This Is Why Car Designers Always Draw Absurdly Huge Wheels On Everything

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During my time here at The Autopian, I’ve been subject to vocal heckling from the cheap seats  engaged in robust debates with our esteemed commenters. Namely you perverts. One of the things that keeps coming up everywhere like a bad rash is the subject of wheels. Or more accurately, why do idiot car designers insist on drawing their sketches with huge rims? Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with that?”

In times of national crisis Great Britain always turns to the BBC. Its charter is to “educate, inform and entertain.” Me being British and having just finished my beans on toast, let me try to explain exactly what the deal is, why designers do it and what happens between sketch and showroom.




Big Wheels

First of all, big wheels. Customers love them, because they look good. Designers love them for the same reason. Marketing departments love them because they are a profitable additional revenue stream, especially in the USA, the land of optional extras. Engineers are not always so keen on huge wheels because as the overall rolling circumference (including the tire) increases it’s harder to package.

Wheels and tires have something called a ‘max in-service envelope’ that takes into account the limits of suspension travel, maximum steering angles and the expansion of the tire at high speed. If you’ve ever fitted wider (or the incorrect offset) rims to your car and experienced rubbing at full lock or going over bumps, then you’re going outside of these design limits.

But modern cars are heavy. Trucks and SUVs especially have been on the Waffle House diet and as a consequence they need bigger brakes to haul their expansive girth to a stop. Which need bigger wheels to cover them. Performance SUVs have the additional wrinkle that it’s not always possible to rate a high speed tire for their weight, so they have to use low profiles or have their speed limited. If you’re lusting after the new Defender 130 one on those delicious 18” steelies, this is why you can’t have one. Those 19” alloys are the base wheel.


As cars have expanded they need larger wheels to balance out their proportions. Yeah sure back in the malaise era and before there were cars over 200” in length rolling on 15” rims with 70 profile tires. But those cars were designed around that wheel size, and had bigger wheel arch gaps because manufacturing and suspension location tolerances were much slacker in those days. More than that their shallower bodysides and higher ride height compared with today’s cars meant they could get away with smaller wheels.

It’s why a lot of restomod muscle cars look terrible when they have big wide alloys stuffed into the wheel wells – their shape was never designed around that size so they look over wheeled and bottom heavy. Also most custom car builders are not trained car designers (he added, haughtily adjusting his funky glasses). It’s all about nuance and what’s appropriate for the car being designed.

So Why Do Designers Always Do It?

So how come designers draw such huge rims on their sketches? First of all, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re looking at. Are these preliminary development sketches from the early creative stage of a new design? Are they very fancy and detailed renders released as part of a new model release? Or are they internet content fodder from an enthusiastic amateur who has never set foot inside a design studio?

Manufacturers rarely release images from the initial creative phase of the process. Sometimes they’re a bit rough and ready (my old chief designer used to love seeing the quick expressive ballpoint sketches on paper up on the board), but mainly because OEMs don’t want to show you how the sausage is made. They want to keep those ideas secret in case they want to use them in the future. If something in the development sketches appears better or resonates more with customers than the actual final car does (here’s what you could have won!), they risk a gamergate style backlash.

Bmwsketches2 Bmwsketches1


These images were released as part of the BMW 2 series Coupe media blitz. We should take them with a large pinch of salt, but they are indicative of early ideation sketches. You can tell the proportions are a bit off and there’s not a lot of detail. Generally, the more lush, detailed and accurate an image is, the longer it takes to do and the later in the process it comes. It’s not time efficient to spend a couple of days on a full color super accurate render that might not be selected. These show the designer getting their ideas down on paper – similar to what I have been doing in my articles.

This next image is a lot more detailed and shows color, reflection and shadows. The designer has found a theme they like and are going to put it up for review. And yes, it’s stanced to hell. Why? The short answer is to make it look cool.

You can think of these as caricatures – exaggerated versions of the real thing, because you want to emphasize certain parts of your design. Remember a designer is mostly working freehand – they might use an existing vehicle as an underlay to guide their linework, but this just gets them in the ballpark from a scale point of view. These are the stage my ‘final design’ images are at.



It’s All About The Drama

Getting your design picked to go forward to model stage takes a bit of salesmanship (it’s no coincidence the man who can be considered the Godfather of modern car design, Harley Earl, had a Hollywood background). It’s about the drama and the flash because the people signing the big cheques to get your design into production need to be wowed. Pulling the wheels out a bit and making them bigger helps a lot to make a striking image.

If you’re lucky enough to have your theme picked to go forward to the stage (usually a full size clay model) then you’ll be expected to finesse your design onto a given package, or use an existing one if the package hasn’t been decided yet. Studio engineers will provide the data for platform hardpoints and dimensions like wheelbase and track.

So the designer’s over wheeled flight of fancy gets lot more realistic in a real hurry. OEMs are not in the habit of wasting precious time and resources on a model that doesn’t somewhat represent a real car. I was once working on a sketch for a replacement car, and one of the chief designers looking over my shoulder commented “cool sketch, but you’ve over done the stance a bit!” This is why we use Photoshop because it’s a doddle to tweak things.Bmwr3qrenderBmwr3qphoto

Finally, A Descent Back To Reality

Once a design is frozen we get into the getting it ready for production part of the design process, which usually takes about 4 years. Part of this will be evaluating different wheels styles and sizes. Full size clay models are built on an underlying armature, which allows the track to be adjusted. Initially wheel designs might just simple mock ups; full size photocopies glued onto a foam tire, but as things move along it gets a bit more sophisticated.

Slave wheels of various diameters and widths can be used with different trims representing wheel designs, held in place by magnets. So you can have say, three different 20” wheel designs, and simply swap them over onto the slave wheels. These will be fitted with real tires.

As production tire profiles and specifications are nailed down, things like susceptibility to curb damage and suitability for the fitment of snow chains (a legal requirement in some places) are taken into account. All the while the design team are constantly evaluating what styles work for the car. They also have to make sure the rolling circumference remains the same whether it’s on 19” or 23” wheels, because otherwise all sorts of tedious engineering things like gearing and that max in service envelope get cocked up. Designers will always endeavor to get the wheels pulled out as far as legislation allows, to avoid the car looking knock-kneed.


