Avoidable Contact #96: If you can make an EV look like anything, why make it look like this?
“That’s for grandfathers who are down on their luck.”
The year was 1987, or possibly 1988, and the car was a brand-new Hyundai Excel, in the omnipresent dull red of the early dealership arrivals, questionably enhanced with a fake convertible top and equally fake “Continental kit” that looked like it stored a spare wire wheel above the rear bumper but in reality was a single wavy fiberglass piece. The quip came from my own grandfather, long retired in his late sixties, about as up on his luck as a man could get, and a devotee of the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz in its many and varied forms.
It was an era when Florida dealerships made big bank restyling bland aero-blobs of the ’80s into something that could catch the eye of the Greatest Generation. Ostensibly, the $10,000 assemblages of fake wire wheels, fabric tops, Rolls-Royce-style grills, et al. were “neoclassic,” meant to evoke a Duesenberg or Packard from more glamorous times. In practice, particularly when applied to an Eldorado Biarritz, the effect was more Ron O’Neal than Clark Gable. At one point, Granddad had a triple-white, fabric-topped Cadillac that wouldn’t have raised a single disapproving eyebrow in the modern “slab” scene, right down to the gold-spoked Daytons. It was so over the top that he couldn’t stop chuckling as he walked me around it after the purchase. “Look at this, Jack! There’s a … (stifled guffaw) Flying Lady!”
The steam ran out on the neo-classic business about 15 years back; I’ve never seen any Buick newer than the Lucerne with a full faux-convertible top, even in the South. Not a big surprise. The customers had all gone to nursing homes. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the “restyle-A-to-resemble-B” business isn’t still around—and making big cash. It’s just that the factories are involved now.
Are you a 55-year-old man driving one of the various Turbo G55 GTS Quadrifoglio $100,000 station wagons? You know, the ones that lean on the distant competition history of their makers the way Larry The Cable Guy came to lean on “Git ‘er done”? The wagons with airdams and spoilers and monobloc Brembos and everything else they need to imitate a proper sports or GT car from the ’90s? Why, what is all of that but the ugly head of neo-classicism? You don’t laugh at it the way you laughed at my grandfather’s Continental kit, but the Zoomer kids are laughing at you. They have about as much respect for your turbo minivan as you had for the Elvis-era Stutz Bearcat, and for the same reason: because the arrow of time only flies in one direction.
Of course, there’s always been big business in providing the trappings of the past to timid people. That very word that so dominated my youth—Brougham—was a throwback to the carriage days, as were so many of the styling touches used all the way to the stamped-steel era of the late ’30s and early ’40s. Some wag once wrote that formal dress starts with kings and ends up with the hired help, which is why your butler wears black tie and tails but your lawyer wears a Brioni suit and your tech overlords wear polyester athleisure designed to create the impression of having just scaled K2 in the summer. It’s the same with cars. The advanced styling is always sprung on the young and then dragged to the old, who rage—rage!—against the dying of the opera light and/or the monochromatic trim.
Nota bene, if you will, that the styling of the past is always gingerbread on the function of the present, which is why my grandfather’s Biarritz hid front-wheel-drive, an all-aluminum engine, and myriad advanced features beneath its fabric top and why the Macan GT2RS Black Burgerkingring 6:48 Edition casts the same shadow on the ground as a Honda CR-V. Yet there’s also been a dependable tardiness to that function, because real change takes time and some things don’t change at all.
In particular, the automotive world has really operated on just two paradigms for the past 50 years. The first is the Système Panhard of longitudinal engine and rear-wheel-drive; the second, the Issigonis Idea of transverse engine and front-wheel-drive. With very few exceptions (to include, ahem, the 1979 Eldorado!), the bulk of the world’s cars have taken their basic marching orders from one of these two concepts.
Ninety percent of the time you can look at a car and tell whether it’s Panhard or Issigonis. Even among the tepid, depressing world of crossovers, there’s still an easy way to know: just look at how the front wheels are positioned relative to the front bumper and the front door. Panhard crossovers have small noses and plenty of space between wheel and door, while Issigonis crossovers usually have a lot of styling tricks to disguise a long nose and shorter wheelbase.
