After a spin in a vintage Ferrari, Tyler Brûlé ponders the future of car design and mobility.
It was a rainy Sunday in early April when my friend Marc generously offered to pick me up for dinner at his place on the other side of the lake. While a boat might have been a nice touch under sunnier skies, I welcomed the idea of a shuttle service as I also had a clan in tow and it would beat the tram in wind and showers. At precisely 18.30 (yes, they like an early dinner on a Sunday in Zürich) I spotted Marc in his rain slicker, ready and waiting. As I assembled my gang and gathered some treats, I noticed the shuttle had been upgraded – in a rather grand fashion. The last time I paid much attention to Marc’s wheels, they were in the boxy shape of a not-so-fresh Volvo estate. As we walked out to the street, the new purchase was gently growling kerbside in all its donkey-bronze glory – albeit still boxy.
“Well this certainly is a treat,” said my mom, fishing around for her seatbelt. “What year is it?”
“It’s from 1983 I think; I found it in Basel and I don’t think it had been taken out all that much,” said Marc, pulling out onto the silent lakeside boulevard.
From the back seat I took in all the interior elements: the chocolate-brown carpet and the cognac-leather seats. I tried to picture who the owner might have been. Perhaps the mistress of a pharma billionaire? I could see her speeding up the Autobahn for a little weekender in Baden-Baden. Or maybe it just sat elegantly in a concrete bunker high above the Rhine and made an occasional jaunt to Zürich for lunch, or Gstaad for Saturday tennis round-robins. As I’m not much of a car buff, I couldn’t quite believe this was Ferrari’s take on family transport.
A few minutes later we’d made the arc around the lake and I clocked some admiring glances as we passed Bahnhofstrasse. A young Korean chap even tried to grab a quick snap but we were already a haze of spray and mist by the time he raised his phone. As we climbed the hill and pulled into the streets of Marc’s neighbourhood I savoured the moment and wondered what will become of such Sunday drives in the near to middle future. With so much pressure on mobility in general, will these types of cars soon be banned? Will Marc and more hardcore vintage-car collectors have to apply to maintain their vehicles? And where will they be able to drive them? Having listened to more than my fair share of summits devoted to autonomous driving, it seems that there’s going to be little or no space for vehicles that don’t speak to each other. And roads won’t be able to accommodate traditional drivers who might still like to wrap their hands around the steering wheel and navigate routes under their own human, occasionally passionate, instincts.
A couple of days later, vehicle design and urban mobility came into focus during a series of meet-and-greets in Milan. One of the most interesting observations came for an industrial designer who proclaimed that mobility design isn’t going to be all liquid, streamlined shapes but that, rather, we’re heading for a very boxy future. “As speed isn’t going to be the key aspect for future personal mobility, we don’t need to have pointy vehicles,” said the designer. “City roads will all have speed limits that will be 30km/h – max. This means we’ll be looking for space efficiency and that will mean boxy shapes allowing for more headroom, bigger doors and more seats. For designers and auto brands this is a huge challenge as differentiation will be very difficult: a box is a box is a box.”
Our designer seemed frustrated by the challenge ahead but it could be argued that the industry has already found itself in a place that’s not far from where mobile-phone design has ended up. Just as a Huawei device looks quite similar to an iPhone (I take pride in my BlackBerry with its keyboard), the same goes for much in the world of automotive design: many shared platforms, similar body shapes but with different badges, and all of those hexagonal-shaped grilles across myriad brands. If personal vehicles do end up being more boxy, it’s likely that much of what will make experiences more premium will be what happens on the outside – and, most likely, the finishes and trims that can be applied to all those rolling boxes.
Funnily enough, the next time I saw Marc and his family it was our turn to host and he pulled up with a jumbo baby buggy. I contemplated its massive form and wondered how it had been able to fit in the Ferrari. “We came by tram – isn’t it obvious?” he said. “Now where can I park this thing?” As I found space for the pram under the letterboxes, I was struck by this very Swiss mobility moment. On one hand people want their private modes of transport but, on the other, they are only too happy to take trains and trams. More importantly they take pride in their infrastructure. As other cities and nations figure out how to get more people off the road, they need to make public transport feel more premium than jumping in the vintage Ferrari.
If you’re keen to discuss this topic and more then join me in Madrid at our conference in June. Hannah can sort you out with tickets; drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers and thank you for your support.