Yesterday's tomorrow
by Thomas Edelmann | Sep 13, 2011
Tropfenwagen, 1921
Photo: Detlef Garbrecht

"The car has been taboo for long enough, it deserves to be assessed," was the opinion of designer and publicist Otl Aicher in his well-known "Kritik am Auto" (Criticism of the car) from 1984. Today, everything has changed. We can no longer optimistically assert, as Aicher did, that the car has been transformed "from something to be looked at into something to be thought about." When developing new models today, existing parameters play the central role: What will be defined by statutory norms and regulations, today and tomorrow? What strategies do manufacturers and their individual brands pursue? How is it possible to make the change from the familiar, tried-and-tested combustion engine to new engine concepts, preferably without calling the industry's established rules into question? A number of historical examples – by no means can all of them be recommended as role models – have focused on completely different issues. Here is a small selection of concepts and studies which were often primarily concerned with changing notions of convenience and usage.

Tropfenwagen, 1921

Construction engineer Edmund Rumpler (1872–1940) worked for companies such as Nesseldorfer Wagonfabrik (later Tatra) and Adler. He and his company constructed and manufactured one of the first fighter planes (the "Taube" or Dove) and he did not switch to automotive construction until after the First World War, focusing on looking for the kind of undercarriage that would be able to offer an equal degree of comfort to as many of the car's passengers as possible. As it was described in the catalogue "Stromlinienform" (streamlined shape), which accompanied an exhibition of the same name at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich, with his "Tropfenwagen" (droplet car) Rumpler transformed the streamlined shape "into a topic of public debate in Germany." Starting points for the construction were the equal distribution of weight and individual wheel suspension. Whereas the body was shaped like a boot, both the roof and the mudguards took their inspiration from the design of airplane wings. Overall, the vehicle turned out to be too long and too heavy. It was first presented at the German Motor Show in 1921 and by 1925, three production series had been produced and there had been a total roll-out of around 100 Tropfenwagen. Rumpler lost a legal battle with Paul Jaray concerning the shape's patent-worthiness. Fritz Lang bought the remaining stocks of Tropfenwagen for his movie "Metropolis", whereby in the final scene they are piled up into a scrap heap, on which the robot Maria is then burned at the stake. Surviving examples of Tropfenwagen can be viewed at the Museum für Verkehr und Technik in Berlin and at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

AVA-Wagen, 1938

Possibly not one of the most important ones, but a very spectacular example of form-finding for test vehicles, which strived to find ideal streamlines, is the car developed in 1938 at the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Göttingen (AVA) and with the collaboration of engineer Karl Schlör von Westhofen-Dirmstein (1910-1997). Sometimes dubbed the "Göttingen egg" or the "Schlörwagen" (named after the engineer), this test vehicle was extremely unusual for the automobiles of the time, not only because of its broad front section, but above all because of its body, a single smooth, rounded volume. This shape would be taken up and further refined decades later in designs for vans. The "AVA-Wagen" (AVA car) was a single piece mounted on the chassis of a Mercedes-Benz 170 H (with rear engine). The aluminum body was made by Ludewig, a company based in Essen that mainly constructed buses. Despite being on the heavy side, the Schlörwagen with its aerodynamically optimized shape achieved a consumption that was 20 to 40 percent lower than the Mercedes 170 H and it could travel up to 30 kilometers faster too. "In terms of dynamics, the Schlörwagen was a disaster," comments Siegfried Loose of the German Center for Aviation and Space Travel who tested a 1-in-5 model using up-to-date technology in 2009. Loose: "The way that the car's rear end tapered down turned out to be absolutely perfect. Here there was absolutely none of the air backflow that produces increased air resistance in most cars." And yet Loose, an expert in aerodynamics, is extremely scathing about the research car's suitability for everyday use; not only describing it as "extremely difficult to drive" but also remarking that "it would have been swept off the road" by any strong side wind. The "AVA-Wagen" was first publicly presented at the 1939 IAA Berlin. What happened to it after the World War I remains unclear.

