Design Essay: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

09 January 2018 | by Aidan Walsh

Design Essay: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

BMW Mini and Lifan 320. We‘ll let you decide which is which...

Plagiarism is a powerful accusation in any creative discipline, including car design. We’re all no doubt familiar with the so-called ‘copycat cars’ churned out by some Chinese manufacturers, including such delights as the Shuanghuan SCEO, which owed much to BMW’s X5 (E53); Lifan 320, a MINI imposter; Zotye SR9, a Porsche Macan rip-off, and the LandWind X7, a parallel-universe Range Rover Evoque.

Of course, while these Chinese ‘clones’ have been the subject of much anger (and hilarity) over the past decade or so, Western manufacturers certainly haven’t been immune to accusations of plagiarism either. Take the infamous case of Lincoln, whose 2015 Continental concept was publicly blasted by then-Bentley design chief Luc Donckerwolke over its perceived similarity to their Continental Flying Spur.

Lincoln v Bentley Continental.jpg

For the avoidance of doubt, the Bentley's at the top

A comparison of the two suggests Donckerwolke might have had a point, since they are not only close in proportion, but exhibit fairly obvious similarities in other areas, from their glasshouse and DLO graphics to the tapered bone lines adorning the flanks, their subtle rear haunches and glitzy mesh grilles.

Was this Lincoln’s belated revenge on Bentley for pinching the ‘Continental’ name way back in 1952, or mere coincidence?

Bentley copy Lincoln continental concept.jpg

The large mesh grille was another point of contention

Either way, although such thinly-veiled and venomous attacks are rare amongst designers, it’s certainly not uncommon for freshly unveiled models to be compared and contrasted against what went before, with many onlookers choosing to carefully (or lazily) dissect newcomers and attribute each and every detail to something, or someone, else.

Honda Urban EV.jpg

2017 Honda Urban EV concept

Take the lovely Honda Urban EV revealed at IAA 2017, whose fresh yet familiar form was compared – favourably and unfavourably – to everything from the original Golf to the Peugeot 205, although the most astute observers pinpointed Honda’s own first-generation Civic as the principal influence. Alongside Asimo the robot, perhaps.

Honda inspiration Civic 1.jpg

1972 Honda Civic

Interestingly, many of these critiques take a somewhat accusatory tone, as if any car bearing resemblance to another should become indelibly tainted by default.

Despite this, clearly none of us exist in a vacuum.The story of human advancement is one standing of upon the shoulders of giants. Where would we be today if nobody had seen fit to make an improved version of Karl Benz’s Motorwagen? Would the Motorwagen itself have existed were it not for horse drawn carriages? Certainly, neither would have been possible were it not for the invention of the wheel...

Audi Rosemeyer vs Auto Union Type C.jpg

2000 Audi Rosemeyer concept took inspiration from ‘30s Auto Unions

It is stating the obvious to say that taking inspiration from the past is not a bad thing in itself. What’s tricky to judge is exactly where we draw the line between influence and outright plagiarism.

Two factors seem to be important in this. Firstly, when taking influence from others, it’s best to be upfront and honest about it. Secondly, while it can be good to use the work of others as a starting point, always be sure to bring something new to the table yourself.

INFINITI - Prototype 9 - 12 Aug 2017 - 15_adjusted.jpg

Infiniti's curious Prototype 9 also had clear inspirations from history

The music business presents some interesting parallels here. The process of ‘sampling’ (taking an excerpt from another artist’s work and reusing it in one’s own) is relatively commonplace and generally considered acceptable, likewise the recording of ‘cover versions’, so long as permission is obtained from the original songwriter.

Such practices don’t always sit well with fans of the original piece, but the results can be very well received if executed with sufficient skill and originality, only falling flat when they fail to innovate in any real way. 

Caterham 7 - Lotus 7 cover version.jpg

Caterham bought the design rights to the Lotus 7 and did their own one

Few car manufacturers, with the exception of Caterham and various purveyors of kit-cars, openly ‘sample’ or ‘cover’ the work of another. However, the makers of retro cars, such as the Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle and BMW Mini, could be said to be engaging in a similar practice.

Perhaps also the likes of Mazda, whose 1989 MX-5 famously paid homage to the small sports cars of the 1960s – in particular the Lotus Elan.

MINI original.jpg

Retro designs prove that copying yourself is considered fine

Although retro design has had its detractors, few would class the 500, Beetle or MINI as examples of plagiarism. Partly because the manufacturers involved are covering their own back catalogues rather than someone else’s, but also because they are wholly honest and upfront about the source of their inspiration.

