Most people choose their cars simply because they love the looks, the gas mileage, the power, or the ride, without putting much thought into the design considerations that created their favorite ride. Most people, that is, except for car enthusiasts. Created for the car enthusiast in you, check out our list of the most iconic auto designers of our time.
Auto Design History
When most people think of the first automobile, they attribute its creation to Henry Ford, who did innovate the mass production of vehicles in the US around the turn of the 20th century. However, the first gas-powered car patent went to Carl Benz, who patented the “Motorwagen” in mid-1880s Germany. Still, this wasn’t technically considered the first modern car.
Somewhere in between, a couple of bicycle mechanics from Massachusetts patented the Duryea Motor Wagon in the early 1890s, which was the first US gasoline-powered automobile. By 1899, 30 American companies had produced more than 2,500 models of motor vehicles, and over the decade that followed, 485 additional companies arose as US car manufacturers.
It wasn’t until 1901 that Mercedes rolled out the first car that resembled the modern-day motorcar. This car had a 14-pound-per-horsepower engine and achieved 53 miles per hour with a mere 35 horsepower. As vehicle design and innovation progressed quickly, American manufacturers looked to their European counterparts for a cheaper answer to the expensive, slow-to-manufacture automobiles that had previously been introduced.
By sacrificing innovative design for an affordable price, the 1906 Ford Model N became the first low-priced gas-engine motorcar. The Model N was a mere $600 and was manufacturable and deliverable at the rate of 100 cars per day. In 1908, Henry Ford finally introduced the Model T, and by 1912, it was priced less than the average yearly wage of most Americans at $575.
After these innovations spawned a new wave of manufacturing, America didn’t take long to become the dominant force in the automobile industry. The “Big Three,” Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, had emerged by the 1920s, and World War II boosted European automobile production, generating some of the craziest foreign cars. Car fever even spread to Japan, where innovation and ideas flowed. And thus, the automobile industry as we know it today began to materialize.
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Notable Modern Car Designers
Over the past century, cars have evolved into beautiful and mesmerizing works of art that continue to fuel the dreams of drivers of all persuasions. At times, it can seem like car design knows no limits, as though some of the most awe-inspiring and iconic designs have come into existence right before our eyes. Still, it’s important to remember that a lot of work – and a lot of innovation, creativity, and science – goes into developing automobile designs.
As the ideals for auto design continue to shift, we know one thing for certain – any list of the best auto designers of the modern era will never be complete. Still, as we experience the beautiful evolution of technology and automobile design, it’s clearer than ever before that nothing will ever impress the car world as much as the models of yesteryear and the brilliant minds that manifested them. Without further ado, here’s our list of the best auto designers to date.
Born in Italy the same year the Duryea Motor Wagon was patented, Battista Farina was an eager and bright soul with a friendly demeanor. It didn’t take long for him to find his calling when, at just 18 years old, he was commissioned for his first major contract: to design a radiator for the Fiat “Zero.” In 1920, after declining a job offer from Henry Ford, Farina returned to Italy, inspired by the burgeoning US automobile industry.
By 1930, Farina had founded his seminal design firm, Pininfarina. The firm became a pioneer in the design of some of the industry’s most prominent car models. Farina is known for his innovative designs that never compromised on elegance, and he played an influential role in defining the post-war era Italian sports car image. The Ferrari Dino, the Ferrari 250 GT, the Alfa Romeo Spider, and the Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider are some of the most infamous car designs attributed to Farina and his firm.
Born in 1933 in Italy, Bruno Sacco is an Italian-Austrian innovator of automotive design whose impression on the car industry will never be forgotten. Sacco studied at the Technical University of Turin in Italy and gained experience in auto body design at the celebrated Ghia design house. He also worked on several Pininfarina projects and later became a stylist and engineer for Mercedes.
Sacco was named Head of Body and Dimensional Design in 1970. He was then chosen as the successor of Friedrich Geiger as Head of Styling at Daimler-Benz, now Mercedes-Benz, a position he held from 1975 to 1999 until he retired. The well-known aesthetic of the brand during that period can chiefly be attributed to Sacco. Thus, he is widely regarded as having played a key role in shaping the classic visual representation of the modern Mercedes-Benz.
Some of Sacco’s most renowned cars include the Mercedes 600 W100, the 230 S “Pagoda,” the R129 SL, the Model CL 500, the W120, and the experimental sports car, the C111. However, it is his perspective on auto design that has made the most profound mark on the industry. Sacco insisted on a perfect union of aesthetics and technology so that a car could have the best of both worlds. He also pioneered the belief that a Mercedes should always look like a Mercedes, no matter what era it is built in.
Ian Callum is a British car designer born in Scotland in 1954. He has worked for several prominent car manufacturers, including Ford, TWR, Aston Martin, and Jaguar. Callum is widely regarded as one of the most significant automotive designers of the 21st century.
Ian Callum is known for creating iconic designs such as the Aston Martin DB9 and the Jaguar F-Type 2. As a result, he has received several design awards for his contributions to the automotive industry. Callum left Jaguar in 2019 to focus on personal projects and recently started his own design company called “Callum Design.”
