Peter Stevens on the state of automotive design in Iran

16 March 2016 | by Peter Stevens

Peter Stevens on the state of automotive design in Iran

Clay modelling on display at the Tehran auto show

The choice was an unusual one: either attend the Geneva motor show or fly to Iran, where I was invited to speak at the third Iranian Automotive Industry International Conference, talk to design students, visit the Tehran auto show and run a two-day masterclass for transport design students at one of Tehran’s many design colleges.

Iran has just emerged from a period of international sanctions and has just re-elected moderate President, Hassan Rohani, so this seemed like a good time to avoid Geneva, where hotel, beer and food prices double during the show period, and head for Tehran.

This is a city that has seven Art and Design colleges, all well equipped and full of some of the most enthusiastic students one could hope to meet. Speaking first at the very well attended conference to an initial audience of more than 1,500, and then to 450 younger people at a workshop event the following day, I was struck by how different Iran is from what we have for years been told.

The newly re-elected President spoke passionately about the importance of Iran’s automotive industry to the country’s economy. He pointed out that in the ‘Post Sanction Era’ new models were essential and said that the ‘Old Guard’ in charge of car production had to step aside to make way for the young people who were the ones with the new ideas; Iran had to stop making old cars and design contemporary models.

He also said that he neither wanted foreign manufacturers to bring tooling for their out-of-date models to be built as low-cost products, nor did he want them to flood the market with imports. He wanted investment, an exchange of ideas and knowledge transfer, with an understanding of the cultural environment within Iran when considering joint ventures.

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Tehran traffic with Paykan Hunters

All this of course delighted young designers and engineers. As an example of the need for progress is the fact that most taxis are either 1970s Hillman Hunters or Iran Khodro Samands which are a 1980s reskin of the Hunter that was designed at MGA, a consultancy based in the UK just outside Coventry where TATA now has a facility.

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Iran Khodro Samand taxis

There is no doubt that an introduction to a country’s technology is first gained from the taxi that awaits you at the airport: in China it could well be a VW Santana (an old model Passat), in India a TATA Indica, in Egypt a Peugeot 504 or in Turkey a nondescript yellow thing. The taxi and the minibus are the starting point for any country’s plans to modernise its automotive industry.

Rohani’s observation about cultural understanding was very pertinent since I believe that the designer’s task should always be more than just developing attractive shapes; a designer observes and understands the culture of the company or country for whom he is working and then translates that cultural understanding into a three-dimensional object; in or this case an automobile.

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Peugeot 405-based Iran Khodro Dena on display at the Tehran auto show

The choice of cars for Iranian drivers is limited: facelifts of Hunters and Samands, plus more recently facelifted Peugeot 405s and 206s are sold by Iran Khodro; and from the other major state-owned company, Saipa, there are ancient pick-up trucks and a small car that was originally a Kia Pride. There are some Korean and Chinese carmakers pushing to bring in some of there more recent products, but in small numbers. The MG 6 is particularly disliked both for its appearance and poor quality. In this environment the new design opportunities should be huge, the local industry already produces 1.3 million cars each year and the market is expected to grow to more than 2.1 million each year within the next four years.

All the design students that I talked with are optimistic about their future. They are frustrated by the lethargy of the Iranian car industry and disappointed that proposed new models appear aimed at the wealthy rather than meeting the needs of the people in a country of extremely diverse geography and road conditions.

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Interior sketches by Siavash Jafari Jozani

I had a chance to catch up with Siavash Jafari Jozani, winner of one of the Best Conceptual Interior and Student Design of the Year at the 2012 Interior Motives awards. He has specialised in interior design and provided the images of a recent project shown here.

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Interior clay by Siavash Jafari Jozani

Drawing and design skill, just as in every country’s design colleges, varies from excellent to average, and considering how cut-off they have been from Western influences the standard is high. At the Iranian Academy Centre for Education, Culture and Research I ran a two-day masterclass where students could choose one of three pathways; a vehicle for Iranian city travel, a vehicle to express your freedom or a facelift of the recently introduced and truly poor Iran Khodro Dena.

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Sketches of many (better) ideas for the Dena facelift

The timescale was challengingly short for such a project so expectations were not too high, but the best work was interesting in its variety and focus on shared experiences. Almost all the second-year students wanted the opportunity to travel with friends with a degree of privacy but were also keen to devise ways for males and females not having to travel in separate sections of a bus for example; which is currently a legal requirement.

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Saipa Electa project by Amir Barkhordary

At the auto show a group of more mature students had a large stand where they were able to show their work, the projects from both Mohammad Ghezel and Amir Barkhordary were professional, highly competent and to a standard that would not be out of place in any Western design school.

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eRingo future cycle project by Mohammad Ghezel

There is an enthusiastic car culture in Iran with three automobile museums in Tehran and an ‘after midnight’ street racing scene where guys run Camaros, Firebirds and Mustangs. The ‘Tehran Café Racers’ is a typical club whose members run everything from a 300SL Mercedes to hot Range Rovers and Alfa Giuliettas as well as American muscle cars. Organiser Ramin Salehkhou, drives a documented “export” ‘74 Baldwin-Motion Phase III Camaro powered by a 454-inch big-block; a serious street racer.

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Cafe Racers Club, image Mohammad Hossein Taaghi

Historically, Iran has always had a strong car culture, the long-since deposed Shah of Iran had a spectacular car collection which is now housed in a national museum just outside Tehran. However this was at a time when there were fabulously wealthy owners of French and American luxury cars who saw no problem for the ordinary citizen who was confined to travelling with a donkey cart. This is no longer the case, and with the will of the President and the energy of young designers and engineers the future development of a home-grown automotive industry will be worth watching closely.