Does Automotive Styling Sell Airplanes?


While the romantic bloom toward aviation may be off the rose for the public at large, automobile companies have been smitten on and off with the idea that aircraft features can sell cars. Recall about a decade ago that several car makers–Subaru comes to mind–were flogging aircraft style dashboards. Basically, they turned the soft white instrument lighting red, little realizing that the way aircraft manufacturers integrated red lighting all but guaranteed you had to have a bright white flashlight to read anything on the panel. But it looked cool.

Most have long forgotten that the granddaddy of all aircraft-inspired car styling is still with us in the form of Buicks classic ventiports. After World War II, inspired by the exhaust pipes of piston fighter aircraft, Buick designer Ned Nickles put these on his 1948 Roadmaster and equipped them with lights that flashed when the cylinders fired. Buick picked them as a design feature and theyve appeared on nearly every model year since, right up to the 2015 editions. (Less the flashing lights.)

But what about when design inspiration flows the other way? This is what I call the BMW theory and you hear it all the time. People trying to sell aviation often complain that people with enough money to afford it drive up in their BMWs and Mercs, only to find a broken down piece of crap airplane as their first exposure to the wonders of general aviation. Even a modern 172 is boringly utilitarian and utterly lacking in style. Acres of G1000 displays dominate the panel and the rest of it is form follows function.

I thought of this when the photo below arrived in a press release last week. Its a detail shot of the new Mooney M10 panel. We dont have a full view of the panel; this is just a teaser. But I think we can all agree that those are automotive knobs, not aircraft knobs. So my guess is the Mooney interior will have a strongly automotive feel.

Other manufacturers are going in this direction, too. For a number of years, Cirrus interiors have looked more like BMWs than Cessnas. Theyre too somewhat constrained by the lack of imagination in the avionics available to them, but details like climate controls, vents, door handles and seat trim look more car-like than ever.

Taking this to the extreme is Icon, with its innovative A5 LSA amphibian. When I took at looked at this airplane last summer at AirVenture, I was stunned at the panel design and was sure Id seen it somewhere before. Thats because I had. Its surprisingly close to the dash design of my wifes 2007 Toyota Matrix, right down to the shape of the gear shift knob. I found this a little surprising. The A5 is, after all, a $190,000 vehicle, putting it in the price range of an Aston Martin DB9, a Ferrari California or a Bentley Continental. Those cars have interiors noticeably more sumptuous than a Toyota Matrix.

Whether this matters or not, given the market Icon is going after, is impossible to say. Im not in that market, being one of the old-school dinosaurs brought up on steam gauges screwed into an unadorned flat panel veneered with Royalite.

Thats another way of asking if the panel/dash design of an airplane has much influence on the buying decision. I have to think it has some and not just because designers seem to be paying more attention to it. Buying a thing as complicated and expensive as an airplane is motivated by a range of factors and the emotional impact of the interior is at least one of them. I notice this when I get into someones luxury car-the sort of thing I could probably afford to buy if I werent so cheap. Our neighbor has a nice BMW with a tasteful leather interior and a dash thats just supremely well thought out, with an intelligent mix of digital and analog displays. Its a pleasure to be inside it and at times, Ive thought Id buy one just for that, irrespective of the engine, transmission and suspension, which I consider just as important.

But in the end, Im a minimalist. I own a nice little sport bike, a Honda CBR600 F4i. Following the trend in such motorcycles that emerged a decade ago, it has an analog tachometer and a largish digital speedometer. And thats it, except for a tiny digital water temperature gauge inside the tach. I consider this a model of restrained minimalism and even if I could lard it up with more farkles, I wouldnt. Well, maybe a couple of tasteful ventiport decals for the nose fairing.

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