When it comes to automotive design, are you a modernist or a folk singer?

(How many folk singers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four. One to screw in the light bulb. Three to sing about how much better was the old light bulb.)

Like most people, you’re probably a bit of both. So designers are constantly trying to walk that line between imagining a fresh look, but one that also embodies traditions that everybody loves and expects.

The automaker that had the hardest time walking this line of late has been Jaguar. Until quite recently, its designs didn’t stray much from those first envisioned by its founder, William Lyons.

Now take a look at the just-revealed all-new XJ sedan. I’m not sure most people would instantly recognize this new XJ sedan as a “Jaguar.”

But Jaguar had to make this move. It could no longer afford to be only curators of old-world charm.

I think the best scenario for redesigning a nameplate: You notice a car parked car in the distance — something new and exciting. You don’t know what it is, but you like it. As you get closer, say 10 paces, you wonder if it could be the new “Wasfinger?” When you get right up to it, and before you see any badges, you know for sure it’s the new Wasfinger. You really liked the old Wasfinger, but this one’s even better.

You can definitely say Cadillac has been successful in reinventing itself in an all-new, modern idiom. The rear section of the CTS, for example, with its vertical tail lamps and creased fender line, is all at once good looking, modern, and reminiscent of Cadillac tail fins of the 1950s.

I also like Lincoln’s new design direction. It’s distinctive and substantial and very American, and not too overpowering with heritage cues. You have to use cues sparingly, like perfume.

I think that was the problem with Pontiac design — too much reliance on cues, like red interior lights, body cladding, and that split front grille, and not much else. Whew!

Finally, I think it doesn’t matter how much retro you pile into a car design, as long as the bones are good. All good auto design seems to be characterized by only a few crucial elements: proportion; form following function; an aerodynamic look, and wheels that are pushed to the corners of the body and that fill up the wheel arches.

On the latter point, I once asked hot-rod legend, Chip Foose, if there was anything that didn’t look better with bigger wheels and a slightly lowered body.

He thought for a few seconds, then said, “I dunno, maybe a house.”

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for over 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

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