It is a proven fact that teenagers, the prospective car buyers, are more interested in the latest apple with a camera than in daddy´s car: cars are no longer thrilling. Sadly, I must confess that, although I´ve been a car enthusiast ever since I can remember, I feel unmoved every time I come near one of the latest models.
It´s only been a few hours that I´ve returned from the Paris Motor Show 2016, where I´ve seen the newest car models. I´ve been able to see apparently revolutionary cars such as the VW ID or the BMW X2: These concept cars are supposed to offer us a glimpse of what future models will be like and are designed to capture the public´s imagination, to test their reaction to the makes´ audacious new ideas and to thrill them. What I have seen are design lines as soulless as a Nicolas Cage performance.
What´s more, the most eye-catching cars one could find at the fair were clearly inspired by classic models, as is the case of the Mercedes Vision Maybach, a poor reproduction of the 1936 Mercedes Autobahn Courier. While it´s a fact that the one I could see in Paris sports beautiful LED lights which had not been invented 80 years ago, as far as style, sense of proportion and personality is concerned, the classic model wins by a landslide. Let alone the fact that the 1936 model was indeed manufactured and was a formidable car, while the Vision is purely an artifice, not fit for us to cruise in it.
Undeniably, taste changes, as do fads. No one would nowadays consider leaving their house wearing a bowler hat, but when it comes to automobiles there are other factors to consider.
And I am not heeding clichés here such as “cars used to have a soul” or the like, I even doubt that people have one, much less a machine! However, the fact remains that a classic car moves us.
I´ve many times wondered what a man from 1936 would think if he saw the Mercedes 540K and the Mercedes Vision Maybach parked side by side. Would he like the latter´s lines and the impressive power of its LED lights, or would he loathe its plastic-in-lieu-of-chromed-steel components and its carbon fiber imitation substituting the natural mother of pearl of the former?
I don´t know. I keep thinking that no skyscraper has ever been built that tops the Chrysler Building´s elegance, that no matter how much they try, the Norman Fosters or the Calatravas of this age will never be able to leave visitors to their buildings as awe-stricken as any regular person who enters a Gothic cathedral feels, a person who, once inside wonders how could the builders have raised such high domes and built such perfect arches to sustain them, without cranes, cement mixers or calculators.
When I go for a cruise in my Citroën SM –and in my VW Karmann before that, I like to notice children´s reactions. Being more spontaneous and honest than adults, they approach the car, their eyes brimming with wonder, they ask what car is it… they are fascinated. The model car in the first picture of this article is a case in point. It was located in the Peugeot stand in the Paris fair, in the boutique displaying the make´s objects. Why did they choose this particular model to attract the child and his or her parents and not the Peugeot 5008, which made its debut in the fair?
Not even Maserati had miniature model cars of their latest creations for display / sale in the boutique of their stand, but classic race cars as well as coupes and sedans up to the seventies.
In classic car shows, you can always find crowds of people gathering around the cars, looking at them, peeking in, talking about them… and not only your typical car lover does this. My partner is the kind of person who views cars as machines that provide a service and she never shows any sort of enthusiasm about a car. But she does recognize and say that there are certain details of classic cars that she finds amazing, such as their combination of different materials, colors, lines…
I remember when I was a teenager you could divide youngsters into four groups: those who had a poster of a Lamborghini Countach on their wall, those who had a poster of a Ferrari 288 GTO, the ones who had a poster of Sabrina Salerno and finally the ones who preferred Samantha Fox to liven up their bedroom wall. Since I am not the bishop of Brugge, it has been a while since the last time I sneaked into a kid´s bedroom, but I suspect that very few of them decorate their bedroom walls or their school folders with pictures of the newest Ferrari, or the Lamborghini Aventador or Miley Cyrus for that matter.
Children do not play with pedal cars anymore, and most of the ones who sit behind the wheel of a games console are middle aged, as I am.
Undeniably, the automobile is not the popular machine it once used to be, having of late become a target for ecologists; Volkswagen has stopped being associated with their funky Beetles and hippie vans and is now accused of gassing millions of human beings with their emissions; car races only make the front page of the news whenever there is a casualty… although it is true that all these things contribute to that loss of popularity, cars themselves have evolved towards something duller, more inexpressive.
Our surroundings affect the way we act. If you are walking on a street where every corner smells like urine and there is litter strewn all around, you will end up dropping your sandwich wrapper on the floor without remorse, taking a leak in front a building´s entrance and turning into an utter pig (albeit an inedible one). By contrast, even the rudest person will feel uncomfortable, or at least watched dropping a wrapper in a pristine floor.
They say the computer killed design. I, however, don´t believe so. It is true, though, that the more restrictions there are, the less space for creativity you end up with. Nowadays, there are so many requisites to meet for car design, that only very few shapes become possible. A car must be aerodynamic, as little aggressive to pedestrians as possible, leave room for crumple zones, it must be light but rigid, it must be easy to mass produce… there are so many limitations that alternatives are virtually non-existent.
If one has a look at a steam engine from the late nineteenth century, it is noticeable that some parts are decorated. It is not enough for piston rods to be able to withstand the forces, they are also made to be beautiful, strut bars are made in the likeness of Ionic columns. Nowadays, engines are so ugly that they cover them in a plastic casing.
If modern cars´ outward appearance is dull and bland, their interiors and the emotions they conjure at the wheel are even more so. In the presentations of the latest models that I attend as a car journalist, press conferences usually last one hour. As the saying goes “tell me what you brag about and I will tell you what you are lacking”. The car files are full of catch words such as “emotion”, “design”, “feeling”, “tradition”, “ecological”… but in actuality, the most important feature is the car´s multimedia system. If the screen in bigger than 7 inches, full of different colors, and it allows you to manage your cell phone from it, then the car is cool. Sometimes I have the feeling that what they are presenting is actually a smart phone on wheels that sits five and has a trunk, and deep down, that is what people want.
Why then this tirade? Well, because after having been to Essen Techno Classica 2016 everything I see and have seen in Paris, Frankfurt… seems bland to me. Nothing I have seen has made me go “what an awesome car!”… not the Ferrari Spider introduced in Paris 2016, nor the Tesla Model X, nor the Toyota Mirai, nor the DS special series, nor the concept cars by Mercedes, in sum, nothing that I have seen in Frankfurt or other shows. However, I still get goose bumps whenever I remember the Alfa Romeos 6C, the Miuras, the Hispano Suizas, the Bentleys Barnato… it´s a pity these don´t come with speakerphone.
Translated by Miguel Fernández Garrido.