This final set of images reflect the final design of the 2 series coupe, but as you can see compared to the actual car they’re extremely well endowed in the wheel department. The way these renders are done is using the final production data, dropped into rendering software (usually Autodesk VRED or Unreal Engine) to get the highlights correct, and then that image is used as an underlay for the designer to Photoshop over.

This allows them to get creative with the colors, lighting, background and stance while ensuring the perspective is accurate and the details correct. It’s basically impossible to create this kind of image any other way. The intention is to make them look like development renders but trust me, they’re not.

They still have some of the slick designer touch but wheels aside are a lot more realistic and they’re used as part of the marketing bullshit build up when a new model is released, and form part of the image package released by media departments.

Velar19 Velar23

As a final note, it’s not an accident that the best looking wheels are usually only available on higher trim levels, which forces you spending more than just the cost of the wheels. Pictured above is the Range Rover Velar, on standard 19s and optional 23s. The only way to get the bigger wheel is cough up for the R Dynamic trim level, meaning instead of about $62,000 your Velar now costs $75,000. Trim levels and equipment are not decided by the design team. This is purely marketing nonsense, because in the UK you can option the big wheels on the base car for about £3500. But then again, we are a bunch of status-obsessed fashion victims.


(Image credits: NetCarsShow (BMW 2 series), Miro/Medium, Mecum, Land Rover, Range Rover)

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147 Responses

  1. I think the Range Rover is actually a great example of the perceived groupthink around design (which hey, marketing has been pushing for decades, weird that it might be working to some extent) just making all options bad.

    Those 23″ rims would look much better proportioned as a 21″ (maybe even a 19″). The 19″ would probably look better as a 21″ or a 23″, but weight might be a problem/deletrious effect scaling them up (not sure if the cross-section on that wheel design is solid, given the marque).

    Instead a big honking SUV gets long thin spindly wheels or particularly short and stubbly wheels, even though neither fit the form of the end product very well.

  2. So, designers slap stupid big wheels with ridiculous stance onto their designs because they’re what they can sell to the upper management.

    This tracks both with what’s commonly available in the market and the general perception of automobile manufacturer upper management. Money and stature still can’t buy taste.

    Those 23s on the Velar are a downgrade. It’s 2022. We can all admit that rubber band tires ride like hot garbage, and have no place on an ostensible off-road vehicle.

    1. Customers do like big wheels. Land Rover acutely aware that primarily their vehicles are used on road, and if you select the big wheel option there’s a note advising you they’re not suitable for all driving conditions the vehicle is capable of.

      Smaller wheels are still available, so it’s not a question of taste, more of choice. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to option them.

      1. Which is why Porsche just boggles my mind. Mine was only available with 19″ running P235/35ZR19 and P305/30ZR19. So the road isn’t ‘communicative’ as much as it is ‘punishing.’ Even minor bumps badly unsettle it. But hey that’s a good thing for a sportscar, right?
        Except it’s meant to 1) be the civilized GT3 2) therefore handle like the GT3 3) which also got the 19″ wheels while 4) the actual race cars got 18’s.

        “Oh, but those are spe-” Nope. BBS 18 centerlocks are a direct swap without changing the hubs, tubs, or speedometer calibration. And that extra shred of sidewall at 295/35R18 or 305/35R18 adds just enough sidewall and flex to drastically improve ride quality and handling.
        And I’m pretty sure people buying GT3-but-with-leather and GT3’s would like one or both of those things far more than bigger wheels. But no 18″ option was offered, on anything with centerlocks. And how does a GT3 look on 18″ wheels?

        Well, like this:

        Make it make sense. 🙁

        1. I think that GT3 you posted looks under wheeled, but not because of the rim size but because of the offset, which doesn’t look right (the rims look too flat and sit too far inside the wheel arch lip).

          The only explanation I can offer is that although it’s a GT3 Touring (I assume that’s what you’re talking about) it’s still a GT3, and marketing decided it needed to be on 19s to ensure separation from the lesser 911s. Possibly on the race car there are rules about rim size?

          1. Nope, the 997.2 GTS predates the GT3 Touring. It was the ‘GT3-but-with-leather’, packing 410PS when the GT3 was packing 435PS. (So yeah, already spitting distance before you fix the evil center U-bends giving you another ~10HP.) Those wheels are aftermarket Forgelines though, with probably 5mm too much offset. They should be flush with the body.
            But compare to this Turbo S with 19’s:

            And nominally I’d agree with the market separation, but that was the ‘wheels are black by default,’ the fact that they were centerlocks, and you got the RS Spyder wheels. Every 997.2 from the base 3.6 to the GT2RS got 19″ wheels.
            And like I said: the 18″ BBS wheels are literally direct swap. They fit perfectly over the brakes (which have inboard cooling,) and Porsche had 18″ wheels for the 997.

    1. You needn’t bother on my account. I’m an American who owns an Austin Allegro and an Austin Maestro, so by the simple expedient of extrapolating from those I’ve already formed my opinion of the UK.

      1. My comment was meant as a reply to someone else and ended up in the wrong place.

        So much like the build quality of a Maestro or Allegro, really.

        I would offer to be your parts guy in the UK, but I’m not going to the post office three times a week to keep you in electrical spares!

            1. The original plan was to attach the engine to the top of the transmission and have them share oil, much like a classic Mini, but at some point BL gave up on designing this and instead bought a transmission from VW which mounts to the end of the engine in a more conventional manner. This means the engine has a regular oil pan running its length instead of a transmission case, which of course is not nearly as rigid. It turns out the engine block itself isn’t stiff enough without that extra support and so it flexes too much in use, thereby snapping the crankshaft. Outstanding.

  3. I have this weird thing where I usually like the design of the smaller wheels offered for a vehicle better. Probably because I like the simpler designs they usually rock.

    It has saved me a lot of money throughout the years ????

  4. I feel kind of validated now… I decided I wanted a stock look on my ’68 Olds, so I went back to 14-inch wheels and it really made the car’s profile look less cartoonish. Muscle cars were designed for 14-inch wheels because bias ply tires with big sidewalls gave them the rigidity they needed for good (for the times) handling.
    When Bias ply tires disappeared and radials with mushy sidewalls took over, muscle cars got a lot scarier.

    1. Radial tires often have softer sidewalls, but not always. However, even with softer sidewalls, the radial pattern of the belts keeps much more of the tread on the ground during hard cornering, resulting in much better handling. With a radial tire, the tread area doesn’t flex and pull off the pavement as much as a bias ply tire when cornering hard.

