Not Robert Cumberford

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A failed car designer tries to make sense of a flat design world.

A pie in the oven.

Sunbeam 1000 hp Land Speed Record car

You know how cooking shows always seem to have a perfect version of the final cooked dish waiting in the oven? Artists need them sometimes too.

This is my “pie in the oven” for an Autodesk Sketchbook Pro demonstration that I’m giving tomorrow at the Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam. Even though I’ll be doing a real-time walkthrough of my process for creating a digital illustration in SBP, it always helps to have a version that you know will come out right in the end. This illustration of the 1926 Land Speed Record setting Sunbeam “1000 hp” car took me about 2 hours to complete and uses various techniques that I’ll be able to highlight during my presentation if my “drawing hand” doesn’t show up when I do tomorrow afternoon.

Tricks of the trade aren’t just for celebrity chefs.

The car search begins…

Navigating the European car scene.

To those who might not have heard the news yet, a few weeks ago my wife, 8-month old daughter, and I packed up our things, sold our house, and moved to The Netherlands. That’s a dramatic life change, coming on the heels of our first child last April, but one that we both have been desperately seeking for quite some time. My wife Mary was the one who managed to make it happen, with a lucky web forum post and a skillset that perfectly matched a Dutch company’s needs, but I was not only happy to follow, I was thrilled at the opportunity.

For me, living in Europe isn’t a novelty. I spent a year of High School as an exchange student in Italy and did all of my University studies around Europe (Switzerland, France, Italy), holding a diploma from a school in Paris (whose name shall remain unspoken due to a pathetic and continuous downward spiral since). I didn’t leave the continent willingly either. I was unable to find a job as a car designer and lost my visa, pure and simple. Hadn’t managed to get back (to live) since.

But despite my previous multiple years of residency in Europe, I have never really lived here. As a student, I never had the money or time to enjoy the things that I coveted so much. The food, wine, and cars remained largely objects of desire, and only when I’ve visited have I really had a chance to sample them first hand. For better or worse, that’s all different this time around.

And the first order of business? Buy a car (well, technically it’s “wait for the visa to come through and get a bank account”, but I’m not going to go into that here). My Peugeot short-term lease car goes back in just 2 short weeks (unless I choose to extend it), and it’s becoming apparent that our current apartment just isn’t as public-transport friendly as we’d hoped. We really need a car to get around here, especially in the winter months with a little baby. Bikes are nice and all, but you can’t take a baby on a bike to the airport to pick up your mother-in-law and her three oversized American suitcases.

So what to get? The options here are endless and fascinating. There are entire segments of vehicle in Europe that don’t exist in the US, as well as dozens of brands (or, at least one dozen). As a true gearhead, and a former car designer, my simple goal is to buy a car that is not sold in the US, fulfills all the needs of our little family in our little Dutch town, and is either fun to drive or quirky enough to not be (something French, for example).

But the options are staggering. Under €20,000 is my target price. That’s not bad, but quite limiting actually. First of all, 20K Euro is roughly equal to 27K USD, but add on top of that the painfully high taxes the Dutch government slams on car buyers, and all of the sudden things are tighter than they seem. That said, there are still tons of options, new and used, to look at. A 4-year old Alfa? A brand new Fiat? A year-old Citroen? A Skoda or Dacia or Opel?

So I’m putting the first round out to the readers. Drop me a comment and let me know what you think I should buy. Keep in mind the requirements of a young family with a 9-month old, city living, and only the occasional road trip to southern France or the Nurburgring. Tell me what you’d like to see me test drive, what you’ve read about and never dared consider, or why I’m being a dope for not just buying a German car outright.

Help me make sense of the European family car landscape, and I’ll do my best to document the process.

Peugeot Partner Tepee – First Impressions

Peugeot Partner Tepee in the Snow

Peugeot Partner Tepee rests in Switzerland before the long ride north.

As I stepped out the customs line in Zurich, I immediately heard it over the loudspeaker, “Mr. Andrew Meehan, please come to the information desk”. Regardless of how this car would turn out, it seemed that the drop off would be one of the most seamless and efficient things I’d every experienced. What I would be picking up, however, would need to prove itself. The Peugeot Partner Tepee isn’t just a car with a silly name. It’s a silly car with a silly name.

