Pratap Bose, whose designs have contributed immensely to the success of Tata Motors’ cars in the last decade, is one of the five finalists for the 2021 World Car Person of the Year award.
“How I classify great cars is if they stir an emotional response — that’s very important,” says Pratap Bose, the Vice President of Global Design at Tata Motors. He is the man who’s designed cars like the Tiago, Nexon, Altroz, Harrier, and Safari, all of which have gone on to be significant successes for the company. “I love going into the clay studio and seeing the clay modellers sculpt the clay, and running my hands over it to judge the surface; you can close your eyes and feel the surfaces come to life.”
Widely acknowledged to be the best car designer in India, his name is now recognised in the larger world of international auto industry, a measure of which is the fact that he is one of the five finalists for the 2021 World Car Person of the Year award, given by the not-for-profit World Car Awards, an organisation founded and run by car journalists, bloggers, and reviewers from around the world. The name of the winner will be announced on April 20.
Bose is in excellent company. The other four finalists include Luc Donckerwolke (Chief Creative Officer at Hyundai), Tomiko Takeuchi (Chief Engineer at Mazda, and also the company’s first female development and evaluation test driver), Akio Toyoda (President and CEO, Toyota Motor Corp.) and Euisun Chung (Chairman, Hyundai Motor Group). Past winners of the honour include the who’s who of the world auto industry— Carlos Tavares, CEO – PSA Group, the late Sergio Marchionne, CEO – FCA, and Håkan Samuelsson, President and CEO, Volvo Car Group.
45-year-old Bose’s passion for automobiles started quite early. His design journey began with a degree in product design from the prestigious National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. He worked for two years with the Italian company Piaggio, before going back to acquire an MA in vehicle design from the Royal College of Art in London. He worked for three years as a senior designer with Daimler Chrysler in Japan, before joining the newly set up Tata Motors European Technical Centre, the design and development arm of the Indian automaker based in Coventry, England. He moved to the parent company as Head of Design in 2011, and was appointed to his current global position two years ago.
India, according to Bose, presents unique challenges for a designer. “The challenge in India is that we have to fit a lot of cars within four metres, which you don’t have to do in any other part of the world, “he says, “So we have sedans in 4m, we have minivans, we have SUVs, you name it. My colleagues in other global companies find it extremely hard to design cars that are under 4m. We have got premium hatchbacks, entry-level hatchbacks, entry-level SUVs, subcompact SUVs — we’ve got everything in under 4m.” He spoke to MW about these and other unique insights about the developing world of Indian vehicle design in this exclusive interview.
MW: How has passenger car design evolved at Tata Motors in the last two decades?
Pratap Bose: I’d need to take you back a few years, to the mid-1980s, early-1990s. Actually, Tata Motors was the first to establish a design studio and in large part, I’d give the credit for that to Mr Tata himself. As you know, he’s a trained architect, and therefore, he’s got a fantastic eye for design. In the mid/late-1990s, when we established the design studio in Pune, albeit very small, and only for commercial vehicles at that point, it was still that attempt to get design going in an Indian company. And then if you flash forward to the mid-1990s/late-1990s, the Sierra, the Tata Mobile, the Estate, the Sumo — a lot of I, would say, were design-led products. And those were the bridge products for us to go from commercial vehicles to passenger cars.
If I fast forward to the late-1990s, when the Indica came out, that was one huge leap. I still remember seeing the Indica in 1997-98, and what an impact it had on not only me but on the general public in India and overseas. I think the Indica, in its time, was amongst the benchmarks in small hatchback design, globally. Of course, that was designed by IDEA; we didn’t have the internal capability, but that, I would say, was the start of the journey of the passenger vehicle design side. Today, the role design plays in Tata Motors is very central to its strategy, to its customer focus and to the numbers.
MW: Since Tata Motors has only been building cars for about 25 years or so, is the lack of an established design language and absence of design heritage a challenge, or is it an opportunity?
PB: It’s actually both. On one hand we can say, wow, it’s great, we have a clean sheet of paper. On the other hand, you look back, and there’s almost nothing behind you. Some of the global contemporaries we have in India and overseas are celebrating their 100-year anniversaries. Of course, we’re a 75-year old company, but not in cars; that’s only about 20-25 years. So, yes, it’s a challenge to establish a fresh design DNA, which is unique, which stands out, which says something about the company, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in the last five to seven years. We’re already internally working on the Impact 3.0 design language, which will start coming in a few years, and that’s how we hope the legacy builds.
MW: Everyone seems to be buying SUVs these days, while sedans have fallen out of favour. From the design perspective, is doing SUVs more challenging?
PB: All cars are equally interesting, exciting or challenging; I don’t really think a body type is necessarily the challenge. What is the challenge in India, of course, is that we have to fit a lot of cars within four metres, which you don’t have to do in any other part of the world. We have got premium hatchbacks, entry-level hatchbacks, entry-level SUVs, subcompact SUVs – we’ve got everything in under 4m. And that is more unique as a challenge in India and Indian design, or design for India, rather than the body type.
MW: In recent years, Tata cars have been scoring high in terms of safety, with 5-star safety ratings from Global NCAP. What are the unique challenges of designing affordable cars that are also very safe?
PB: As part of our product strategy, safety comes at the top of the triangle. In fact we’re seeing people buy our cars for primarily two things; safety and design, so the two are kind of linked. What is hugely important in the front end design of the car is pedestrian safety. When the car hits the lower leg of a pedestrian, the pedestrian should not go under the car, but come on to the bonnet and the windscreen. Therefore, the way you design that bonnet area, the windscreen area, the headlamps — all the hard parts — they are very critical [and] we work around those requirements. All our cars actually work with that, and we have seen there is a way to satisfy those requirements, and get a beautiful car. We’ve enjoyed that process a lot because it challenges us as a design team, but we know when this car is placed in the hands of the customer, in the unfortunate event that there is a crash, not only are the occupants better protected, but also pedestrians.
MW: Has the design process moved more towards computer software and fully digital platforms in recent years, and what’s your take on that?
PB: I think the best software is between your ears; it’s the brain. There’s nothing that’s replaced that, luckily. It’s still art and science; design is the perfect combination of both of those. Having said that, of course, technology opens up a lot of possibilities, so the advantage is that you can iterate a lot more, you can generate more ideas, you can work faster in some cases, because you can exchange data with suppliers outside the company and engineering teams inside the company much faster.
Since last year, we have been working virtually, and we still have a design review with our management every month. We can’t ship physical models around, but we use software and we use computer-generated images to have all our design reviews. And not one of our design decisions got delayed in these last few months that we’ve been in lockdown. So, yes, it helps in collaboration, visualisation, and the speed and volume of ideation. But it has to be backed by analogue process, and that’s what I love about design; a computer model is not something you can touch or run your hands over. I love going into the clay studio and seeing the clay modellers sculpt the clay and running my hands over it to judge the surface; you can close your eyes and feel the surfaces come to life. And that nothing has replaced yet, I’m glad.
MW: Who are your favourite car designers of all time?
PB: Giorgetto Giugiaro remains the top for most car designers and it’s purely because of the influence he’s had [over the largest number of cars], which is just staggering. The width and depth of his work is phenomenal, and he remains at the top. I think it would be unfair of me to point out individuals but if I could say, in Kia, for example, Peter Schreyer and Luc Donckerwolke — what they’ve done at Kia in the last 15 years. Peter Schreyer’s work has been phenomenal. I think what Gerry McGovern and Massimo Frascella have done at Land Rover is again fantastic, they really define what premium SUV design is all about. Another designer I think has been hugely influential is Flavio Manzoni, who’s at Ferrari. People think it’s easy to design supercars but it’s probably the hardest genres of car design and I think Flavio does an incredible job. Currently my favourite car is the Ferrari Roma — I think it’s just so beautiful, it can move people to tears — it’s really the pinnacle of car design.
MW: The Roma is indeed fabulous, but are there also any cars from the decades gone by, which you particularly like?
PB: How I classify great cars is if they stir an emotional response — that’s very important. When I see the original Fiat Cinquecento on the roads sometimes, and how small and tiny it was, and what it stood for, it’s absolutely amazing. I like the original Cinquecento more than any car in that genre; I think it’s a true icon of its time. Then, the Jaguar E-Type — I’m quite lucky to see a few around here. The gull wing Mercedes 300 SL — that’s a drop-dead gorgeous car; I almost gush even while speaking about it. The Citroen DS – that’s incredible. The Lamborghini Miura, the Lancia Stratos, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Toyota GT 2000 — an absolutely stunning car. I could just go on — there are so many gorgeous cars.
MW: Looking at the future, do you think electric powerplants, AIm and self-driving capabilities will influence, in a big way, how cars are designed and the way they look?
PB: Yes, absolutely. We will go through a phase of 15-20 years when there will be a mix of cars on the roads — not autonomous at all, semi-autonomous, and then fully autonomous. But what I think will happen is, more autonomy — autonomy with an electric architecture — both of them will fundamentally change the car. EVs and the EV architecture, especially if you go for the skateboard, it changes the proportions of the car completely. Today, one-third of the car is the engine, and two-thirds is the passenger cell. But when you take that engine away, you can free up a lot of that space, so you can have smaller cars, but with more seating. When cars are in an exclusively autonomous environment, the car can then fundamentally change. Autonomy, AI, machine learning and electric architecture — these elements will totally change car design in the next 20 years.