why, in his 80s, he can’t stop himself from, as he puts it, tinkering with cars.
“Then, as now, hot-rodding was all just about two things – stance and proportion. If either were wrong the whole thing was just wrong. If you’re building a rod in that great tradition you get a very strong sense for that,” Brock explains. “I worked with the guy at GM who had designed the 1932 Ford, one of the most beautiful cars ever – and he’d based that on a hot rod.”
But Brock likes all designers to get their due, too. These days, he admits, slightly ruefully, he is more likely to be found in a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) than anything too fast. He has recently taken delivery of a GMC Yukon, a gigantic box of a car better suited to his prairie lifestyle. He lives out in the wilds with his wife Gayle, the one-time Microsoft big shot with whom he manages Brock Racing Enterprises, a company that now specialises, as the name suggests, in the sale of automotive nostalgia.
“So many people have this deep-seated appreciation for car history,” he says. “Just look at the attendance of concourse events – people want to celebrate those cars.”
But why is it, he asks, that it is only the designers of supercars who come to the public’s attention?
“SUVs, trucks, they’re all function, and designing that should be respected,” Brock argues. “This new SUV I have – every line on it is beautiful, because every line on it works so well. Sure, there’s a glamour to sports cars – until you take one of them into the desert, and then you’re pretty much sure to want to be in an SUV. In its own forum an SUV is just superb. Never mind whether it’s fast or slow, or what badge it has on it, that’s what you should be looking for in a car – good, clear design.
“There’s always the opportunity to put a good idea into another car. Make a design too complicated and everything just seems to cancel each other out. Whether it’s a car or a watch, less is more, I say. That’s always been my mantra.”