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A new Golden Age of design?

The Geneva International Motor Show, always a showcase for bespoke and luxury one-offs and concepts, is gearing up for an unprecedented year in 2015. With more than a dozen big-name super, hyper, and track-only cars from major manufacturers scheduled to be unveiled, there is a distinct disconnect to the struggling economy around Europe and the world in general. Logically however, these cars are coming at a time when wealth inequality around the world is at levels unseen since the 1920s and '30s. In that era, the top end of the car market was truly spectacular, so do these supercars represent a new "Golden Age" of luxury automobiles?

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I suppose that depends largely on perspective. From a design point of view, it would be nearly impossible to compare the freshly unveiled (and track-only) Aston Martin Vulcan to a Bugatti Atlantic or an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, as the eras they live in are so fundamentally different. But conceptually, these cars are very similar. Short-run or bespoke designs, often based on production running gear, but pushed to the absolute extreme technological capabilities of their age. But in an environment where speed, power, and technology dominate, it seems that design, or style, as it would have been called in the 1920s, has gone missing.

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Not that the Vulcan, the Audi R8, or the McLaren 675LT aren't designed—far from it—but they are fundamentally safe designs. The limited run sportscars of the 20s and 30s sought to be more than just fast, they were statements, by both the owners and the coachbuilders who made them. The hypercars of today seem to instead be trying to offend as few as possible, to avoid risking a million dollar failure, to blend in. Even Maybach, brought back from the dead by Mercedes fifteen years ago as an ultra-premium saloon to sit above the S-class, was so lacking in distinction that it has now been reigned in to the bigger Mercedes brand as a maker of stretched and bespoke S-classes.

And perhaps this is the difference between these two very similar but separate eras in automotive history—awareness. The motorcar is no longer as special as it used to be, and design is no longer restricted to the elite classes. While the industrialists of the roaring 20s were happy to show off their extraordinary wealth with an automobile, there is now a desire for more discretion and a vision of design that is dictated more by Apple than by Aston Martin.

Our very definition of beauty has changed. Technology, the invisible underpinnings below the skin, now take centre stage. Aerodynamics, the science-driven equivalent of 1920s streamlining, now dictates the body style. In a form-follows-function world, the most functional can also be the most beautiful. Appreciation of modernity, science, and technology have trumped pure aesthetics for many, and a unique race car often makes a statement more in line with modern thinking than an ostentatious road car. 

So maybe we are in a golden age of design, but just can't yet fully appreciate it. A look around the show floor in Geneva next week will surely display plenty of examples of bespoke ostentatious luxury, but rarely will these be classified as conventionally beautiful objects. The Ferrari La Ferrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 on the other hand, will be happy to sit quietly in the Palexpo and show off their technology and aerodynamics, inspiring a new generation through the art of knowledge and the subtle inference of extreme performance. In 90 years from now, these cars may be considered as beautiful as those amazing Bugattis, Alfa Romeos and Duesenbergs, all through the lens of familiarity, nostalgia, and appreciation for what was achieved with the primitive technology of the time.