It also helps that the resulting products constitute significant improvements versus the originals in many vital areas; how many BMW Mini owners would swap their cars for an original Mini given the chance?

Lotus Elan homage Mazda MX5.jpg

Mazda MX-5 copied a philosophy more than a specific design. It worked

In the case of the Mazda, it may have drawn on other maker’s heritage to an extent, but it offered the world something the old originals never could: rock-solid reliability.

What’s more, the MX-5 revived the concept of the affordable roadster at a time when such cars seemed on the verge of extinction. A bandwagon-jumper it most certainly was not, thus it has since become an icon in its own right with over a million sold across four generations.

BMW X5 vs Shuanghuan SCEO.jpg

Is it still the sincerest form of flattery if it's also a cynical marketing ploy?

This is in stark contrast to the aforementioned Chinese copycat cars, whose pilfering of design cues from more established brands appears to be less of an homage and more of an attempt to undermine said brand’s position in the marketplace.

What’s more, the clones’ aesthetic similarity to more established premium models could even be interpreted as outright deception of the consumer, who may be inclined to believe the knock-offs possess similar levels of build quality or engineering integrity – something which independent tests often refute.

Range Rover Evoque vs Landwind X7.jpg

Handily these two are both clearly labelled...

Furthermore, the likes of the Landwind X7, unlike the MX-5 and others do not appear to offer any kind of advantage over the cars they imitate, other than lower prices. They have thus have been met with scorn as they ultimately fail to satisfy the human desire for advancement and progress.

Instead they represent a kind of stagnation (exact reproduction of what went before) or even regression (near-identical in concept and appearance but inferior in execution).

Porsche Macan copy Zotye ZR9.jpg

Zotye SR9. What, you thought it was a Porsche Macan?

These cars are not so much well-executed cover versions, rather they are akin to 3am drunken karaoke renditions, sorry imitations of far superior originals. Their makers have hitherto refused to play fair, having taken from others but so far failed to contribute anything of their own to the mix, and been rightly called out because of it.

Hopefully this will change as China’s car industry matures.

Porsche Macan Original.jpg

Now this is a Porsche Macan

Still, while it’s clearly possible to pick extreme examples of both plagiarisers and innovators, exactly where we draw the fine line between the two will likely always be somewhat subjective. In many circumstances, what exactly constitutes innovation and improvement on the past, versus stagnation and regression, will always depend to some extent on the assessor, especially where matters of aesthetics are concerned.

There are certainly plenty of cases out there which are far from clear cut, so here are a few to ponder over. Let us know your views on social media...

‘Single Frame’ Vertical Grilles:

Grille Audi.jpg

One of the more widely copied design features of the last decade

A common sight up until the 1960s, when horizontal arrangements became popular, Audi is most closely associated with vertical grilles in the modern era after debuting the idea on its Rosemeyer and Nuvolari concepts ahead of its 2004 A6 (C6).

Grille MG ZT.jpg

MG Rover tried it, too. Arguably it didn't work as well...

Similar designs have since been used by the likes of MG Rover, Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Even BMW’s recent X7 concept showcased a vertical grille theme, for better or worse. Should Audi’s designers be flattered? Or perhaps Audi’s decision to ‘go vertical’ owed much to the preceding Alfa Romeo 156/147 and 1998 Jaguar S-Type?

Clear Taillights:

Lights Lexus IS.jpg

Lexus kicked off a major aftermarket trend with its clear lenses

The silvery ‘Lexus lights’, beloved of customisers in the early 2000s, first appeared on the company’s IS (aka Toyota Altezza) in 1998.

Porsche 911R_clear tail lights.jpg (1)

OEMs noticed and started doing it themselves. Even Porsche...

The look subsequently infiltrated everything from premium hatchbacks (BMW E46 compact) and mid-sized family cars (Mazda6) to even high-end exotics (Aston Martins from 2007, and Porsche 911s [as an option]).

Shameless rip-offs, or unique takes on an open theme?

The Hofmeister Kink:

Hofmeister BMW E9.jpg

The 'Hofmeister Kink' has been a BMW trademark for decades

BMW’s signature DLO graphic actually appears (in one form or another) on a wide variety of other vehicles, including Volkswagen’s current Passat, Jaguar’s XE, Lexus’s GS and even the Chevrolet Volt.

Should BMW feel aggrieved, or are C-pillar kinks fair game for everyone?

Hofmeister kink Lexus GS.jpg

Has it been copied often enough that it's no longer copying?

Infuriated by plagiarism? Send us your best impassioned tirade on Twitter or Facebook