      Bias ply tires have a few uses and advantanges, like on rocky trails, the tread itself can flex, resulting a little smoother ride. They’re also cheaper to make. Better handling on the road is definitely not a bias ply tire advantage in general, which is a big part of why so few are made these days.

    1. I think that’s unfair and a bit of a reach.

      There’s good reasons why designers put bigger wheels on their sketches as I explained. It’s just a sketch. They’re not meant for public consumption, and once a sketch moves into the realm of 3D the wheels are right sized.

      1. I’m sorry. There was no good reason for me to put it so snidely.

        But I do have a real point here, which is that big wheels and *cartoonishly* big wheels are not the same thing. I do actually like the look of large wheels on a lot of cars. And some design sketches with somewhat exaggerated wheels look fine too. But when it gets extreme, I can’t even focus on the details of the sketch because the proportions are so silly. You probably can because you are desensitized to it from working in the industry; your brain automatically adjusts for the exaggeration.

        Similarly, people who read a lot of superhero comics get used to the bizarrely exaggerated physiques of the characters. And many of those fans would try to defend the aesthetic by pointing out that most people admire muscular men and curvy women, and have various reasons for that preference … but the defense misses the point because the criticism is about the *extremity* of the look. It would also miss the point (and be rather condescending to boot) to explain that it’s just a fantasy image, not intended to be realistic.

        The question is why this particular kind of fantasy image is stylized in a particularly extreme way. I don’t think you have a good answer for that, because I don’t think there is a good answer. It’s just one of those things, a convention that some people have become accustomed to. If you’re not one of those people, it will never make sense.

        1. I’m not a comic book reader, I just can’t get into them at all but I do know the way women are presented is extremely problematic. I don’t think it’s just related to comics – I struggle with the way some collectibles are sculpted as well. In fact at the Coventry degree show a few years ago I pulled up a student who had an overly sexualised future police woman figure along side his final model.

          Someone upthread mentioned haute couture, and I think this is an excellent way to think about it. It’s about emphasising the themes and creating a visual impact. But you do make another good point: these sketches are not really meant for general public consumption, so there is an element of peering into the workings of a professional and being a bit bewildered by what’s going on, because to the untrained eye it doesn’t make any sense.

          1. I definitely do think that large wheels are a specifically masculine taste. (And again, I actually like them a lot of the time.) I suspect that if the auto industry were more gender-balanced, design would be very different overall. Designers’ sketches would probably still look strange to outsiders, but not necessarily in the same way.

            1. I can only speak to my personal experiences, but I saw female clay modellers get hired purely on the basis of their looks. Not coincidentally they’re the ones that appear in the marketing videos.

              I agree that the whole industry needs to be more gender balanced, but it’s the age old issue. Color, Materials and Finish teams tend to be more female biased because they hire fashion and textiles grads, most of whom are female. Interior and exterior design teams are more male biased because the majority of auto and transport design grads are male. It really needs tackling first at the higher education level – sponsorships for female grads to study auto design maybe?

    1. No, designers are just salaried members of staff like everyone else. You might get a little recognition, or even bumped up a grade if it does really well in the market, it depends on the company. Most don’t give junior designers credit but some do. Volvo were good to the designer of the XC40 (who was an RCA grad like me). That got him noticed and he got a job with Tesla.

  5. I remember having a similar conversation with a respected automotive design instructor at a well-known “college of design” quite a few years ago. Just as worrisome for me — who, in his words, “should never criticize design because [I’m} not a designer’ — was the lack of attention paid to such things as suspension travel, practical steering angles, cooling requirements, seam lines and other realistic elements that can play hell with a jazzy original shape. Oddly enough, none of those real-world things fazed him at all.

    It was a discussion/argument we never resolved….

    1. It’s not the designers job to worry about those things, but they should have an understanding of their impact. I can’t comment as to the Art Center curriculum, but I would imagine it contains modules about packaging just like my BA at Coventry did. Most designers, if they’re good enough to be hired, will already be sketching reasonably feasible vehicles, albeit with oversized wheels! 😛
      When you see speculative stuff posted by amateurs, they tend not to take these things into account. Their designs have wheel arches that are seemingly vacuumed into place tight around the tire, and bodywork that barely skims over the op of the wheels. They slam their designs into the weeds, and they think this all looks cool, but in fact it looks totally wrong.

    2. IMO, there should be a distinction between a designer and a stylist. The former understands the point of what they’re doing and how it would be manufactured, the latter gets upset that their design is “ruined” by engineering or bean counters when it was they that didn’t account for the manufacturability of the design nor its target price range and the limitations of such. One wants to make a better functioning product that looks good (largely within market expectations), the other just wants to make things look pretty according to them, which I consider to be more in the category of contracted art. A real designer should blur the line between themselves and engineering. The stylists are far more common, though their egos are no smaller.

      1. Your opinion is wrong. Styling is a part of car design, but not the whole discipline. People denigrate designers by calling them stylists, or felt tip fairies, or flower arrangers. A huge part of a car designers job is making a car suitable for production.

        Engineers are not concerned with aesthetics; it’s not within their skillset. Often they don’t care what something looks like as long as it works – the designers job is to maintain the look of their design and make sure the final product looks as good as possible, in all areas, not just the exterior but interior, gray zones, and under bonnet. I’ve had fights with engineers who thought that fitting a windshield washer lid rotated 180 degrees so the icon was upside down was acceptable and they didn’t want to cough up for a new part. Another time they wanted to put a $1 strip of foam tape as under bonnet aero sealing on a $100k BEV. I could go on.

        There’s a lot more to car design than just drawing nice pictures, which is what I try to convey through my articles.

        1. Sounds like we’re in agreement, so maybe I didn’t communicate that well. My point is that there should be a distinction between “true” designers—those who understand the mechanical and technical needs of the product, the manufacturability and ballpark cost of various materials and consider that in their work (eg, don’t design a budget model with compound curves that require expensive composites, metal stamping machinery, or other expensive and complex manufacturing processes)—and stylists that just draw pretty pictures, but don’t consider those things. Per the OP’s comment, he encountered one of the latter, someone who is considered to be a designer, but sounds a lot more like a glorified stylist in that he doesn’t concern himself with the realities of the product and its functional requirements. A real designer should be a problem solver at least as much as making that product more salable through aesthetics. I’m not saying anything at all about engineer’s general aesthetic blindness nor should designers be engineers, but they shouldn’t be orbiting completely different planets. Sure, the engineers will likely still curse the designer either way, but at least the final result shouldn’t be too far from the designer’s original intent.

