Designing the 2016 Honda Civic Coupe

Gary S. Vasilash

Guy Melville-Brown has his dream job. When he grew up in England his family’s car was a Civic. And now he gets to design Hondas for a living.

Guy Melville-Brown, lead exterior designer for the 2016 Honda Civic Coupe, a designer who now lives and works about 5,500 miles west of where he grew up in Worthing, West Sussex, U.K., (“most people go there to retire”), stands in front of a room of people who have already heard several presentations about the Civic Coupe, and then proceeds to talk about the car with levels of passion and enthusiasm that even sets his colleagues back on their collective heels.

This guy isn’t simply a “True Believer” as Peter DeLorenzo (autoextremist.com) would have it of someone who is completely committed to doing excellence in this industry. Melville-Brown is a TRUE BELIEVER when it comes to the Civic Coupe.

Sure, there are designers who are proud of their work. But generally, this pride is either underplayed or bombastic. It is neither in Melville-Brown’s expression. This probably has something to do with the fact that when this 34-year-old was growing up, his parents' first car was a Civic. Like all designers—or at least all of the designers I’ve ever had the opportunity to talk with, and that’s been plenty—Melville-Brown says, “I always loved drawing. I spent hours and hours at the kitchen table drawing cars.”

But there are a couple of things he admits to having done as a child that one doesn’t ordinarily hear about:
1. “My mom says that when I was a toddler, I’d go outside and stroke the wheels of cars.”
2. “I would climb into the Civic and turn on the windscreen wipers and turn up the radio volume knob so that when my dad would get in and turn on the ignition, the windscreen wipers would be working and the radio blaring.”

And while on the subject of the radio in the Civic, there are a couple of things worth mentioning:
1. When I talk with Melville-Brown, it is shortly after the passing of David Bowie. “Bowie was always on the tape deck on long family vacation drives.”
2. Asked about what were some of the things that inspired him when designing the 2016 Civic Coupe, he says he’d tune into the electronica broadcast by the BBC, which he finds energizing.

Melville-Brown received a degree from the Coventry School of Art and Design. He had an internship at Peugeot-Citroen. His first job was with Fiat in Italy. (“I’d wanted to go to the RCA”—the Royal College of Art in London—“but I got the job at Fiat, so it didn’t make a whole lot of sense at that point.”

He then moved from northwestern Italy to northeastern Germany, as he took a position at the Volkswagen studio in Berlin.

So how did he end up working in Torrance, California?

It was more than his enthusiasm for Honda. While in Italy he met a woman from San Francisco who was to become his wife. So going back to California was in the cards.

Then there was something else. Worthing is on the south coast of England. And Melville-Brown surfed. Yes: surfed in southern England: “You can only do it in the wintertime. And you have to be covered by at least 5 mm of neoprene—with a small opening for eyes and mouth.” There was one family vacation that his family took that didn’t have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars blaring on the deck.

When he was 14, they traveled to California. And the teenager thought back then, “If I could design cars and go to California…”

So he and his wife moved back to California, and he got a job some 4.5 years ago at Honda. And while he made some contributions to the designs of products including the Acura TLX and the Honda Pilot, his primary task was the Civic Coupe.

He calls getting the assignment “lucky timing.”

While at Volkswagen, Melville-Brown worked on the Golf Mark VII. And in many ways—in terms of package size and importance to the company—the Golf is to VW what the Civic is to Honda. It is not only a high-volume, global car, but a car that is highly representative of the company’s basic ethos.

Of the Civic Coupe design development, Melville-Brown states unequivocally, “We wanted this to be the best Civic we’ve ever made.”

Which is what one might expect the designer of a new car to say. But he goes on to explain, “On a lot of occasions, it is easy for a project to be evolutionary.” Meaning that there are some minor modifications and improvements. But that isn’t what they wanted for the Civic Coupe (or the Sedan for that matter) because there was agreement that what the Civic had become was not what the Civic once represented. “So I went back to the original. I wanted the same impact, the same gusto that the original Civic had.”

And here’s where the level of passion and commitment becomes clear: “I wanted to design a Civic that if Mr. Honda was still around, he would be proud. He’d say, ‘Yes, this is a car we are proud to put out.’ That’s where we set the bar for this car.”

According to Melville-Brown, “At one point, there were about 60 people sketching on the Civic worldwide.” As time went on, and as models were built and compared, the U.S. team of designers responsible for the design synthesized some of the characteristics brought to the car by their colleagues.

“There were so many perspectives—which is fantastic for the Civic. It is a global product, so getting ideas from around the world meant that we ended up with a very rich, very creative product.”

Compared with the 2015 Coupe, the length of the 2016 is reduced by an inch (to 176.9 inches), the wheelbase is up 3.1 inches (to 106.3 inches), the width is increased by 1.8 in.inches (to 70.8 inches), and the vehicle is lowered by 0.1 inch (to 54.9 inches). As this is a new platform, things like that are to be expected.

But the 2016 Civic Coupe and Sedan are platform mates; the cars were essentially developed at the same time, so one might think that the body style changes from the A-pillars back and that’s about it.

But in order to get what they were looking for in the Coupe, more had to be changed. “The Sedan is already pretty good. But the Coupe had to be more, more extreme. We had to turn up the volume.” 

The overall length of the Coupe is 5.4 inches less than that of the Sedan (it is 176.9 inches), with the reduction occurring in the rear overhang. The width is just 0.1 inch less than that of the Sedan, though to get a lower silhouette, the height is nearly an inch (0.8 inches) lower.

“The great thing about this car is the engineers and designers had a fairly united approach as to what they wanted this car to be. Everyone wanted it to be the best Civic we ever designed. When we came to them with a challenge of what we wanted to achieve, they understood. It was a great team project,” Melville-Brown says. “That’s why the car is as good as it is.”

And while he led the exterior activity, he gives credit to the folks who worked on the inside by noting that although the vehicle is compact, “The interior is like the Tardis,” which, for those of you who aren’t Dr. Who fans, is the telephone box that appears to be the size of a conventional phone booth, but with an interior that is the size of a house (in the case of the Coupe, they’ve increased the interior volume over the previous model by a whopping 6-ft3, to 88.6-ft3

And in keeping with providing credit to his colleagues who worked on the infotainment and safety systems (the Honda Sensing suite is available with the Coupe), he observes, “This thing is smarter than an Oxford student.” Remember, he is from Worthing, and his accent makes hearing it a whole lot more engaging than just reading it.

“An embodiment of passion.”

“A labor of love.”

Melville-Brown uses phrases like these to describe the 2016 Civic Coupe. This is the sixth-generation Coupe. This is a car that Honda product planning people have found resonates with young, well-educated buyers, the precise kinds of people that a car company wants to bring in (Curtis Nakamura, manager, small cars, Honda Product Planning, says that since 2010, it has been the #1 car for the under 35-year-old set).

These people want something distinct and stylish, something different.

“This isn’t just what is now,” Melville-Brown says of the car. “It’s what’s next.”