Generic car, parked

Who will be next to redefine the car?

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.

Ford 021c

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]

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18 responses to “Who will be next to redefine the car?”

  1. Kamil K Avatar

    I think we will see more something like a taller wagon but with a less sloping back, and a little trunk outline. Not quite a hatchback but not a full out wagon, with some sedan thrown in. Sort of like that Lexus LF-1 Limitless Concept or the Jaguar I-Pace.

    Oddly, the two-box-ish shape will look something like cars did in the 1920s and 1930s.

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        Call me crazy, but I like this… sort of.

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          Probably needs to be longer to improve the proportions

          1. Zentropy Avatar

            Yes, but it reminds me of an AMC Eagle sedan or Subaru Outback sedan– just a little too tall for its length, which looks cool in a way.

    1. rbennet27 Avatar

      I’m okay with this concept though.

    2. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      And be the same height.

  2. neight428 Avatar

    The i3’s statement was mostly “look at me, I’m making a statement”. Bad timing in that Tesla came out making the same statement more eloquently and ostentatiously.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      You beat me to pointing out the Imp, but I might be biased…

      I’m still a fan of the BMW Z13 concept from 1994, although it is not the most practical thing ever. The Honda is a bit disappointing with the changes that have been made from the concept IMO – losing the big wheel arch flares, and very flat sides. I imagine the latter is for better crash safety, but they should have made the whole car wider to keep the sleeker look of the concept.

      1. Vairship Avatar

        I’m sure Sunbeammadd will be along shortly to point out it’s really a Sunbeam Imp, not a Hillman, and that it was indeed HM Government’s scheme to force the shape into the subconscious mind, thereby supporting Linwood 😉

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          You can’t see it, but the car pictured above has twin headlights (as in 2 each side) so is more of a Singer Chamois, just to add to the controversy, although it is someone’s local conversion of an Imp.

          This is a poor quality image but good for showing the Datsun 1000’s very similar profile.

        2. sunbeammadd Avatar

          I’m just pleased that the Department for Transport understands the way forward is rear engines. This front wheel drive thing will be a flash in the pan.

          1. Vairship Avatar

            Well, Chevy certainly believes so for all their compact cars: And obviously air-cooling is the way to go too.

      2. Tiller188 Avatar

        For a second there I thought that Imp on the trailer had a bit of a rear end lift and a serious wide-track conversion. Not sure whether relieved or disappointed when I figured out what was actually going on.

        1. outback_ute Avatar

          That is what I thought as I was walking back to the van, so snapped the shot. How about this one from another trip? Had a car missing the entire rear suspension & drivetrain, so used an old trailer axle to hold it up to roll onto the trailer.

  3. Zentropy Avatar

    The Honda E looks like a good direction to me. Design-wise, I want to see more greenhouse, more upright cabins. I’m sorely tired of the swept-back, gun-slit windows and enormous C pillars. I want more round headlights and fewer pinched, angry eyes. Simple, elegant grilles instead of gaping carp mouths. Hell, maybe just cars that look friendly instead of pissed off or constipated.

    Or maybe I need to stop waiting for them to build something that already exists– I just need to find a good Volvo 140. Screw progress.