The black car you see silhouetted above, doesn’t exist. It’s a symbol — a graphical representation of A Car — and was devised in 1964 when the UK’s current system of road signage was dreamt up. The idea of it depicting any specific model of car was rejected in favour of something generic that wouldn’t date. What could scarcely have been envisaged, though, when this icon of iconography first appeared, is that it would find a new relevance half a century later.
You see, Honda will soon be selling an electric car that more closely resembles the anonymous “car” from British road signs than any car since the Austin 1100. Everybody has commented on the Honda e’s retro charm, but few have picked up on the other obvious point: the way it expresses car-ness in the most obvious, elemental way. It’s quite an impressive achievement, and has me asking these questions: Who’ll be next to redefine “The Car”, and how will it look, if it happens?
When creating a new product there are several approaches a brand can take. Play it safe and follow a formula that’s derivative but demonstrably popular, or do the opposite and sire something truly radical, but at the risk of alienating potential buyers? Or, you can be really clever and create something that’s not so wild as to scare people off, but sufficiently novel to seem fresh and innovative. Judged properly, such a product can have a real halo effect on other offerings in a brand’s range.
It’s too soon to know whether the Honda e will have waves of insatiable new customers beating a path to their local dealership, but it’s certainly the most radical thing the brand has done in a long while. It’s ironic, then, that the most radical thing about it is actually how incredibly conservative its design actually is.
There’s a line in the first LEGO movie that has me collapsing into fits of barely controllable laughter every time I hear it, “we’re trying to locate the fugitive, but his face is so generic it matches every other face in our database”. Of course, as a whole, the Honda e is far from generic – but the individual components of its design actually are. Yes, it deliberately recalls the first Honda Civic, but, when launched, that model itself came pretty close to fulfilling the very definition of what “A Small Car” was bound to look like anyway.
This ‘inspired by the past’ route has been followed before. Ford, on the whim of J Mays, revealed Marc Newson’s 021c concept in 1999 and, although it handily falls into the same ‘retro-futurist’ category as other such machines that bloomed around the advent of the Millennium – New Beetle, PT Cruiser, HHR, Thunderbird etc – this was far more than an exercise in pastiche.
This was J Mays essentially expunging the last thirty years of car design fashion and returning to a fixed, stable point in automotive design. The 021c had strong1950s overtones, but only because this was the period immediately after cars experienced their most significant form change since motoring began. In fact, Back To The Future was dead right in citing 1955 as a pivotal moment in history. It was around then that The Car, as we know it today, really took its shape.
Look how quickly things changed between the ‘40s and early ‘60s. Really, the next fifty years of car design would mainly comprise fashion and technology-led variations of where we were at in the middle of the 20th century. The 021c took us right back to that point where car design was at a significant crossroads. Unveiled to depict “Modern car” in its most fundamental form, it could be seen as almost willfully plain and lacking expression, but it was this simplicity that defined it.
It seems remarkable, then, that the statement it made was only skin deep. Its cosmetics were unbound by time or taste, but its mechanical package was decidedly archaic – power came from a conventional petrol engine (the four cylinder Ford Zetec design. Other than the statement made by its looks, it really had nothing more to say. A glimpse at the entire Ford range over the last twenty years demonstrates that, in the long run, it was far from influential.
However, were the 021c released now, using electric power like the Honda e does, things would be rather different. In fact, inject a little of today’s de rigeur technology into the 021c and it would be pretty much the exact same package as Honda is bringing to the market. A car that falls directly in line with the perceived demands of today’s urban motorist, yet is shorn of the reactionary styling tropes that every new car seems to wear.
With a change as radical as the move from petrol to electric power, there comes the opportunity to utterly re-think the way a car can look. Not just in terms of style, but in overall form. As SUVs have amply demonstrated, the old convention of a three-box layout no longer gets society’s pulse racing, and that shift in tastes could be seen as natural evolution in what “car” actually means to people. Yet, freed from the constraints of having to package a bulky engine, gearbox and driveline, crash safety is pretty much the sole practical reason that nobody has yet strayed far from internal-combustion design convention.
It’s a little disappointing, really that Tesla – as handsome as its cars are – should set its design goals so low. There’s little outward sign that the Model S, X and 3 are electrically powered.
BMW was rather braver, though, with the design of the i3 and i8. When designing these, a very creditable decision was made: in producing cars that are powered like no prior BMW has been, they should look like no prior BMW. The i3 is controversial in style – some would call it gimmicky – but it’s a noble effort to at least try something different. The i8 is pretty out-there, too, but it could be argued that sports car market is a little more open to extremes of style than the family car market is.
To be honest, it’s taken rather longer than anticipated to reach the design crossroads at which we now stand. There’s more call now for “what a car is” to be redefined, with heavy pressure to reduce CO2 emissions and constant ill-defined noise about autonomy and connectivity. Even private vehicle ownership itself has been called into question.
Inevitably, though, the word on the street is that any “new form” will take years, perhaps generations, to materialize, because of the various levels of inertia that plague the automotive market. For starters, it seems that buyers don’t necessarily want to drive a car that labels them as an electric car driver – aside from those who drive electric for the statement it makes, many couldn’t care less how the thing actually moves, as long as it suits their requirements.
As a result, BMW’s bravery making the i3 so individual is unlikely to be repeated. The next compact electric BMW will be far closer to the fossil-fueled 1 Series in aesthetic: perhaps because electric cars no longer need to make a statement, but also because the 1 Series image has proven successful when sales are tallied up.
And so we come back to the beginning. The Honda e, despite its relatively high price and unspectacular driving range, is likely to fly out of the showrooms because of the style statement it makes. Or rather, doesn’t. Like the re-imagined 21st century MINI, it’s a reinterpretation of an old theme. It looks fresh without being controversial, yet familiar without being old-fashioned. It carries an ethical message of environmental compatibility, but doesn’t shout it too loudly.
Synchronise watches, everybody. This could well be the moment that automotive evolution is reset. Let’s see if the Honda e heralds inspires a quiet revolution.
[Images purloined from Honda UK, BMW UK and Oregonlive. Lede image was all my own work, though]