          1. All car designers can do both. I can draw pretty cars and yet in meetings with engineers I was often the smartest and most logical one in the room. I know what parts cost to tool up for, some of the production processes and that plastic parts needs a draft angle so they can release from the tool.

            I’m not an engineer, but I have a basic understanding of the some of the concepts involved. It takes hundreds if not thousands of people to bring a car into production – a designer cannot be expected to take all those things into account when penning their initial sketches – its just not realistic. Once the design is frozen and agreed to move forwards is when other departments start getting involved. You have to start somewhere; you can’t edit a film before you’ve shot a frame and you can’t mix a record before you’ve got a track.

            Car design is not like traditional industrial design – its much more specialized than that.

            1. With all due respect, ‘all car designers can do both’ is the exact same level of justifiable rigor as saying ‘all engineers can do both’. Engineers do not lack eyes for aesthetics. Being an engineer does not inherently mean you have no taste preferences nor that you lack some basic understanding of what it means for something to “look good”. Priorities may well be different, and they may have had drilled into them an extreme degree of cost consciousness even if it is self-defeating or ridiculous. Such things, in my experience as a cross-functional design lead are almost always a function of company cultures (either the current one or the past one where one was being employed though).

              The high horse around your particular experiences drawing extremely broad conclusions about the skill sets of professions with more than a little bit of practical overlap, not to mention **hundreds of car examples to the contrary of the stated premise** is offputting to say the least.

              I understand that you are responding to a perceived slight on your profession, and so I would not presume this is your attitude outside of this internet interaction; With that being said, doing **exactly** the same thing to engineers that the commentor did to designers is not helping anyone.

              1. I’m not saying that all engineers have no design taste or style sensibility, but at this level their overriding concerns are functionality, cost and ease of manufacture. They are not normally expected to consider whether a part looks good when necessary.

                To clarify, nearly everything a customer can see or touch is known as an A surface. These are the designers responsibility. Everything else, such as fixtures and fittings, how a part connects to another part and is held in place, is known as a B surface and is the responsibility of engineers. After a design is frozen and moves forward to production, it’s the designers job to effectively become the customer, and maintain as much of the design intent as possible.

                Do different companies place a different emphasis on design? Absolutely. Some companies will take a great deal of care of everything a customer sees. The frunk area of a Model 3 is one example I can think of – it’s extremely well done with a minimum of visible fastenings and some nice clean trim. Compared to something like an Audi e-tron which under the hood is a disaster area. Which is surprising considering the effort Audi put into other areas. But quite often time and money run out and you have to go forward with what you’ve got. I’m assuming this is what you mean when you say there are hundreds of examples contrary to the stated premise. We never know the whole story because we don’t know what external factors were involved. I can only make educated guesses about vehicles I wasn’t personally involved with.

                With regards to me being on a high horse, I’m sorry if it came across that way but I do get quite narked about people not understanding or dismissing a designers contribution especially when they’ve commented on an article explaining what it is designers actually do. Some commentators seem to be of a view that designers have nothing of value to offer and it should all be left to clear thinking logical engineers. If that ever happened I can assure you such a vehicle would look like shit and be terrible to operate.

  6. This article does a fine job of explaining why the 34″ rim monstrosities on design iteration sketches don’t end up in production.

    But it *doesn’t* explain why the tonka truck wheels are in the design sketches in the first place. We already *know* they’re impractical for a real car – that’s why we keep asking why!

    If it’s understood that such oversize wheels will never make it to production, why bother starting there – and why are they so ubiquitous?

    1. Maybe (at least here in the States), it does have at least a little to do with the ubiquity of Hot Wheels.

      You’re hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen their designs with the well-filling wheels since their childhood (even on their models of actual cars), so perhaps it’s ingrained in us this is what wheels on cars should be like?

      1. Hmm I can see why you’re thinking that, but I’m not sure it really scans. Hot Wheels came about because the pocket sized toy cars at the time (mainly British Matchbox in the late sixties) did have scale wheels, so they didn’t free wheel very well. Hot Wheels changed all that, and Matchobx were forced to catch up (introducing Superfast wheels and axles for their 1-75 range).

        What is true is that 1/64 scale toys do have their proportions exaggerated, so they actually look correct. If you simply scaled a full size car down, much of the shape would be lost. In the design studio, if quarter scale clays are made they use the same trick – so they look correct rather than meting dimensionally correct.

        1. Interesting! I was born & raised in the USA, but I was always a Matchbox guy (and Corgi!). I thought Hot Wheels were for knuckle-draggers — yet I did own plenty of Superfast cars, so clearly cognitive dissonance was an early skill of mine.

    2. ‘It’s about the drama and the flash because the people signing the big cheques to get your design into production need to be wowed. Pulling the wheels out a bit and making them bigger helps a lot to make a striking image”

        1. Yes exactly. I mentioned this in an article I wrote elsewhere, but essentially the young sketch monkey is designing for the chief designer. HOWEVER a good chief designer will understand what is appropriate for their brand and what will resonate with their customers. A good young designer will know this as well, so the two ideals shouldn’t be that far apart.

      1. in that case, since none of we perverts will be writing large cheques(sic), could we lean towards realism in this forum? As much as is possible when being asked to design a hypothetical overlanding convertible by a defunct automaker.

            1. Glad to be of service, thank you. A few people have mentioned that they enjoy the fact I come down here and get stuck in, and I think with a subject that’s as misunderstood as car design it’s helpful to have a discussion, so I can try and explain even if I’m not being listened to…..

        1. I don’t I’m too hard on them. Marketing does play an important part in positioning a new car and getting it into the public consciousness, but I think it’s important to realize that much of the design story is not entirely what it seems to be.
          Like in any industry, done well it’s great, done badly it’s a pain in the ass. And quite often what marketing wants doesn’t always align with reality.

          1. That’s exactly my point – they both exaggerate to the point of looking ridiculous to people who aren’t in the industry.