Based on the “popular with the plumbing crowd” Peugeot Partner panel van, the Tepee is a consumer version marketed as a low-cost, high-versatility minivan for families on a budget. What you’re likely to notice first, however, is just how hideously ugly and awkward this car is – and how, in white, you will likely be mistaken for a local tradesman everywhere you go in Europe. But its utilitarian background has the benefit of ensuring this “car” will be incredibly practical. Taller than it is wide, the Partner Tepee has huge windows and a tailgate that’s closer in size to a barn door than a traditional hatch. The huge cargo area immediately showed its worth as we crammed our little van to the gills with our oversized American suitcases (enough for a permanent move to Europe), with 5 fitting easily in the trunk area under the cargo cover. What I also realized is that the big stroller we’d brought along might not so easily fit back there, and I might need to utilize one of the Partner’s biggest assets – the easy-fold seat. As I had seen on the introduction video online, the rear seat quickly folded up and out of the way (a la Honda Fit) and the stroller easily was on board (unfortunately, the fold-down button broke just as easily when I put the seat back up later). The floor being higher than average, loading was easy and back-injury free.

The high load floor means the driving position is somewhat like sitting on a bar stool with a steering wheel in your lap, but it wasn’t uncomfortable on the hour-long drive. The adjustments seem quite limited, but I haven’t had much chance to further inspect the layout to see if maybe there’s something else hidden deep within the slightly confusing French ergonomics. Once out of the airport (and fueled up with diesel for the long trip to come), the 90bhp diesel engine surprised me with admirable low-end grunt, and although it quickly became a bit rough and noisy at highway speeds, it had no problems keeping up with Swiss highway traffic. So far, I’m pretty indifferent to my Partner Tepee. It’s tall, ugly, and strange, but has enough personality and ”Frenchness” to possibly convert me. There will lots more driving to come, and many more bags to carry in the month I have the car.

Check back soon for more updates from the Tepee.

Follow my Christmas card progress!

So last year I dropped the ball on my Christmas card. It was the first time in years that I didn’t produce something worthy of public consumption and it’s been buggin me ever since.

This year will be different.

I’ve started early and I’m feeling good about it. Already have the setting and the car picked out and sketching has begun in earnest. I’m going to try to keep updating this blog with snippets of my work progress until the final card is ready in early December.

As you can see from the sketches, I’ve chosen a 1955 Jaguar D-type longnose (Le Mans winner) as the car. The location will be unveiled in my next post.

Stop back often for updates!

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Is Ford about to drop the ball on Fiesta Movement?

I’ve been following Ford’s Fiesta Movement from the beginning. In fact, not only did I consider putting my name in the hat to participate, I was already directly or indirectly following several of the final 100 chosen via blogs or Twitter. For me, Fiesta Movement was not about raising awareness of the car, but rather a test of whether a fun-to-drive European hatchback could really become cool in the US — something automakers have been telling us for years was impossible and that a vocal minority have been saying was not only possible, but already a reality.

I have been at the front of that vocal minority for years. Upon returning home to the US after years lived in Europe in the ’90s, I couldn’t believe that the US car market had such a horrible void at its bottom end. The small, cheap and clever cars that Europe adores were simply missing over here, and the argument seemed to be that automakers couldn’t make enough profit from them and that, quite frankly, nobody wanted them anyway. I did, and still do, and I know others do too. I’ve walked the walk too, owning both a VW Golf and a MINI Cooper in the past decade. And now I’m looking to buy a new car.

The Fiesta instantly jumped to the top of my list based on the positive reviews that it’s received in Europe and in recent tests on US websites. I want a 5-door hatch that is small, fun to drive, and, yes, looks cool (I’m still a designer, you know). And I’m looking to spend around $15K on it. And here is where Ford’s problems start. They have been very vague about everything to do with the US Fiesta. When will it arrive? How much will it cost? Will they put some horrible higher-powered but inefficient and unfun engine in it or maintain the Euro spec? Will they tweak the styling for “American taste” (meaning, the complete lack of taste, if the current Focus is any indicator). We just don’t know. And there is real-world competition for it, on the ground, in the US, right now.

