“The lower the cultural level of a people, the more extravagant it is with its ornament, its decoration. The Indian covers every object, every boat, every oar, every arrow with layer upon layer of ornament. To see decoration as a sign of superiority means to stand at the level of the Indians. The Indian in us all must be overcome.”
Adolf Loos, 1898
Design gives you wings. At least we could think that, strolling through the halls, filled to bursting with more or less fine specimens, of the 65th International Motor Show in Frankfurt/Main. Never before have there been so many studies with gull-wing doors. One could think the designers had got together and agreed on the idea or all been infected by the same virus. The Mercedes AMG SLS indeed – for reasons of tradition – has them as standard; the rest is winged show. The wings of the Opel study “Monza” are particularly powerful, the Kia “Niro” has them and the Audi “nanuk quattro concept” seemingly needs them as urgently as BMW’s “i8”. What is all this telling us, being everyday automobile people? Surely not that in order to get out of the car in future we need to extend our garage both outwards and upwards. Rather, such winged concept cars are meant to invoke that which the automobile industry so desperately needs: the future. As such almost all the studies are wide, flat, strong, extravagant and effectively circled by the winds set to carry us into the realm of the future.
Seen thus, the obsession with upwards-opening doors does indeed have an objective core. Smart – whose “Fourjoy” study surprisingly reworks the now almost old-fashioned aesthetics of the first Apple iPod and does without doors entirely – is the only manufacturer where we are not quite sure whether we should take the general wing-flapping ironically or dismiss it as misguided taste. Indeed, it is also exhibiting “forjeremy”, the “strictly limited” version of a “fortwo electric drive” that was already shown in Shanghai. It doesn’t have gull-wing doors, but the American fashion designer Jeremy Scott actually adorned the rear section of the two-seater’s roof with small wings made of plastic feathers. You don’t get much kitschier than that.
Sensible or emotional?
Even though for many people a car may no longer be a status symbol, it remains a clear statement. We can find one in front of almost every house in Germany, and even if it is temporarily hidden in a garage, it maintains a close relationship with its owner. In its owner’s soul it often functions as an accessory, like a purse on wheels or a traveling adventure playground. Today however everyone wants everything at the same time: ideally a family 4x4 sports car with a large loading area and trailer hitch or alternatively a shooting-brake suited equally to garden cuttings, surfboard and racing track. Concerning driving performance and suspension tuning, nowadays technology means many hybrid combinations are possible. Yet in terms of economy of space, such a vehicle remains absurd. How on earth is the customer supposed to decide which model is right for him? Should he base his choice on common sense? Or should he give in to the emotions promised him always and everywhere by the marketing?
The plain and the extravagant
The aesthetic signals one receives at this year’s Motor Show are correspondingly contradictory. And because the manufacturers, on the hunt for higher sales figures and greater market share, are occupying every last niche, the offerings are getting ever more confusing. On the one hand we have more or less plain, at best highly functional, i.e. soberly, if not “honestly” designed models, fitted with sensible technology. But because in the long run there is not much glamour in that, on the other hand we have spectacular show cars, with whose help the producers test the waters in certain cycles to see what “the customer” might like in terms of design.
Design needs the sublime
A statement by Gorden Wagener, Vice President Design Daimler AG, displayed on the Mercedes stand in the Festhalle under the heading “Design needs the sublime” makes it clear that even studies like this, intended to point the way for more than a few details towards series production, are not about designing beautiful, elegant automobiles, but first and foremost about designing the marque identity. It reads:
“Sensual purity as an expression of modern luxury, this is the focus of the Mercedes-Benz designers’ work. The design philosophy of Mercedes-Benz is to create clean shapes and surfaces that stage high tech while exuding a strong emotional appeal. The bipolarity of intelligence and emotion, rooted in the Mercedes-Benz brand philosophy, is taken up in vehicle development and given different accents. Each vehicle thus has a distinct character, but is always recognizable as a Mercedes-Benz.”
We get the point: All five sentences contain “Mercedes-Benz”. The marque is always at the forefront. And the combination of high-tech and emotion mustn’t be missing. Nonetheless it may be a point of contention whether the current Mercedes models actually exude “sensual purity as an expression of modern luxury” or whether some of the dynamic lines and many of the merely apparent air intakes are rather hiding a kind of postmodern baroque. Wagener’s designs do seem somewhat over the top sometimes.
Right at the top of Mercedes’ class society – next to the brand’s spanking new S-Class – is the corresponding coupé. Even if the elongated and shining silver car is called the “Mercedes Concept S-Class”, it is not a show car, but a near-production study. And, in terms of the company’s design philosophy, it is spot on. Long and flat and with edges and angles like a stone polished by running water – this is what autos look like today, even in the high-end segment. (By way of comparison consider the naturally weightier Rolls-Royce “Purple Wraith”, in which economy of space plays just as little a role.) What is particularly striking about the studies, show cars and prototypes of tomorrow’s design languages? Of course: the radiator grille. There is hardly a car here for which at least the design of the front section was developed around the grille and the (also ever-larger) logo.