Autonova Fam, 1965

"You cannot buy this car" declared a brochure at the 1965 IAA, advertising the prototype designed by two recent graduates from the Hochschule für Gestaltung (Academy of Design) in Ulm, Michael Conrad and Pio Manzù, something they had developed together with automobile critic Fritz B. Busch. In a world of small chubby cars (such as the Fiat 500), space-consuming street cars (such as the Opel Rekord) and pricey limousines (such as the BMW 1800) the Autonova development group propagated a new understanding of flexibility and functionality. Otl Aicher called it "the first car to be developed from a design perspective alone with the objective of optimizing product appeal." No comparable serial model offered the same kind of safety features such as a wide-angle, unimpeded view through large windows and a floor tray made of corrosion-proof, fiberglass-reinforced polyester, a vertically divided hatchback for easy loading and, most notably, an upright seated position and the flexibility to divide up the inside area thanks to folding seats. Today, Autonova Fam can not only be seen as a forerunner to the van concept of the late 1970s but also as a pertinent and rational alternative to the kind of car design that simply appeals to the emotions, often completely neglecting questions of overall utility. Those interested still have the opportunity of viewing an original and analyzing this design, which is still an exemplary model, at Pinakothek der Moderne's Neue Sammlung in Munich. Something definitely worth doing.

Kar-a-sutra, 1972

When, in 1972, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York held a comprehensive show on Italian design in an exhibition entitled "Italy: The New Domestic Landscape", a series of objects, prototypes and other items offering food for thought were produced in a collaborative project involving designers, furniture manufacturers as well as other companies from the industry; each item in the series could be seen as a three-dimensional statement in itself. The same applies to "Kar-a-sutra", created by the architect Mario Bellini (together with Dario Bellini and Francesco Binfaré, Davide Mosconi and Giorgio Orgilia), and directed against the notion of the car-oriented city that was widespread in the 1970s in Europe, as it was in other places in the world. Basically, the designers declared that there is no future for the car. And if it were to have a future, it would have to become more people-friendly. Accordingly, the latter's design was directed against all kinds of formalization. Flexible cushions were intended to serve couples and groups traveling in the vehicles as a kind of minimalist furniture, in a playful, experimental environment flooded with light. Quite dissimilar to that suggested by the name, the images that accompanied the project – a comic and a series of photos – were more reminiscent of a hippy-inspired school reunion than of sex in the car. The comparatively flat car, 4.88 meters long and 1.98 meters wide was designed to be able to transport up to 12 people without baggage. A continuous cupboard element running all the way around the interior was conceived to hold not only maps and guides, but also sunglasses, glasses, cameras and bags. An unfulfilled slice of automotive utopia.

Uni-Car, a test vehicle by a university workgroup, 1981

Its nose slackens, like a firmly upholstered sofa. It is made of polyurethane foam. And other parts are also spring-mounted using pliable plastics in order to boost the safety aspect, both for pedestrians and for passengers. Its windows are largely flush and embedded in order to improve the aerodynamics, thus making a complicated air-conditioning system necessary. Its shape looks like a cross between the early Mercedes T models of the 1970s and the flowing lines of a Citroën CX Break. "Uni-Car" dates from a time when station wagons were by no means considered cool but were largely reserved for workmen. Swiss motoring journalist Roger Gloor called the result a "prime example of German sobriety." The more daring shapes that had originally been planned were rejected because the prototype of "Uni-Car" was not primarily intended to be a design study in the first place. The focus of the "Auto 2000" project, initiated in 1978 by the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology (BMFT) and funded to the tune of approximately 110 million Deutschmarks, was on safety and economy of use. Here, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen each developed their own ready-to-drive technical studies. However, even today, the particularly interesting thing about the "Uni-Car" is that it was put together by a university workgroup consisting of four chairs of Automotive Engineering. The establishments involved were the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt, Technische Hochschule Aachen, Technische Universität Berlin and Universität Stuttgart. The University in Darmstadt took charge of the project and the university in Stuttgart took care of aerodynamics and design. Today, the prototype is on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Dymaxion Car, 1933

The vehicle concept wasjust waiting to happen, but the way Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) realized it is still inspiring to this day. Visionary and self-taught designer Fuller had new lifestyles in mind - new ways to build houses and design transportation. He was not prepared to accept the standard three dimensions. In 1928 as part of larger studies he was conducting at the time, he published sketches of a winged vehicle called the "4D Auto-Airplane". Together with his friend and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, he went on to build 3D models and study their streamlining.

Fuller came up with the term "Dymaxion" to describe the designs depicting his new world. Initially he only used it for unusual houses that were constructed around a central mast and then placed under tension. In addition, he was successful in winning over sponsors with his novel automotive concept. In the early days of the automotive industry, there had been repeated attempts from designers to shake the established big players out of their complacency with innovative constructions. Fuller did not have a small series in mind, but an industrial, mass production series. He collaborated with aircraft engineer and yacht designer Starling Burgess (1878–1947) for the engineering and manufacture of the first drivable vehicle. Outwardly, the "Dymaxion Car" (of which three versions were made during Fuller's lifetime) resembled a zeppelin gondola. The frame's structure and the construction technique used were on the other hand taken from boat-making, from which some of the design themes were borrowed too.

The drive train, parts of the frame, the transmission and the V8 engine were taken from a conventional Ford Tudor limousine. Although the revamped structure, reduced weight and above all lower air resistance delivered far better fuel consumption figures. However, it soon emerged that the three-wheeler was very susceptible to wind from the side and while it was able to more or less turn on the spot thanks to the maneuverable rear wheel, it was otherwise rather difficult to control. Fuller sold the first vehicle soon after making it. An accident in the vehicle would prove fatal for the driver. The two subsequent models made in 1934 were likewise unable to bring about an economic breakthrough for Fuller's unusual auto idea. But in 2010 architect Norman Foster caused a stir when he used the plans for the long-forgotten "Car # 3" to have his own, new "Car # 4" built, once again making use of an original Ford V8 engine. Automobile collector Foster had been friends with Fuller since 1971 and considered the new car homage to his mentor. "The car is so seductive that you simply have to own it and have its provocative shape in your own garage," wrote Norman Foster in the preface to the book "Dymaxion Car. Buckminster Fuller", which documents his automotive re-creation.

Voiture Minimum, 1936

Le Corbusier was enthralled by the car as a mechanical object. In his letters he commented that the architecture of his time was backward if compared to the automobile. The househe advocated was supposed to be a "machine for living". In the 1920s, the architect was convinced that the "future rejuvenation of the city is decisively linked to automotive transport," as Stanislaus von Moos writes in his biography of Le Corbusier. It was also for this reason that Le Corbusier turned to Peugeot, Citroën and Voisin for support in his plans. Car and airplane manufacturer Gabriel Voisin took over the patronage and financing of the "Plan Voisin", which was later presented in the "Pavillon de L'EspritNouvau" (a French journal of the period) in 1925 and as we all know envisaged razing the entire area between the Seine and Montmartre – bar a few individual buildings – to the ground in order to make way for a skyscraper city designed to accommodate high-speed traffic. Spanish architect Antonio Amado assembled familiar background information as well as newly research facts for his book "VoitureMinium – Le Corbusier and the Automobile". The book focuses on a design that Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret entered in the "Société des Ingénieur de l'Automobile" (SIA) competition in 1936. Amado offers an analytical examination of the 39 surviving illustrations and sketches from the project as well as the architect's intensive attempts to enter into talks with a number of manufacturers. Moreover, Amado considers to what extent Le Corbusier drew upon prevailing trends in automotive design at the time without offering a truly revolutionary alternative. A full-scale wooden model of the "Voiture Minimum" can now be found in the DesignMuseum in London.

The Taxi Project, 1976

Electromobility, an invention of our own time? Not at all. From 1897 to 1907, New York was inhabited by a famous fleet of around 1,000 electric taxis. By today's standards they were nothing more than open, carriage-like vehicles most of them with two electric engines placed on the wheel hubs. It was not the first ever speeding ticket nor the first traffic-related death in 1899 (although both incidents involved electric taxis) that spelled the end of this driving technology - which was characterized by its constant yet quiet, whirring sound. Rather it was a fire that destroyed more than 300 of the taxis. The 1907 stock market panic took care of the rest. Following a short-lived reversion to horse-drawn cabs, taxis with gas engines gained acceptance. Soon after, one cab company began to paint its taxis yellow. The history of New York's taxis has had its fair share of strikes, takeover battles and confrontations between the cab operators and the unions but the New York regulatory authority, the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), would later unite the sector by introducing the color yellow as a compulsory standard, which today constitutes an indispensible component of New York's urban image. Ever since, there have been continuous considerations not only of the development of the automobile, but the yellow-cab system too. Just recently, an initiative from New York Mayor Bloomberg to switch New York's taxi world over to hybrid vehicles failed. A people's vote on the "Taxi for tomorrow", forced through by Bloomberg himself, ended in embarrassment. It was not the triumphant concept by Turkish manufacturer Karsan that won the vote outright but a Nissan NV 200, which will now be the standard model for New York taxis for the next ten years. A comparatively trivial but economical van will now become the successor of the gas-guzzling limousines. As early as 1976, Argentine architect and designer Emilio Ambaszjoined forces with the Museum of Modern Artin an attempt to find a vehicle fit for the job as part of the "Taxi Project". Amongst others, Volvo and Alfa Romeo also took part in the search. The Alfa, an austere, highly functional mini-bus, was designed and constructed by Ital Design. Even at that time, it was a matter of building economical cars with lower emissions, achieving greater accessibility for the disabled and security and comfort for both the driver and their passengers. Contrary to plans, the "Taxi Project" would not lead to the manufacture of an improved taxi model"before the end of the decade", as Ambasz had hoped in 1976.

"Concept One", 1994

"It would not have taken much and then the audience at the premiere would have begun to shout 'Build it, build it'," reported the Frankfurter AllgemeineZeitung in January 1994. But what had happened? Volkswagen, the first foreign carmaker and the one to have already established its own automotive manufacturing plant in the USA back in 1978 (which then closed again in 1990 following its failure) had presented an unusual study called "Concept One" at America's most important motor show in Detroit. It was the product of new stringent environmental legislation in California, which was intended to push though zero-emission vehicles at the start of the 1990s. The study had been conducted by the experimental design studio, which had been operated by VW and Audi in California's Simi Valley for a short time.

A team supported by CEO Ferdinand Piëch and which included among others the late head of designfor both Audi and Ford, J Mays, came up with a new interpretation of the VW beetle. Its role model had brought it to cult status in the USA when it became a star of the silver screen in 1968 in Disney's "The Love Bug". The designer took the curiously impractical shape of the original "beetle" as a starting point and then transformed it into an up-to-date design object. The underlying idea was to use design to smooth over the constructive. And so, "Concept One" came to life out made of interpenetrative arch segments (front section, the line of the roof and the protruding wheel housings). At first public enthusiasm – in the USA as in Europe –appeared boundless. Retro automotive design had already been attempted in small production series by Japanese manufacturers such as Nissan, but now "Concept One" would result in the "New Beetle", a serial car. Soon, thanks to lobbyists, there was no more talk of the zero-emission idea and the above-mentioned Californian legislation was withdrawn. From a show car presented as a PR gimmick, they suddenly had a completely new idea for a product. The design team led by HarmutWarkuss, whose purist, sleek lines were fundamentally bound by other ideas, was now developing the design for the serial car in Wolfsburg. The "New Beetle" should adhere to the guidelines and proportions of "Concept One", but at the same time follow the regulations of the Golf IV platform, not to mention legal standards and safety procedures. There were around four years between the first presentation of the study and the market launch. An unexpected commercial success on the American market was followed, however, by a quick drop in enthusiasm. At the time, designer Marcus Botsch described the "New Beetle"as the "most up-to-date technology in a guise that creates a feeling of nostalgia" just as he had the iMac in 1998, not knowing of course that the new Mini and Fiat 500 would take the retro boom to a whole new level. It all began with "Concept One" and ever since emotion has being calling the tune in automotive design.

"O21C", 1999

It was a generational thing. Colorful and glamorous and at the same time slightly purist too. When the "O21C" concept car was presented at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1999, J Mays, Ford's design director commented: "We have developed a distinct approach with this car – and if you don't get the O21C, don't worry - you probably weren't meant to." He was referring of course to the generation of under-21s. It was a car for the young generation as it were, on whom the traditional notions of luxury prior to the turn of the century were allegedly lost. Mays ventured an unusual step by affording a great deal of freedom to a designer who did not come from the automotive industry, something that in spite of numerous attempts by architects and designers to realise their own automotive designs was yet to lead to the kind of success they had hoped for.

Yet something else changed in the 1990s: Up to that point different types of cars had been created for different target groups, the bigger these were the better.Motorization, shape and features were designed to correspond to certain types of buyer.Accordingly, some vehicles were luxurious, some compact and others elongated.By using platforms and common technical building blocks and components, brands were nowable to develop more and more niche products with small roll-outs, and so individual compounds were created. Elegance and orientation of practice took a back seat.

At just 3.6 meters long, some critics considered the O21C a late renaissance for that small car so symbolic of former East Germany, theTrabant, in its spirit of design. The vehicle, particularly rounded in its shape was supposed to have a baggage compartment and instead of boring headlights a framed front section of gleaming LED light. The interior boasted single upholstered seats and the dashboard instruments were made by Ikepod Watch, Marc Newson's watchmaking company. The bright paintwork (initially orange, later resprayed in bright green) was intended to gloss over Henry Ford's oldsaying that "any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." Whether Ford would then be able to win over a new audience for the market is hard to say. But the "O21C" design icon travelled the same road as many a showcar.

Tropfenwagen, 1921
Photo: Detlef Garbrecht
AVA-Wagen, 1938
Photo: DLR-Archiv Göttingen
Autonova Fam, 1965
Photo: Archivio Perini
Kar-a-sutra, 1972
Photo: Studio Castelli
Uni-Car, a test vehicle by a university workgroup, 1981, Foto:
Dymaxion Car, 1933, Courtesy, The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
Voiture Minimum, 1936, Photo: The MIT Press
The Taxi Project, 1976
Concept One, 1994, photo: Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft
O21C, 1999, photo: Ford