If asked about your dream car, you wouldn’t immediately think of electric mobility or self-driving vehicles. You’d think of extravagant designs, smart interiors and maybe surreal gadgets. A tiny, elite team of designers and creatives makes such dreams come true.
An automobile shown off to good effect triggers reactions from the deepest parts of our psyche. We sense an attraction and imagine a symbiotic fusion. In the early 20th century, Italian futurists spoke of the “birth of something new,” with human beings transformed into hybrids possessing the upper body of a man and the lower body of a horse. Peter Sloterdijk described human beings’ relationship with cars as expressing “the faster and more kinetically powerful self.” Intoxicating acceleration, the sensuality of design – cars’ aesthetic nature is undeniable. And they have always been important status symbols that unerringly arouse desires and voyeurism. We recognize human traits in our cars and give them attributes such as “sporty” or “aggressive.” And why not continue tricking your brain with visuals and added power?
For a long time, customization was regarded as a country cousin, a hobby for individuals or groups of enthusiasts on the weekend. The Opel Manta and Golf GTI fan clubs will never be forgotten, racing on the roads in their class struggles, and also to show the Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs what was what. A relic from those days is the legendary GTI Meeting on Lake Wörth in Austria, where even today it’s important to have the fattest exhaust pipe and the biggest spoilers. However, deals are no longer struck on the streets, parking lots and out-of-the way filling stations, but on the internet and accompanied by glossy brochures. Now it’s a billion-dollar business. You’ll find chip-tuning, car wraps and custom paint jobs, sound design, monster wheels and more – Germany now has a whole industry making a living from creating exceptional designs. Exports are booming. In Germany the sector now includes around 1,000 specialized firms. Many of them are regular exhibitors at the IAA. The best-known include Abt, Alpina, Brabus, G-Power, Gemballa, Hamann, Irmscher, Lorinser and Ruf. But OEMs are also in the business, e.g. Mercedes-Benz AMG, Audi Sport, Bentley’s Mulliner division, Chrysler’s SRT, Volkswagen R and BMW M offer power and performance in abundance.
For the ultimate in vehicle design, customers with deep pockets go to firms such as Mansory. This German company is regarded as one of the most exclusive customizers in the world, and realizes the most extreme wishes of its clients. They inhabit a world where a common Lamborghini or Koenigsegg represents insufficient one-upmanship, and therefore their vehicles receive special treatment. Here, SUVs, cabriolets and sports cars can be given a completely new interior and fitted with extra compressors, gull-wing doors, eye-catching paint jobs, gold, exotic ray skin, electrically extendible features or switchable glass. The US equivalent would be the guys from West Coast Customs, who are known all over the world. They implement eccentric ideas – such as the white sports car that appears to hug the ground. Then there is also the interior overkill with the logos of exquisite brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc.
Super-styled cars are the prey of urban car spotters who take photographs and film footage of exotic vehicles with the aim of earning money from exposure on YouTube and Instagram. The fan community – especially that in the US – runs into the millions and hungers after unique visuals. Customization has a long tradition there. In the 1920s, during the Prohibition, smugglers used specially adapted cars to escape from the police. So it comes as no surprise that the dream car factory is centered on Hollywood. