It’s been a lively year for car design. With the final curtain drawing on the age of combustion (to borrow a phrase from a friend and colleague Stephen Bailey), makers are wrestling to define their place in the new epoch. This is a pivotal moment for heritage marques to prove their relevance, show they are progressive and not stuck in the past. It’s also prime time for newcomers to make their presence know.
With the pandemic continuing to disrupt travel, I used much of 2021 to sample new cars and speak with the creatives involved. One thing is certain: makers are playing it safe with this first wave of electric cars. They are testing the water, gauging consumer reaction. Talking to the designers involved though, I’m optimistic that the next generation of products will be more of a radical departure from the conventional motor car in looks and, thanks to machine intelligence, in experience.
For the highlights, Volkswagen’s latest ID.3 and ID.4 are commendable electric cars as is Audi’s current family of e-tron SUVs, even if collectively they lack much emotion. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to experience the sleek and sexy e-tron GT, a car that defines Audi in the coming age and one that I hope, when tested, will set the heart racing.
Meanwhile, the Volvo XC40 Recharge and Polestar 2 are safe and solid and electric cars you feel you can trust. As are Mercedes-Benz’s EQ range, which remove the anxiety of navigating new electric drive technology. Elsewhere, the Honda e is an impressive little city car with a host of novel ideas and technology for a product that is more akin to a mobile gadget, an iPhone, than a conventional car.
Having experienced and thoroughly enjoyed the MINI Electric ride just days before the pandemic shut down the world, I was glad to see the quintessential urban commuter undergo an eco-fashion trim by the British designer Paul Smith. His anti-ornament MINI Strip literally strips the car and re-imagines its construction with materials that are fully recyclable and can find their way back into the production process.
Even more inventive is the BMW i Vision Circular, a research project designed to explore a web of ideas around circularity. The car’s design process is therefore anchored on resource-efficiency, which means thinking about every material and element and their construction so they can be easily dismantled at the end of the product’s lifecycle and repurposed elsewhere.
Some of these ideas have found their way to the BMW iX. The marque’s pinnacle electric car may not look radical at first glance, but once experienced it reveals how far we’ve come in terms of personal transport. Perhaps cars like the iX are proof that we don’t necessarily need a big bang of a revolution with the new age of transport, but rather a network of subtle evolutions that together alter the experience of driving — for the better.
2021 also saw inventive solutions by a slew of independent makers. The electric Microlino by the Swiss brand Micro, for instance, is a contemporary take on classic bubble cars with its single seat bench design and a front door which lets the driver and passenger step right onto the sidewalk. Also worth mentioning is Lunaz. The UK based company which began life by electrifying classic cars, has expanded its business to include refuse trucks and fire engines and all those big bulky machines that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley also revealed plans for electric cars, while simultaneously dedicating time, in the face of new competition, to solidifying their status as prime makers of luxurious transport. They need not worry though. These are heritage brands soaked deep in the sort of evocative narratives which time can only nourish.
The grandest expression of all this has to be the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail, a meticulously crafted, hand-built $28 million motor car so lavish and gorgeous it transports you to an imaginary golden age of the automobile. Somewhat more accessible is Bentley’s Continental GT Speed. The marque’s fastest production car — and its final gasoline GT Speed — is an elegant grand tourer which makes you long for exotic road travels.
As the year came to an end, I entered an engaging discussion with Chris Bangle. The former BMW Group creative designer is calling for a complete re-invention of design for the new age of transport. His argument is that it is irrational to partake in current discussions over sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when a real shift requires a fundamental rethink of design and its human creatives. “Design, as it is now,” he says, “rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age.”
As a discipline, design continues to live in the world of the machine; it’s trapped in its prime at the peak of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for creating in perfection like a machine. But in the age of machine intelligence, the thinking human need no longer mimic the machine. Only through liberation from this outdated concept, the argument goes, can design help shape a more interesting future.
Bangle concludes by saying that re-inventing design need not be a negative thing. In a speech he gave last month on re-inventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York, he wrote: “It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the ‘whats’ we can create and move on the ‘why’ of what we should create.” And I’m happy to end 2021 on this upbeat note.