Born in 1933 in Bordeaux, France, Paul Bracq is a French automobile designer who has worked for several major car manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Citroën, and Peugeot. He has made significant contributions to the automotive industry throughout his career. Bracq is particularly well-known for his designs of the Mercedes-Benz Pagoda, the BMW Turbo concept car, and even the Peugeot.
Paul Bracq is one of history’s most important automotive designers, especially for his ten years of work with Mercedes-Benz and then as a chief designer at its rival, BMW. He won numerous design awards for his innovations and retired in 1994.
Bill Mitchell was an American automobile designer who held a position on the automobile design team at General Motors for over four decades. Eventually, he became Vice President of Design at the company. He was responsible for designing many iconic models, including the Chevrolet Corvette, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Cadillac Seville, the Buick Riviera, and the Pontiac Firebird. His contributions to automotive design have made him one of the most important figures in the history of American car design.
From 1958 to 1977, Mitchell was credited for the designs of 72 million cars produced during that time. Mitchell passed away in 1988, but his legacy lives on within the heart of the legendary American muscle car. He is one of the most iconic auto designers, and his designs represent the contemporary automotive movement in the US.
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Georges Paulin was a French automobile designer, coachbuilder, and dentist born in 1902. Paulin was best known for inventing a retractable hardtop for convertible cars known as the “Eclipse.” In 1935 this design was patented and used by several car manufacturers, including Peugeot and Delahaye.
In addition to his accomplishments in automobile design, Georges Paulin was involved in the French Resistance during World War II. Unfortunately, he was executed by the Gestapo in 1942. In his short life, Paulin left an indelible mark on the car industry.
Franco Scaglione was an Italian automobile designer who was born in 1916. He worked for several prominent automobile design houses, including Bertone, Alfa Romeo, and Porsche. Scaglione is known for his sleek and aerodynamic designs, and some of his most notable works include the Alfa Romeo BAT series of concept cars, the Lamborghini 350 GT, and the Corvette SS.
Scaglione’s studies of aerodynamic design and renderings will be forever cherished within the automotive design community. Many consider his designs to be works of art decades ahead of their time. Though brilliant and highly revered today, Scaglione died in poverty in 1993 in Genova, Italy, leaving behind an invaluable portfolio of passionate, picturesque, and aerodynamically perfect automotive designs.
Mike Simcoe is an Australian automobile designer currently serving as the Vice President of General Motors Global Design, a position he has held since 2016. He joined General Motors in 1983 as a designer and has since held various design leadership positions within the company. His notable works include designing the body for the Holden Monaro, the Chevrolet Camaro, and the Chevrolet Volt. Simcoe’s contributions to the automotive industry have made him a highly regarded figure in the field of automotive design.
Michael Mauer is a German automobile designer who is currently the Chief Designer at Porsche, a role he has held since 2004. He is responsible for leading the design team and overseeing the design of all Porsche models, including the iconic 911, concept cars, and special projects. Before joining Porsche, Mauer worked for both Mercedes-Benz and Saab. His role in shaping the design of the automobile as we know it makes him a distinguished contributor to the automotive industry and automotive design in general.
Laurens van den Acker
Laurens van den Acker is a Dutch automobile designer who is currently Renault’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Design. He is responsible for Renault’s overall design strategy and direction, including the design of production vehicles, concept cars, and brand identity. Van den Acker is known for his modern and distinctive design language, which has steadily inspired and shaped the design progression of the modern-day car.
Van den Acker joined Renault in 2009 and has since overseen the design of several notable Renault models, including the Clio, the Captur, and the Megane. Before joining Renault, he worked for Mazda, responsible for designing the Mazda 2, the Mazda 3, and the Mazda 5.
Thomas Ingenlath is a German automotive designer and current CEO of the Swedish luxury car brand, Polestar. Born in 1964 in Germany, he studied industrial design at the Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. He began his career in the automotive industry in 1990 when he joined Volkswagen as an exterior designer.
Throughout his career, Ingenlath has held various design positions at Audi, Skoda, and Volvo Cars. At Volvo, he served as Senior Vice President of Design and was responsible for formulating the company’s modern design language, which debuted on the second-generation XC90 SUV in 2014.
Later, Ingenlath was appointed CEO of Polestar, which was originally a performance division of Volvo Cars but later became a standalone electric performance car brand under his leadership. Ingenlath has played a key role in shaping the brand’s design philosophy, emphasizing minimalism, sustainability, and cutting-edge technology. He is best known for his modern and distinctive design approach.
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Invaluable Contributions to Great Design
The jury is still out on which car brand has the best design because there is no one true answer to the question. Each of the designers honored above (and the dozens not accounted for here) contributed a piece of their spirit to the car designs they created. In doing so, they contributed a piece of the spirit of the modern automobile to the bigger picture of the automotive industry.
The contributions of all car designers and their works of art are embedded in every model, whether new or old. They all play a pivotal part in this forever-advancing industry, and thus, they are all part of a larger movement that one day will define an era.
Ready for more automotive history, intriguing info, and DIY auto tips? Keep coming back to the Red Mountain blog. And, if you’re a car enthusiast who thinks you truly know cars, you can test your knowledge by taking the Classic Car quiz.