Oh, what can of worms is this? The best car designers of all time, to the right (or wrong) people, is a debate akin to that of greatest musical album, best football team, or best political party. So, expecting a great deal of backlash along the lines of ‘you missed X’, ‘what about Y’ and ‘really? Z?’, we’re going to list the greatest car designers. From the top...
The 12 best car designers
Lamborghini is a marque perhaps most defined by the design of its cars through the generations. It arguably near-on single-handedly established and cemented the wedge-shape supercar zeitgeist, with all others pretty much following suit. And it owes it all, quite literally, to one man: Marcello Gandini. Car designer is a niche job, but Gandini is a well-known name. From Miura, through Countach, through Diablo, in design, he defined how Lamborghini is defined.
He’s no one Bull pony, though. Gandini did everything from the Bugatti EB110 prototypes, the Cizeta-Moroder V16T and the Renault 5 Turbo, to numerous Maseratis, numerous other Lamborghinis, among many more. Some of the all-time great cars, drawn by the very same hand. Car design royalty, we think you will agree.
How do you contend with Gandini? Start with the man that bears the name of the studio that employed Gandini. Nevermind that, Giorgetto Giugiaro went halfway to defining car design for five decades, penning everything from special variants of the Ferrari 250, to the Lotus Esprit, to the Lexus GS, to the Alfa Romeo Brera. Some of the most beautiful and most memorable cars in history came to be by Giugiaro’s hand.
Perhaps fortifying his CV as a designer in general, in addition to his overflowing list of cars, is the fact that Giugiaro penned a number of cameras, firearms, motorbikes and watches. He even designed a tractor, a train and of all things, an organ for a Swiss Cathedral. Variety is the spice of life…
The third in this initial trio of designers, that was also born in 1938, was an engineer as well as a designer, working in his prime at Pininfarina. While he doesn’t have the sprawling CV of Giugiaro, like Gandini, he does have quite the family of legendary shapes to his credit.
He effectively fathered the road-going mid-engined Ferrari, beginning with the original Dino, moving through the 308, 328 and the 512 Berlinetta Boxer. Of course, arguably his finest achievements were the 288 GTO and the F40. In crafting the F40, was Fioravanti the father of the hypercar? We’re opening up the floor for discussion...
From the men that shaped half a century of supercars, to the man that defined the notion of a desirable cheap car and proved that practicality and utility can be iconic. Alex Issigonis is the man behind the Mini, both in terms of that transverse engine layout allowing those compact proportions and in terms of the timeless style the layout afforded.
We wonder, did he even have an inkling at the time of the significance of the car he created? Of course, it wasn’t all about the Mini. Issigonis is also the man behind the Morris Minor.
We like to think this list will not be comprised purely of stately old Italians that crafted the coachwork that comprises today’s auction sale records. Take Gerard Welter, as an example. By day, designer of the legendary Peugeot 205 and 405, two of the most desirable-looking everyday cars ever made and by night, Le Mans record-breaker. Welter’s WM P88 has the unofficial world record for fastest top speed reached at Le Mans, hitting 405km/h down the Mulsanne just before the chicanes were put in. Welter, your CV may not be ten pages long like Giugiaro and Co’ but your place as a design legend is assured.
Is the remit of a great designer to court conventional beauty? In the case of whoever penned the McLaren Senna, we wish it was. In the case of William Towns, the man behind the incredible Aston Martin Lagonda, we’re glad it wasn’t. Towns pushed design boundaries with what seemed like little more than his pencil and a ruler. The Lagonda was a terrible car in reality but more importantly, it was a truly unforgettably epic design. Conventionally pretty? Probably not. Did it look great? Absolutely.
Other cars penned by Towns included the radical Aston Martin Bulldog concept, the Reliant Scimitar Sabre, the Aston Martin DBS ad the Hustler. Add ‘car’ to the end of that last one when googling it.
Peter Stevens is an important name in the discussion of who does what when it comes to cars. From an engineering perspective, Gordon Murray designed the McLaren F1. Truthfully, too, much of that engineering dictated its looks, in terms of the silhouette and its proportions. Peter Stevens gave the F1 its styling and honestly, it’s a stunning-looking car that’s aged wonderfully. It shows the kind of minimalism the current top crop of uber machinery could learn from.
