We were in Frankfurt last week for the press days of the Auto Show and there were three big take-aways for us: a diminished show as the format’s relevance wanes; a tipping point in European electric car design; and a renewed recognition of the value of reimagining rich design icons from the past (particularly if they came from Giorgetto Guigiaro!).
Since 1951 press and public have come to the Frankfurt Auto Show every other year to see the latest car designs. In the nineties and the noughties the fair swelled to be the largest in the world, with the major German brands taking a hall each for spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) shows of mite. Two years ago there was a marked decline, and this year many major brands didn’t show at all: FCA, Toyota, and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi brands — and Peugeot, Citroen, DS, Kia, Volvo, Bentley, Ferrari and Rolls Royce. Those that were present took less space and had less extravagant stands (and apparently paid much less for them too…). The diverging needs of twenty-first century trade show and twenty-first century public engagement experience are encapsulated by the industrial scale and flavour of the buildings and of many of the stands at Frankfurt, maybe more so than any other event on earth. Just like the big department store in a small town, people are electing to go-online instead, visiting more specialist stores, or enjoying a far more leisure-centric retail experience instead, and whilst they might still go to the local department store sometimes, they no longer spend so much. So it is much the same with auto show visitors; car brands would not be deserting them if the public still went there to choose their next car. Trade and press can realise much of what they want remotely also, as well as directly at brand specific events, or at more dedicated trade shows or conferences. Fundamentally, being a car show is no longer enough reason to be.
But, whilst the writing might be on the wall, and there were less debuts in total, amongst the new cars last week were more significant designs than we’ve seen at a show in a long time. At Frankfurt in 2019 there was less but more...
THE biggest new-car debut was the Volkswagen ID.3 — the most important new production car design at the show, if not the year. Volkswagen’s first dedicated electric car design will sell for less than 30,000 Euros, have a range of over 200 miles (and at a higher price for one with a range of 340 miles), and has a package the same length and width as a Golf (it's 100mm taller because of the battery under the cabin floor) whilst offering more cabin space and the same size trunk. Its exterior design is very orthodox, the key ‘newness’ coming from the “1st edition” lively colour and material design presented on the 8(!) cars on the Volkswagen stand — its primary design strategy seems to have been to be as acceptable for as many people as possible who have decided that they want an electric car. These attributes may be prosaic, but in combination will likely underpin strong commercial success and make the ID.3 a massively important new car design, even if it lacks the distinction or stature of the Golf and Beetle designs whose lineage it extends, and whose iconic status Volkswagen is trying to associate the new car with.
Just as the ID.3 is the first dedicated pure electric Volkswagen car, so the Taycan debuted in Frankfurt as the first all electric Porsche, making it also a very important new car design for Porsche and for the wider European premium car sector. Conceptually this new design sits between the 911 and Panamera; whilst 100mm shorter and 50mm lower than the Panamera, the design reads even smaller with more plan shape in the cabin and at its ends, and a more shrink-wrapped body afforded in part by not needing to package a large petrol engine at the front. It’s height in particular is notably low for an EV, at 1380mm it is just 80 mm more than a 992, and this has been enabled by what Porsche calls “foot garages”: recesses that dip into the floor and battery pack for passengers’ feet to enable them to sit low comfortably. Porsche might be renowned for their rear-mounted flat-six engines, but ironically the lack of petrol engine makes for a short nose that in turn enables it to have more 911-like proportions than any other four door Porsche, the unusually tapering rear reinforcing this.
The significance of the debuts of the ID.3 and Taycan stem from them being the first dedicated electric car designs from these influential brands, and the first thoroughly executed and normative electric car designs: they look like being the electric car tipping points for mainstream and sports-luxury European car design.
Whilst the Taycan design speaks 911 in a way that can be traced to its 1960s forbearer, and the ID.3 nods to Golf — a soon to be eighth generation design that still red-threads to its 1974 Guigiaro original — both designs only make subtle reference to their design heritage. But several design debuts at Frankfurt made far more play of their past; the Hyundai 45 EV concept literally reimagined Guigiaro's Pony Coupe concept from 1974 (45 years ago...) with a subtly distinct, sharp creased, compact but spaciously practical coupe that was much admired. It thus reminding the world that Hyundai have a heritage to celebrate, and is perhaps part of a groundswell of car designs referencing the 1970s too.
And, another Guigiaro design from the 1970s was referenced at Frankfurt, with the BMW Vision M Next taking the 1978 M1 (and the 1972 Turbo concept) and presenting this in new form as a direction for future BMW M cars. Like the Hyundai, the BMW design unusually presents a very different, more delineated and sheer surfaced form language to all other production and show car designs we've seen from the brand before; either these Hyundai and BMW show cars are blind allies or unusually strong changes of design direction for their brands.
But the car that played the design heritage card most strongly in Frankfurt, and one that also stands also as one of the most significant design debuts, was the (very) long awaited all-new Land Rover Defender. Replacing an iconic design from over seventy years ago is not a common occurrence — it must have been both an exciting design project whilst being fraught with a heavy burden of contradictory expectations that could never all be met: to reimagine the design idea of the original, or to reimagine the design aesthetic. Ultimately the world has changed such that the Defender could never be the simple and rugged design today that it was in 1948; all cars must have a level of sophistication demanded by market, legislation, and production parameters, so the design errs on the image of simple and rugged more than on being genuinely simple and rugged. Even if it does truly realise some of these fundamental Defender qualities in new ways, it is an aesthetic, not an ideological, homily. The new Defender also steps not just from the original Landy but also from the Discovery 4 to realise a uniquely strong market proposition that perhaps might bring Land Rover out from the shadow of Range Rover. With a range of colour and trim based versions and or packs surely in the wings, this product looks well placed to do good business in all territories, not least the US.
Will we be back in Frankfurt again in two years asked our hotel manager when we checked out. It's a good question we said; we hope so, but perhaps not unless shows and brands work together to find out how to make them relevant for the twenty twenties by finding more themes shared across the event space, having more transparency for visitors to gain valuable and interesting information they'd not gain elsewhere, and by adopting new ways to engage in two-way dialogue instead of the current one-directional brand broadcasting approach. Fingers crossed...