(The Classics Perspective is a column exclusive to AutoTrader Classics and written by our own Online Editor Brian Medford. We hope you enjoy it.)
Before you brand me a traitor give me a chance to explain myself. I think by the end of this article you will see that a Korean car isn't that far off from being American as you think. Yes it is made by a foreign car company, but the design is pure apple pie. Don't believe me? Read on.
Michael Torpey is the designer responsible for the Kia Soul. He is a red blooded American from Rochester, New York. Torpey was destined to be a classic car fan from an early age. As a newborn he was brought home from the hospital in a Barracuda fastback. Some of that must have seeped into his newborn skin because he has been in love with that car era ever since. An admitted Mopar nut, Torpey has had a fleet of classics. His current rides are a '70 Dart Swinger 340 (in Vitamin-C orange) and a '72 Dodge Coronet wagon (in powder blue, his self proclaimed surf wagon). Back when he lived in Michigan his collection was much larger (including a '71 Dodge Polara and a '72 Pontiac Ventura II) but a move to the left coast meant a trimming of the herd. Never the less, he stays true to his love of old cars.
How is that for a pedigree? A guy who loves his old iron is hired by a foreign car company to pen their next world car. But where do you start on such a task? One of the influences Torpey drew from was the industrial vehicle designer Syd Mead. Mead worked as a designer at Ford from '59-61. You may also remember his design work from the light cycles in "Tron." Torpey's roommate in college had a collection of Mead's books created for the company U.S Steel. Torpey was blown away by the way Mead pushed the boundaries of what defines a vehicle. "The pure and out-there design was really well received" Torpey comments.
Speaking of influences, you can't overlook Torpey’s mentors. He studied under William Porter, GM Chief Designer of the 1970 Pontiac Firebird; Bill Robinson of 1960's and 1970's Chrysler fame and designer of the infamous "Shaker" hood scoop. Then there is Milt Antonick, Chief Designer of the Plymouth Barracuda (all three generations). Talk about a rock solid foundation in good old American car design.
From a design standpoint Torpey pointed to the late 60’s to early 70’s as an influence. To him, the '71-72 Road Runner body is pure nirvana. Torpey adds "the fuselage design of that time really transcended the overly fussy designs of the 60’s. The lines were more effortless with a real rounded fluidity. They were the closest to the modern furniture designs of the 50’s and 60’s." Those flowing lines show up in the Soul to help break up the "box" look.
"While on the airplane, I penned a fast idea for a “side-view design sketch” of the Soul" remarks Torpey. Shortly after he arrived in Korea he learned of the local wild boars and added their shape to the mix. Together the two became the Soul’s “blueprint.” This was the start of the Kia Soul design. If you look carefully, the American design influence starts to come out. "A big strong face on a car is 90% of the story" says Torpey. As a small car, the Soul had to have strong face to square off with the SUV’s on America's highways. Look at the lower skid-plate grille shape on the Soul and you will see a striking resemblance to the ‘57 Cadillac. That same grille also shares an awful similar look to Torpey's sweetheart, the '71-72 Road Runner. The headlights feature a black accent underneath, an idea taken straight from an all-American football player's face paint. Take a look at those headlights again, and then think back to the brass-era cars of yesteryear (Torpey actually calls out the Bugatti Napoleon Coupe' as an influence here).
The American car industry has made its' mark on the world. Is the Kia Soul a classic American car? No, and it wasn't designed to be one. What you see here is what happens when a young guy draws upon his influences, what he likes, to make something new. He says it himself, "there was unquestionably some American ink still left in my pen when I sketched the Soul for Kia. I wanted to create [in the Soul] a small, scrappy vehicle that still had all the boldness of character of a muscle car.” He has done just that. The American automobile designs of the past live on in the strangest places, even in a little Korean car.
Special thanks to Kia Motors America, Inc and Michael Torpey.
(Brian is an avid automotive enthusiast who grew up in his father's shop and has had grease under his fingernails from an early age. He has been involved in the classic automotive industry for well over a decade. He has owned several classic cars and is currently focused on the Oldsmobile brand.)
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