            I think that’s the unspoken presumption going on here: the folks who keep asking about it think a car with proportions that extreme looks silly, and they want an explanation why designers would choose to make design studies that seem so obviously untethered to the reality of a vehicle. It doesn’t help that oversize wheels are the default proportions of most vehicle design studies. “They’re all drawing these same weird cars with bicycle wheels. There’s gotta be some logic behind it, why else would they all do the same thing?”

            Whereas what’s actually going is something more akin to ‘most fashion models are built tall and thin’ – that’s why clothing designs all start out with tall, thin silhouettes; it’s just what the industry does, there’s not a real explanation – even if it looks strange to the lay person.

            1. > Whereas what’s actually going is something more akin to ‘most fashion models are built tall and thin’ – that’s why clothing designs all start out with tall, thin silhouettes; it’s just what the industry does, there’s not a real explanation <

              AFAIK, fashion models were traditionally tall and thin because designers wanted to display the clothing in the most unobtrusive way possible; models were essentially meant to be organic hangers. The focus was meant to be on the clothing, not the person.

              Inevitably, as high fashion became more and more mainstream, the opposite effect was realized as the models themselves became part of the allure — sort of a visual shorthand for "chic". (Followed by the generally unrealistic body expectations that came out of that.)

      2. Would it be worthwhile to do some design studies for us perverts who are having trouble grasping the concept… could you show us some designs that *don’t* start with big wheels?

        As the saying goes, there are three types of people: Those who can observe fire and know that it’s hot, those who can listen to others and know it’s hot, and those that just have to touch it for themselves.

            1. BASIC coding

              I’m just being a smart ass because I am 5 minutes away from pressing the eject button as I try to reach escape velocity from the employee parking lot. I suspect I could achieve it more rapidly without the 19 inch wheels my car trim level saddled me with.

        1. The next article with some renders is currently being processed by The Autopian mainframe (actually an old Soviet 486 clone running a bizarre Uzbek Linux build) but I’ll think of a way of doing this, possibly in a follow up article.

    3. It’s easier when you’re banging out multiple variations or ideations to gesture a single circle with some spokes in it. To make it more realistic would require concentric circles offset to match the varying perspectives and still likely come off looking goofy (and consistent circles are hard, yeah, yeah, circle templates, but they don’t always match perfectly and we’re talking initial sketches, which is speed—you might notice that some peoples’ early sketches won’t even have completed tires, but wheels that melt into the ground). That last part leads me to a tangential point: sometimes things need to be translated via selective exaggeration rather than literal interpretation in order to look more realistic. This works on scale models a bit, too, where sometimes just reducing an object with math results in something that looks “off”, so things might need to be tweaked a bit to look “right”. What part or how much is the art.

      1. Very well put. There is always an ‘art’ element to initial sketches, trying to capture a feeling and being loose and expressive. Doing proper wheels would be incredibly time consuming and wouldn’t look right. Quite often, designers will just grab a wheel off a photo and Photoshop it a bit to save time.
        The melting wheels is just to make the sketch look grounded to the ground, rather than standing on tip toes.

    4. “We already *know* they’re impractical for a real car – that’s why we keep asking why!”

      Personally I think it’s taking the lazy approach to making something look good.

      Just like making absurdly low rooflines with slit sized windows is also taking the lazy approach.

      Designing something that looks good AND is usable/practical takes a lot more effort and work.

      1. The initial sketch work is only a small part of the overall design process. It’s literally the first few months of something that takes about 4-5 years in total.

        Your use of the word lazy is misguided, and frankly insulting. It’s an incredibly hard profession to get into, and only the best make it. You probably have more chance of becoming a fighter pilot (I’m not kidding). It’s an enormous amount of hard work to get a car into production maintaining the original intent all the while engineers want to change things to make it easier to build or operate.

        1. I would love to see some designs based on other things than humongous wheels. I appreciate the many reasons why, but I think consumer demand is also driven by marketing and designers. While no one likes the underwheeled look, I do think that the debate here is part of a backlash which will hopefully have some impact on car design.
          Personally I love the 12-inch wheels on my Honda Today, and unlike, say, the Mitsubishi Mirage, the car was designed to look good on those. The worst thing is when a design was created using a certain theme which is then made impossible by the bean counters. A Chief Designer shouldn’t have his underlings design a car around 19-inch wheels when they know for a fact that it will be engineered to wear 14s.

          1. “A Chief Designer shouldn’t have his underlings design a car around 19-inch wheels when they know for a fact that it will be engineered to wear 14s.”

            No, and that’s not how it works. My company only made larger vehicles, but if you were drawing say, the next Fiesta you wouldn’t be sketching it with 20″s. You would sketch it with slightly large wheels but appropriate for the vehicle size.

  7. In this article, the earliest sketches, where the size of the tires are left to the imagination, are the most interesting to me. Definition beyond the hub centers is left for later. These presentations allow for broad exploration of styles and themes. These can easily be imagined as stock production samples, or aftermarket hoopties without much effort.

    Once you “stance” your drawing of a car to “make it look cool”, you’ve completely lost me because that’s not in the least bit cool as a production car in my mind. It doesn’t enhance good design, it obscures it or even hides it!

    You want to make a sale in an aftermarket speed shop, sure, have at it. Those who like it will get a preview of what they want.

    For a production car, I think it’s a completely unnecessary and ridiculous step that should be skipped entirely. If I were an automotive executive, I would insist on bypassing this waste of time.

    I would be much more impressed if a designer presented the early sketches, and then went directly toward production intent. I think the best designs would stand out more and be more self-evident in conditions like these.

    Instead you’re telling me they try to choose from tarted up nonsense designs that look like entirely like the product of youthful try-hards, full of noise that has to be squelched out later in the process anyway.

    I think the process is more than a little bit broken.

    1. You’ve really missed the point, and seized on something that in the grand scheme of how a car makes it into production has a small impact at a very specific point in the proceedings. Sadly a lot of commentators are making the same assumption you are, that somehow what appears in designers sketches is immature and juvenile and somehow influences the whole design.

      The process is not broken and is subtlety evolving constantly in response to the needs of the business, of customers and the influence and availability of new tools and technologies. But the fundamentals have always been the same. Go back and look at renders from the 40’s and 50’s and you’ll see they are just as unrealistic, albeit in different ways.

      1. I don’t believe I’m missing what you say I’m missing. I fully understand that “stanced” sketches aren’t the final version. I’m saying they’re an unnecessary step between the broad ideas sketches and the final design.

        The progression you’ve presented is similar what I’ve seen elsewhere:

        1. A sketch or sketches of broad ideas and general themes.
        2. A more specific design or designs, usually with huge fender flares and full wheel wells added *that weren’t included in the broad ideas sketch*. The “sales pitch” sketch.
        3. Various more realistic versions of the second version, tracking simultaneously back toward step 1 and forward toward production.

        The second step is dishonest, and not at all about good design, in my opinion. The second step is a juvenile attention-seeking step designed to grab attention of the decision makers not with the design itself, but with artificial additions of exaggerated elements of “what is cool now” that will be taken away again later. It’s a distraction.

        “Hey, let’s add giant fender flares!” (Vehicle gets produced nearly slab-sided.)

        I’m not an expert or an insider, and I will tell that I haven’t researched this recently. But what I’ve seen from the distant past, there simply weren’t these kind of broad indulgent detours on the way from early design to production. Experimental elements were often added and taken away along the route, but my observations are that in general, few took such large and deliberate steps away from realism to get their ideas approved.

        (Maybe deep in the archives of history, there are some long forgotten, never publicly revealed “Step 2” sketches from an era when pornographically large tail lights were the vulgar detail that was cool.)

        1. You said it yourself. You’re not an expert. I am.

          Design is a weird thing in that because it’s misunderstood and somewhat nebulous subject everyone thinks they understand and can do.

          It’s like any creative process. There are a lot of dead ends and blind alleys. And like other creative processes you start out wild and unconstrained before winding it back in. Think of how many drafts a movie script goes through, or how many times a record is re-recorded and remixed before release. Same thing with design.

          I will grant you that if design is a spectrum with purely functional industrial design at one end and fashion design at the other, car design design skews towards the latter. But that doesn’t mean it’s a creative free for all.

          1. You’re telling me that you go down the same blind alley with every design.

            You wouldn’t add Seinfeld-style slap bass to every song as part of the creative process, and you wouldn’t add Marvel Super Heroes to every movie script in draft, no matter how popular they may seem at any given moment.

            You do the tire and stance thing because it’s a dog and pony show, not for the designers, who should know better, but for the decision makers who clearly do not. It has become either expected in the concept drawings, or an accepted way to cheat to look cooler, even though it contributes nothing to the final product.

            1. I wasn’t specifically referring to wheels as a blind alley, more that as theme moves into clay modelling lots of different things are tried. Things like lights, window graphics (the DLO), trim pieces, grilles are subject to lots of ideation. I’ve seen models worked on for over a year and it get’s scrapped and started again because in the transition from 2D sketch to 3D physical property something just doesn’t work visually.

              Are big wheeled sketches a bit of sleight of hand? Yes, to a certain degree. I wouldn’t say it contributes nothing to the final product, as a good sketch is fundamental in getting an idea chosen to go forward into the model stage. But like many others, I think you’re obsessing and getting hung up on something that is a overall a very small part of how a car is designed.

  8. While I call BS on the ridiculous wheel sketches (I may have been the one who called it a trope), I do appreciate your addressing the issue and trying to explain. Having worked in many industries, I can understand the “it’s just the way we do things” explanation. Just don’t try to make it logical. If people like giant wheels it is because they are highly subject to marketing images (from designers!) and haven’t applied enough research or personal experience to realize they are stupid.

    And as for the comparison of big wheels to exaggerated anatomy in cartoon renderings, I contend that it is exactly the same. A long time ago, someone did it to get their work noticed. It was successful, so everyone else started doing it. Then it just became the way it is done.

    1. Designers do as they’re directed. When a new car comes out, they have little to no say on the way the car is presented. What will happen is marketing will ask the studio for specific images they can use (like the purple renders shown), and the studio will create them.

      The design team might be asked to pre-flight press release photos because if they are using real cars they’re likely to be pre-production models and there might be last minute spec changes on color and trim. If the press photos are CGI, then the studio will double check to make sure the latest production data has been used and the images are accurate.

      1. OMG. I literally can NOT get into a TT. I discovered this back in 2001 or so when they first came out. I’m not particularly tall, either. I’m 6 feet tall but have a long torso and short legs.

        1. I’m 6’2″ with usually and addtional 2″ of hair and usually stupid footwear, and I fit just. I had the seat all the way back but could really have used an extra click or two of legroom to get my thighs on the cushion properly.

          I did have to peer under the header rail at stop lights though.

  9. ” Customers love them, because they look good.”

    Not all customers. I hate them.

    My Honda Fit is a sport model. And that means it came with a 15″ wheel size and a weird tire size that increased the cost of replacement tires by at least 50%.

    Instead of getting those stupid weird size tires, I got some used 14″ Honda steelies and installed the OEM tire size for the base Fit… and saved myself a few hundred bucks even after the cost of the used wheels.

    And note that there is no meaningful performance difference between the base Fit and the Sport model.

    On top of that, those low profile tires ride like shit and are prone to bent wheels if you hit a curb or pothole.

    I hate oversized wheels with no-sidewall tires.

      1. A lot of buyers end up with the larger wheels simply because they are packaged with other things they might desire.
        My father-in-law recently swapped his Accord Sport for a Subaru Forester after his third tire blowout because of the inane 19-inch wheels (he bought it because he loved the way it looked in the dealer lot). I tried to tell him he would save a lot of money by swapping to more sensible wheels and selling the alloys to other fashion victims, but that was too logical and he preferred to get deeper in debt instead.

        1. I alluded to it in the article, but this is seemingly a uniquely American way of offering options – you have to have a package that includes things you might not want. I’m currently reading Brock Yates’ ‘Decline of the American Automobile Industry’ and mentions this as being typical of domestic OEM thinking. Advertise a base model with nothing and offer everything else in packages. I’ve come across it when building Challengers online (purely for the purposes of research).

          In the Europe it’s a bit different, you can usually get the wheels and appearance pieces independently of spec level, but other options are usually bundled. But our cars are usually built to order. You’ll never be able to offer options a la carte, because the line complexity would be mind boggling – they simply couldn’t cope with all the possible variations.

        2. When I was choosing between my Hyundai and an Accord Sport, one of the deciding factors was the cost of replacing 19-inch tires on the Honda vs. 18s on the Hyundai. Tires are egregiously expensive in Canada for some damn reason, and 19s would have cost an extra $400 (IIRC) per set at the time.

  10. Thanks for the thorough explanation. Counterpoint – giant wheels look dumb and are dumb. I look forward to some future return to the golden age of 14″ and 15″ wheels, but I’m not holding my breath.

  11. First of all, thanks for taking the time to explain the reasoning, even (or especially) when it boils down to “rule of cool”.
    Actually there is no second, I just wanted to make clear that I’m grateful for you, and actual designer, lend us your time and your pen.

        1. I’d argue it probably began with Boyd Coddington, but Chip got his start with Boyd. Chip is that rare thing though a custom builder who actually IS a trained car designer, having graduated from Art Center. A long held rumor is that Foose’s graduation project indirectly influenced the Prowler (FWIW my first graduation project was an EV Hot Rod).

          In Europe it a lot of it came from those late eighties/early nineties homologation specials.

          1. In my head I still associate Boyd with Fords, even though I know he ended up doing stuff like Cadzilla. It seemed like Chip was always a wheels first and up from there guy, even if he was starting from a silhouette.

  12. Adrian, I appreciate your commitment to answering us-and the patience & gentle good humor with which you did.

    I got it now, and won’t be kvetching further on wheel size in your drawings. Is what it is.

    1. It all started I think when alloy wheels became a bit of a status symbol in the eighties. They signified a bit of sporting intent because they were a size up and fitted with lower profile tires for performance. Like everything, as they came down in price they became more widely adopted and showed you hadn’t bought the poverty spec base car.

      It’s all about proportion and balance. You can go too far absolutely, but OEMs generally don’t. The aftermarket is another matter entirely.

  13. It’s an interesting discussion…..

    I have several classic Minis, some on 10’s, some on 13’s and both look correct. The 13’s give it a little more of the bulldog look as they require arches – in my case fairly large ones were fitted from the factory (my car was built in Seneffe for the German/Euro market so they are different than Sport Paks on English built cars) but the 10’s with their 70 series tires definitely drive better than the ones on the 13’s with 50 series rubber – those tend to tramline and lower the fuel mileage and top speed too!

    So, like most people I’ll bet – I like the looks of the 13’s but prefer the drivability of the 10’s.

    Larger brakes on the later cars required the move to larger wheels – 12’s in most cases and the 13’s were only offered as a style or look, they weren’t needed to clear the brakes. But the more to 13’s required the big Sport Pak arches and stops on the steering rack so the wheels wouldn’t rub on turns.

    The difference in weight between these is huge, almost twice as heavy when going to the 13’s, which of course affects spring and shock rates……also contributing to the change in ride/drive quality.

    On new cars (we have a late model Audi Allroad) I can barely lift the 18’s that are used, let alone the 20-22’s used on American SUVs! I would definitely like to see them go back to a smaller, lighter wheel/tire combos! My 78 Audi 5000 looked and drove great on its 14″ wheels, but it also weighed about 1300lbs less than my current car, and that one is on the lighter side of what’s being sold these days. Weight begets weight.

    1. I seem to remember road tests of the time saying the very late Mini Coopers with the factory 13”s rode and drove like shit.

      My Range Rover has 20”s. I hate to try and lift one of those. But punctures are a bit of a thing of the past these days luckily.

  14. Thanks for that interesting and detailed look into the world of the Auto Designer, Adrian. I always love getting an inside look at a career field I know nothing about. I’m always amazed at the amount of time and effort that goes into things that we often just take for granted. I’m not gonna bust your balls over the huge wheels, but I am genuinely baffled that people seem to like them. Especially since I’ve never met or talked to any actual human being who liked large diameter wheels, but I definitely see a lot of them on the road. I personally always choose the smallest wheels available on any car that I buy. I prefer the look, handling and the ride quality of smaller wheels and taller rubber. In my opinion, there’s almost nothing that can make a car or truck less attractive than huge wheels with thin rubber-band tires wrapped around them.

    1. It’s all a matter of taste. As much as it sounds elitist and presumptuous, designers are making aesthetic judgements for the buying public. But this is why we get to be designers inside a studio, because we have demonstrated the necessary visual sensibility. Only the very best get to work for an OEM.

      This is why there’s an after market supplying alternatives that an OEM never would, because some people do have differing tastes and like more garish or outlandish looks. Part of the issue is though those companies never can never attract the best designers, so their offerings look awful. Remember taste is subjective, but good design is not.

      1. Absolutely. And the smaller wheels are also the result of good design.
        Take the Range Rover example in your article. The 19″ wheels look great. The 23″ wheels are an abomination in my opinion. But obviously some people like them, for whatever reason. As long as car companies continue to offer a range of wheel sizes so I can choose the smaller ones, I’ll be happy. I have no interest in aftermarket wheels at all. I usually find them garish and ugly and, unless you spend gobs of money on them, lower quality than OEM.

        1. I think that the RR looks better on the 23s, but that’s for two, non-intrinsic reasons:
          -Since the entire design is created around absurdly large wheels, it looks unbalanced on smaller ones.
          -The 19-inch wheel design itself is rather cheap and bland looking, whereas the 23s obviously received more care.

      2. Good design is nothing but subjective. It is context-dependent, it is subject to the whims of fashion, it depends on what school of teaching the designer subscribes to, it is argued over endlessly by everyone from Emeritus professors with more degrees than you can shake a stick at to random dudes in bars. Show me one single solitary objectively good design of anything, ever.

        1. Studebaker Avanti.

          I get what you’re saying and I too have trouble separating the association of “things I like” with “good design” and vice versa, but I do think that there are timeless elements of good design (the golden ratio, for one) and while that is subjective it’s close enough to universally subjectively pleasing that I have to agree with Adrian. It’s like symmetry. Symmetrical designs tend to be generally pleasing, even though, when integrated well, asymmetry can also be attractive. But when you delve down into the realms of sub-microscopic and even subatomic structures of matter, you find that nature itself prefers symmetry and that symmetrical structures tend to be favored overall.

          1. And by symmetry, I don’t mean subjective impressions of symmetrical structure, I mean actual mathematically symmetrical structure (points and planes of inversion, rotational symmetry, etc.).

  15. Hello from the cheap seats. I appreciate your attempt to explain the big wheel stupidity but I have to say in the British patois go suck a Bangor.
    Here is what I have learned in my multiple fields of study which translates into the auto industry. First when money is coming in hand over fist a company hires extra people because they can. Then when the gravy train stops they cut doing it and profit increased. Then cut nonessential personnel profits still increase. Well cutting people has resulted in profits so far let’s cut essential personnel. Whoops that didn’t work we must not have cut enough people let’s cut more people. Now we don’t have enough people we are losing money the industry is no longer profitable.
    Hey morons cutting fat is profitable cutting meat isn’t. Quit concentrating on this quarter and look long term. It works for the Japanese but as investors bring the two markets together it is screwing everything.

    1. My personal experience of the company as was working for was very much this. I was actually employed as a contractor (something very prevalent throughout the industry in the UK). This suited both sides for years, as skilled staff could enjoy some tax benefits and move around between companies in fat and lean times, and companies could keep their payroll under control (engineers, clay modellers and digital modellers can make very good money because their skills were in great demand. Designers not so much, because there’s a ready supply of talented grads willing to work for peanuts).
      The company, in financial dire straights decided an easy way to cut costs was to get rid of the highly paid and experienced contractors, so there was a massive brain drain. Of course this is now biting them in the ass, and they can’t get good staff to come back.
      I was offered a permanent position, while I was off sick in hospital. When I returned after convalescence I conditionally accepted and stated my salary expectations. I heard nothing for months and was then told the offer was rescinded because I hadn’t accepted straight away. Even though I was in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of my abdomen when they offered it.

    1. Yes this is a valid point. We’re really discussing extremes here, most cars do have a healthy sidewall to rim ratio.

      My old 8J TT had 19s, which were optional (standard was 18 I think). I really wanted the 20s (like a previous girlfriend had on hers, unpack that Dr Frued!) but when I bought mine there were none around with the larger rims. This is not entirely surprising as UK roads are utter shit.

    1. Explain to me how you would package large brakes under a 15” wheel in that case. Perhaps you’d like to draw a 200” SUV on 15”s and make it not look under wheeled.

      It’s not kids who are buying cars with optional larger wheels at $3k a pop, certainly not on a car costing $60k.

      Your insinuation that young designers lack maturity is misguided. The immature ‘wheels and wings’ boy racer types never get into an OEM studio because you need a more balanced outlook than that.

  16. Your critique of restomods is spot on, 19 and 20″ wheels look misproportioned on a car designed around a 15″ wheel. 60s and 70s car look so much better balanced on period correct 15″ 5 spokes or slot mags.
    I understand that renderings and even concepts have huge wheels and no clearance for drama but I’d appreciate something closer to reality so that the production car isn’t saddled with rubber band tires and a buck board ride. My most modern vehicle rolls on the base 16″ wheels and is already uncomfortable on dirt roads, I shudder at what the ride would be like on 18″ wheels. Coincidentally my pickup also has 16″ wheels but also 50% more sidewall, softer springs and a 13′ wheelbase so it’s actually comfortable on pothole riddled Forest Service roads.

    1. What appears in sketches and renders has little to no bearing on how a design progresses towards production. I perhaps should have made this point clearer. Just because the original sketch has big wheels, it doesn’t follow they will carry through to the final design.

  17. This is kinda what I thought all along. It’s a dog & pony show for the decision makers/check signers (cheque, to those across the pond).
    Also, if you’re drawing a car, you might as well make it cool, right?

    1. It’s not exactly a dog and pony show, more of a sizzle reel to engage and excite. But those exaggerated sketches form only a tiny part of the overall design process, which takes about five years from ball point hitting the paper to tires hitting the showroom floor.

  18. Oddly, at one point in the 1950s, automakers used to advertise smaller wheels than the year before as a selling point – the thinking was, smaller wheels made cars look sleeker and lower to the ground, which was what they wanted back then, since anything else probably conjured up memories of old timey horse drawn carriages. And by memories, I mean of earlier that same morning, when the rag man came down the back alley.

  19. I agree with you about the muscle car restomods, going to a 16 or 17 would still keep the proportions right, but “modernize” the look at the same time.

    That, and, beans on toast is delicious.

    1. Beans on toast (it should be a good, crusty soft white bread, not some Wonderbread shit) is the cheap easy snack of the gods.

      If Chicken Tikka Masala wasn’t already the British national dish beans on toast would be.

  20. “To make it look cool.”

    Dude. Those were *literally* the only five words of this article that needed to exist. The rest of it was nothing but a very longwinded and occasionally condescending non-answer, wherein you went to great lengths to describe the design process and yet broke no new ground at all relative to your previous articles on this site. I’m serious.

    You explained why cars today have bigger wheels than the cars of yesterday (weight, fashion, possibilities offered by tighter tolerances). You told us that some (but not all) of the sketches we like to complain about are highly preliminary. You told us that sometimes designers take it too far. What you didn’t do is tell us *why designers do it* except that “it looks cool.”

    Seriously, I read this article twice and it still reads like a defensive, patronizing non-answer that dances around the question for several pages without ever actually substantively attempting to answer it. That’s my rock-bottom honest assessment.

    1. I also explained that it’s important initial images look dramatic because they have to impress higher ups outside of the design studio.

      Excuse me for fleshing the article out with what I thought was relevant information that readers might be interested to know. A lot of people, yourself included it seems, have quite a low opinion of what designers are and what they do. Part of my mission here is to try and explain exactly what design is, and isn’t, and what context and external factors affect a car’s appearance and function.

      If you just want surface level discussion of car design, go watch some Sketchmonkey videos.

    2. Also “we need to sell it to our bosses,” and we need to sell it to marketing. Designers, marketers, bean counters, and customers all join in an intricate dance which results in more expensive cars every year.

      1. Marketing don’t really have input into the design per se. They will ask for certain trim levels (which might result in different lighting, or additional detail pieces on the exterior). Or they might request certain colors, things like that. But in general their role is positioning the car and identifying the target customer, then selling it.

        It’s easy to dismiss bean counters (god knows they’ve caused me some pain) but you have to remember cars is a pretty low margin business, especially in the mass market. If they manage better than 10% they’re doing well. Cars have to be ruthlessly costed especially at volume where losses can be multiplied as well as profits.

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