Many (if not most) industries’ main battle is innovation. Since its very early days, competition in the car industry has been about being the fastest, the lightest, the best looking, the most reliable, the safest… However, as manufacturers chased superlatives throughout the years, some dominant designs have been immortalised and certain features have become a cult. This is part of growing as a company and building a brand and a following, no matter the industry or context. Just as the three stripes are mandatory for Adidas, the kidney-shaped front grill allows you to recognise a BMW even before you can see its badge.
However, while the BMW nostrils are a timeless and superficial design feature that is easily adaptable as decades go by, other characteristics are harder to maintain over time and a rich history may become a trap. This is especially true when cult is related to technology, rather than design. Still taking BMW’s example, they have just given us their first front-wheel drive (FWD) model – the 2-series Active Tourer – going against its own anti-FWD campaigns and enthusiasts have been left half-disappointed, half-offended. I am a BMW fan myself and I applaud their preference for the rear-wheel drive layout, however I understand that they must listen to the market’s needs and some logical decisions must be taken if these companies are to be sustainable. On a FWD car no space is taken by the transmission tunnel inside the cabin, the car’s layout is tidier and more compact and the 2-AT becomes a more practical solution (for whoever woke up needing a practical BMW in their life!).
The biggest prisoner of its own heritage, however, is Porsche and its most important model, the 911. The 911 is the most outstanding case of incremental evolution, having kept the rear-engine architecture for more than 50 years. It has always been sold to us as a recipe with clearly defined ingredients that evolves over time. But how many of these ingredients can be changed by evolution? Where does heritage stop being an asset and start becoming a hindrance to innovation?
Along the years, fans have been outraged by the move to water-cooling in the late ‘90s, the simultaneous loss of the round headlights (which thankfully came back), the electric power steering system in the 991 and the lack of a manual gearbox in the GT3. Very logical reasons are behind these evolutions, namely greater efficiency and increased performance (except for those 996 headlights – what was that all about?!). However, purists do not care about the logical side of such a passionate car.
Can you imagine the disappointment and outrage when Stuttgart confirms what the press has been announcing for a while: the introduction of turbos in the entire 911 range? If electric power steering or water-cooling raised eyebrows, the death of the naturally-aspirated 911 is a major make-over and a full-on blasphemy! Will electronic systems be clever enough to manage the turbo and give us that delicious power delivery along the rev range? And what about that loud, rough flat-six cough?
Logical hats on now: Porsche and other manufacturers have the EU bullying them heavily on fuel economy and emissions, while they must still keep customers happy with more and more horsepower. What are they supposed to do but resort to turbos and other witchcraft?!
The world is becoming a weird place. Or maybe I am starting to become old (I’m 24 though…) but the next Ferrari mid-engined berlinetta will be a Turbo, the new Ford GT proudly presents a V6, AMGs and BMW Ms are all going for smaller displacement turbo’ed engines… I wonder what will disappear next. Will it be the Aston Martin V12? The 4wd Audi RSs? The spartan Lotus construction?…
Maybe we, the purists, are the ones who are wrong by wanting our future dreams to be shaped by philosophies of the past. Times move on, the world changes and the market evolves. Let’s hope cars keep impressing us! In the meantime, we can drown our sorrows in the second-hand car market.