Though known best for the F1, Stevens has a broad CV. On the one hand he was the man behind the great British sportscars of the 1990s. In addition to the F1 he did the Jaguar XJR-15 V12 hypercar, the Lotus Esprit facelift and the M100 Lotus Elan. On the other hand, he’s also credited with the rather handsome fourth-generation Subaru Legacy and pretty well the entire MG and Rover ranges of the early 2000s. Yes, that includes the X-Power SV. The F1 is the jewel in Stevens’s crown but even beyond that, he’s pretty well a designer without a dud.
One of the advantages of working within a giant automotive conglomerate is the variety of work you might find yourself doing. One year Luc Donckerwolke was designing the humble but revolutionary Audi A2, the next, he was reimagining a howling V12 Lamborghini for the 21st century. What was his work on the 2008 Seat Ibiza sandwiched between? Ah yes, the 2004 Lamborghini Gallardo, and the 2013 Bentley Continental Flying Spur.
On a serious note, from a car design perspective, is there a more daunting task than filling the shoes of Marcello Gandini? Probably not. Did Luc do an absolute 11/10 job with the stunning Murcielago? In our humblest of opinions, yes, absolutely. For that alone he secures his position in our minds at least, as one of the greats. These days, he’s overseeing design on Hyundai and Genesis models, very well we might add.
Surely… Surely not? Chris Bangle? The bloke that took the E60 BMW 5 Series and gave it ‘Dame Edna Everage’s spectacles’? Bangle’s Beemers of the 2000s were never far from controversy but we will dare to say they have, almost all of them, aged superbly. These cars really were massively ahead of their time design-wise, marking Bangle as a master of the craft. For all the criticism at the time, Bangle’s cars pushed BMW ahead of Mercedes in global sales too.
Will we look back on the current crop of BMWs in the same way in ten years’ time? Who’s to say. In all likelihood, you don’t look back on these cars the way we do. We’ll welcome the debate...
From courting controversy, to harnessing objective beauty. Ian Callum turned automotive aesthetics into an objective science. It’s all about proportions, ratios. Need proof? Aston Martin DB7, Aston Martin Vanquish, Jaguar XK (2006), Jaguar F-Type – all some of the most beautiful grand touring sportscars of the last 30 years. All from the very same pen.
Of course, the critique of similarity can be levied but to that we say check out some of Callum’s other work. Has anyone else got as close to making an EV, an SUV and a crossover sexy? Quirky though the I-Pace looks, it’s a great-looking thing, as is the F-Pace and E-Pace. What about crazier stuff? Lesser-known is that he styled the Ford Puma, Ford RS200 and even more amazingly,
Walter De Silva
Walter de Silva might be controversial again. What does he have over some of the great car stylists in motoring history that didn’t get a mention. Well, he does have quite the CV, particularly of everyman cars that are just as good to look at as supercars. Starting with his decade and a bit at Alfa Romeo, we can thank him for the 156, 166 and 147, among others. Then at Seat, he gave us the delightful 2002 Ibiza and 2005 Leon. His real work began however, at Audi. In 2003, Audi was the curious BMW alternative that looked fine and didn’t drive as well. Then, Walter de Silva turned it into this new-era symbol of modern affluence. In addition to a refreshed look for the existing range, the A5, Q7 and of course, the R8 supercar transformed Audi from the dorky alternative to the Instagram darling that it is today.
Then after turning Audi around, he jumped to Volkswagen, styling such hits as the new-generation Scirocco, the Passat CC and the Up. The man just knew how to imbue German cars with a sense of style, without sacrificing that reassuring feel of order and stoicism.
Finally, one of the greats of the modern era, surely, is Frank Stephenson. His CV is as diverse as they get, from the Maserati MC12 GT1 monster and the McLaren P1, to the first new Mini and the Fiat 500. The significance of those last two, especially, cannot be overstated. He pretty well defined a generation of aspirational small cars, didn’t he? He also helped bring the wing-waving Escort Cosworth into the world and styled the first BMW X5 while on a flight. His designs are either extremely cool, extremely significant, or both, with very few exceptions.
So that’s our list of our favourite car designers. No doubt, as originally stated, we will have missed some. So make their case in the comments or, if we’ve included someone you reckon is undeserving, let’s hear your thoughts.
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.
Sign up for Motorsport news
Stay in the know with our newsletters that contain all the latest news, stories and event information.