When the Lincoln Continental Concept was revealed this week, prior to the New York Auto Show, it got a lot of attention. As the most brand-specific Lincoln since the LS, the Continental is exciting, hinting at the possibility of a revival for the brand.
Still technically a concept, the Lincoln Continental has the car world buzzing with excitement almost like it’s a production vehicle. Considering that Cadillac waited until the New York Auto Show kicked off to fully unveil its new flagship sedan, the CT6, it was a brilliant move on Lincoln’s part to reveal the Continental early and perhaps steal some of the attention.
Unfortunately, the attention hasn’t been entirely positive for Lincoln. A few people noticed the similarities between the Lincoln Continental and the Bentley Flying Spur, one of whom was Luc Donckerwolke, chief designer at Bentley. Unhappy with what he believed to be a blatant copy of his design, Donckerwolke took to Facebook to express his dissatisfaction.
Posting on his personal page, he said, “I would have called it Flying Spur concept and kept the four round lights.” He wasn’t the only one who agreed, with another designer chiming in, “I thought this was only done in China? Finally a ‘Bentley for the masses’ though.”
Things got a little more personal, though, when Donckerwolke went onto the personal page of Lincoln designer David Woodhouse and posted, “Do you want us to send the product tooling?”
The comment was quickly deleted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s backing down or intends to take it back. When asked by Road & Track to elaborate, he responded by saying, “This is not respectable. Such a copy is giving a bad name to the car-design world.”
Others at Bentley are backing him up, including Bentley’s head of exterior design, Sangyup Lee, who called the Continental, “a joke, seriously,” and then took a dig at the brand itself, saying, “It is very disappointing, especially for an exclusive brand like Lincoln.”
While a design chief posting on another designer’s Facebook wall may sound a little too much like an automotive industry edition of Mean Girls, it’s not as if they don’t have a point. There are a number of shared design cues, and if you Photoshopped a Bentley grille and the Flying Spur’s headlights onto the Continental, it would make for a pretty believable Bentley. Plus, it’s not like Ford’s products don’t ever share more than a passing resemblance to other cars — like the Ford Fusion’s Aston Martin-esque grille, for example.
Then again, the Continental shares design cues with quite a few other sedans. There’s a little hit of Volkswagen Phaeton in there with some Saab 9-5, Chrysler 300, Kia K900, and even a little Jaguar and Audi thrown in for good measure. That’s partly because the industry has a history of designers borrowing design cues from each other, but it’s also likely a product of external factors.
The push for increased fuel efficiency means that cars all spend time in wind tunnels, and inevitably, certain shapes for large sedans have emerged as more aerodynamic than others. Just look at the Chevrolet Volt, which started as a distinctive concept and entered production with a profile not much different from the Prius.
Additionally, pedestrian impact regulations are changing car design. Higher hoods and more upright grilles keep pedestrians safer in the event that they get hit by a car, but those changes to car design also have a ripple effect on the rest of the car’s shape. As Car and Driver points out, a higher hood means that the windshield has to start higher, which means the seats have to be raised to preserve visibility.
Passengers sitting higher means that the roofline has to be raise to accommodate their heads, but that messes with the car’s proportions, so the beltline has to be raised, and bigger wheels have to be added. Meanwhile, cars built to satisfy these regulations also still have to be shaped in a wind tunnel to tweak their shapes and reduce drag.
Does that mean that it’s impossible to design a distinctive sedan without borrowing from established designs? Certainly not. It does, however, mean that certain similarities may not entirely be the result of the one company stealing a design from another company. It also means that with more limitations on a car’s overall shape, designers have to work harder to make sure the aspects they have control over are unique enough to give each car an individual presence on the road.
Looking at this whole situation, it’s important to ask exactly how Bentley would be affected by Lincoln selling a near-Bentley design. After all, a $45,000 Lincoln would never be cross-shopped with a $200,000 Bentley, and no one who wants a Bentley Flying Spur is going to accidentally wander onto a Lincoln lot and buy a Continental.
That said, perhaps slightly less so than Rolls-Royce, Bentley is dependent on its image as a vehicle that’s too exclusive to be accessible to the common person. If a car that’s too similar to the Flying Spur begins selling in large quantities, buyers may begin to doubt whether a Bentley is exclusive enough. If no one is going to notice their cars or recognize that they’re special, they might as well just buy something else.
It’s probably not just about protecting Bentley’s brand image for Donckerwolke, though. It’s likely personal, as well. The process of designing a car is a lot like creating a rolling sculpture, and with all the work that he and his team put into creating the Flying Spur, it has to be insulting to feel like there is another team riding their coattails to sales success.
Whether the Lincoln Continental shares enough similarities with the Bentley Flying Spur to be considered a copy, or whether Facebook was the right medium to hash this whole thing out is largely a matter of personal opinion, but if anything, it was certainly entertaining.
Then again, it also raises the question — on Wednesdays, do car designers wear pink?
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