Things are a little different at Volvo. Here the new Design Director Thomas Ingenlath has likewise been working “behind closed doors” on a “Grand Coupé”. Although he puts it rather differently to Gorden Wagener, he too sets great store by design at the core of the brand and by how it can be renewed: “Anyone who knows me will say: Volvo is perfect for you. I have never liked exactly what other people like – I don’t like fast, loud design. I am more reflective and like to discover the intellectual elements under the surface. If you do it right, then the aesthetics work regardless. Volvo is a brand with an extremely strong history. It places people at the heart of everything it does. It is a particular challenge to develop a new design that incorporates the proven brand values and also enables a repositioning as an even more striking premium marque.”
For sure Ingenlath’s “Concept Coupé” is also broad, low, long, strong and self-assured; it also shows off its muscles here and there and bears a hefty radiator grille complete with large company logo. At the same time, Ingenlath has succeeded in transporting elements of the clear Scandinavian design language into the present. A little less body-building would not have been a bad thing, however. Individual lines – such as in the transition from the rear window to the trunk lid – do not stretch in an arc, but rather break off, invert the tension and thus form three-dimensionally elaborated surfaces. Yet with this study too, the series production of which has probably not been considered, the reference to “feeling” was not permitted to fall by the wayside. “We complement the brand language and its quiet, self-assured beauty, which is so symbolic of Scandinavian design, with an emotional element”. And if, for the sake of comparison, you take a look at the old, cream-colored P 1800, which is one level up on the Volvo stand, then you can see what the design has lost in simple elegance since the 1950s.
Things are different yet again when it comes to the Opel “Monza”. This model is an ultra-low four-seater in the form of a shooting-brake with less luggage space. But here too, the name of the game is broad, low, long... As far as the drive is concerned, the “Monza” has an electric engine with a one-liter combustion engine as a range extender. Instead of a B pillar it has... wait for it... gigantic gull-wing doors. These are likely to be abandoned if the prediction of Opel Chairman of the Board Karl Thomas comes to fruition: “The Monza concept represents the Opel vehicle of tomorrow”.
At the Audi stand, visitors are lured not only by an excellent stand design that presents an urban canyon à la Tokyo, but also by two studies on show, namely the “Audi nanuk quattro concept” – with gull-wing doors – and the “Audi Sport quattro concept” – without them. Both pick up, in their own style, on elements of the boxy design of the Ur-Quattro, but interpret them in different ways. In the “Sport quattro concept”, the so-called “blister” above the fenders is reminiscent of the fenders seen on its predecessors and, combined with the boxy C pillar, gives the car an athletic touch, while in the “Audi nanuk quattro concept”, the same features accentuate its more aggressive look in a different way. The crossover concept, which was developed with Italdesign Giugiaro, is supposed to combine “the dynamics of a mid-engine sports car with the versatility of a sporty leisure vehicle”. The outer shell consists of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) and is painted “extreme red”. So do these two actually indicate that Audi’s design will be more edgy in future?
In contrast, the “Niro” study by Kia plays the city cowboy or “wild one”. What is being presented is more of an urban lifestyle concept than an automobile. The little black beast – with the obligatory gull-wing doors – is a crossover for city nomads who want to get from A to B, but in doing so want to feel like they are making an great expedition through unknown terrain. Or alternatively: a glammed-up status symbol, whose neon-yellow hooks on the rear bumper signal: I tow anything! – whatever that might mean.
Secret star bears the name i3
In the end, the secret star of the 65th Frankfurt Motor Show is no doubt the BMW i3. It runs purely on electricity and is neither big nor low, strong nor wide. It’s true that it bears design elements that we will have to get used to over the coming years, since automobile design these days means nothing is left “undesigned”. Everything is tailored corporeally and three-dimensionally down to the finest detail. Every door handle, every fold, every bit of ribbing ... everything is integrated into the seamless overall form. In short, we are still living in an era of technical baroque, whose triumphal automobiles appear sometimes elegant, sometimes aggressive.
So what will the cars of tomorrow look like? They will be big, broad, strong and low, and will bare their muscles for all to see, building on emotional elegance and full to the brim with sophisticated technology. They will ensure we don’t forget that driving a car remains an emotional matter. Anyone looking for a car that does not resemble a smoothly polished gem with any number of blisters, air scoops, spoiler lips, creases, ribbing or dummy diffusers will have a tough time of it. That is unless he chooses to look in the standard range. Sometimes one just can’t resist the urge to look for a car whose front windscreen stands proudly vertical.