Viewed this way, the Volkswagen ID.4, which I drove last week, is obviously an Issigonis front-driver with a transverse engine. Except it’s not; it was engineered from the ground up as an electric vehicle. There’s no engine at all. Rather, there’s a pair (or quartet) of axles/motors at the wheels, fed by batteries in the floor and moderated by various systems in between. It could look like a Dymaxion if it wanted to, or a rocketship, or a Lotus 49, or something else entirely.
Instead, it looks like a bland crossover, because VW thinks people want that. That’s the reason. To keep the buyers comfortable, and to make sure older people, who are the only ones with money in today’s Brazil-style American economy, don’t run screaming from the showrooms like Martin Landau in that Space:1999 episode where the aliens have hypnotized everyone but him. There is no, repeat no, moral or artistic difference between this and the Gazelle replicar, which looked like a front-engined MG TD but was actually a rear-engine VW Beetle. Scratch that, there’s one difference: the MG TD was a considerably newer design than the Beetle, so it was actually a case of accidental avant-garde styling masquerading as neo-classical throwback. I don’t know what to think about that.
Long-time readers of this column know that I am hugely skeptical regarding electric vehicles, mostly because we’ll need alien technology to make them as usable as a 1977 Cutlass Supreme, but I do think that there are some improvements to be made by letting the engineers optimize them for the unique advantages of electric propulsion. As an example, the EV is probably the only way to make a snub-nosed van like the old Corvair Greenbrier actually meet modern standards of crash safety and dynamic behavior. In fact, the basic “skateboard” concept underlying pretty much all EVs just screams for van-style packaging, particularly since everyone wants to ride at Escalade eye level nowadays. Just put everything under the people, and put the people on top. You can have an Odyssey’s worth of space in a CR-V footprint, or a CR-V’s worth of space in 160 tidy inches of length.
There’s simply no legitimate reason for an EV to have a “hood.” There’s nothing under there! Some of you will point out that the same thing is true of rear-and-mid-engine sports cars, but in that case the “purpose” is to be a sports car, which implies everything from center of gravity to certain choices regarding wheelbase and track. Very few people would want to lap Laguna Seca in a Dymaxion—but there’s no reason not to crawl through city traffic in one.
No doubt VW and the other automakers are copying Tesla here. The Model S is basically an squinty-eyed take on Generic Giugiaro/Fisker Sedan, and it has done splendidly. The follow-up cars all have some sort of hood/bonnet to them, although it is more vestigial with every new design. At this rate we could be at Full Dymaxion by the year 2056. The automakers have also certainly noted that electric cars with more honest styling, such as the Leaf and Bolt, primarily sell to people who are … well, the harshest word I can use for them in a family publication is probably “Redditors.”
I’m afraid that EV styling, much like EV production, represents yet another variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As long as everyone styles their EVs like the worst of internal-combustion cars, they will all have access to an appropriate share of the market. If a company breaks ranks with an EV-optimized design that isn’t gorgeous, they will sink beneath the waves. If the design is gorgeous, however, well … at that point it’s 1984, and you’re trying to sell Cadillac deVilles against the new Audi 5000.
Have we seen this movie before, even more recently? Why yes, we have, with hybrids. Anyone remember the General Motors Two-Mode Hybrid Tahoe and Yukon? I do. They were great vehicles, genuinely better and more usable than their non-hybrid counterparts. They deserved to take over the world. Instead, they got the chop almost immediately, written off as showroom paperweights. The Toyota Prius, on the other hand, didn’t deliver much more economy or durability than a Corolla would have, given a similar shape and tires. Yet it was the second-generation Prius that captured the world’s imagination. Because it looked like the future. Because it was shamelessly optimized for the tech contained within. Because it could not be mistaken for anything else.
My grandfather had another saying, one he would repeat any time we visited some friend of his with an oceanfront home or some kind of yacht: “When you have millions, it doesn’t matter.” In this case, the automakers don’t have millions of dollars invested into EVs; they have billions. They’re all betting the house on it. Which is stupid. But there are bad kinds of stupid, and good kinds. What distinguishes the good kinds? Style. If you’re going to put all your chips on an EV, put them on an EV with style. Otherwise, you’ll just look like an automaker down on his luck.