The Honda Fit has been a huge success since it arrived a few years ago if my neighborhood in Philadelphia is any indication. It’s small, clever and a pretty decent drive. It’s almost the exact same size as the Fiesta but vastly more useful. Its got those flippy seats and a flappy-paddle gearbox and the new model even looks pretty good. A Euro-spec Fiesta bests it in driving pleasure, I hear. The Fiesta also looks better — if they keep it the way it is. And maybe it will be cheaper? Yeah, we don’t know that either. Ford’s been extremely tight-lipped on the subject. Which leads me to one conclusion: it doesn’t matter how much goodwill and interest has been generated by Fiesta Movement if buyers can’t put numbers and dates and specs on their shopping list.

I probably won’t be buying one. In a buyer’s market, a new Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube or even a VW Rabbit or Mazda 3 is potentially competitive. In the current used market, the sky’s the limit. If the Fiesta’s arrival is imminent, I might wait, but a recent Ford press release says “More than nine months before the 2011 Ford Fiesta goes on sale in North America”. Nine months? How will they keep up the excitement for that long? Who’s going to wait nine months in the small-car space for a mysterious car that you can’t compare, spec or price? I won’t, and I blame Ford. Hopefully this won’t doom the Fiesta upon its arrival, but with Mazda readying the 2 and Fiat importing the 500, I think Ford is wasting its opportunity to get on buyers’ shopping lists.

But if you want to do a second round of Fiesta Movement, give me a call. If the car’s as good as you say it is, having it sit in my driveway next to a Fit should be the perfect way to show off everything that’s good about it.

The Truth About Logos

A commendable car blog called The Truth About Cars has asked its readership to submit logo designs for the site. Typically, I would consider this an affront to designers (and maybe it is), but I have a lot of respect for them and what they stand for (completely unbiased and brutally honest auto reviews and news), so, despite my better judgment, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and design a little something for them as well. I can use all the publicity I can get for my designs.

Maybe if I win their contest they’ll buy my Christmas Cards next year to send out.

The Truth About Cars logo proposal

The Truth About Cars logo proposal

The democratization of car buying?

I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a person by the car they drive. Whether you like it or not, even the blandest car makes a statement about who you are and how you live. Very rarely would you be surprised by a slick salesman in a Honda Civic or a hippy in a BMW M3. But these days, gas prices seem to have changed that, forcing rednecks into Geo Metros and Soccer Moms out of their SUV high-horses and into more practical station wagons (gasp!) and reasonable sedans. But is this a permanent change, or a temporary reaction?

I’m not sure, but it occurred to me this morning that Europe has always been a more democratic car buying environment. Small streets, a near total lack of parking, insane taxes on vehicles, lack of credit, and, of course, high fuel prices have meant that for decades Europeans drove what as practical above what was cool. Only showoffs drove BMWs and SUVs. Only rich people drove Porsches. Everybody else, well, they drove what was cheap and local. The French have been buying Peugeot and Renault hatches, the Germans their Golfs and Opels, and the Italians their crappier than thou FIATs for generations. I’ve seen businessmen in Pandas and well-to-do families piling out of a Renault Scenic and never batted an eye. In the US, it’s so rare, that pulling up to a family picnic can be a nerve-racking experience if you feel like you’re “under-driving” (what will Aunt Jane think of me driving an old Saab? Will Uncle Mark think I’ve lost my job when he see the ’99 Passat wagon?).

But now it’s all changed. I think that these gas prices are likely to stay over $4/gallon, so SUVs will slowly go away in favor of smaller cars permanently. The credit crunch will likely pass though, so as upmarket fuel-efficient cars start filtering in to our protectionist little country (I’m looking at you BMW, where’s my efficient dynamics, huh?), will the level playing field tilt again to towards the wealthy? Will my neighbors put away the Civics in favor of Explorers? Is this just another malaise era that creates a generation of little fuel-efficient cars only to be completely forgotten when things get better again?

One way or another, it’s going to be interesting. I can’t instantly judge people by the car they drive anymore. That’s no fun, but probably not a bad thing. I’ll be keeping an eye out though. Will the market change to fit the cars, or will the cars change to fit the market? Only the automakers can decide that.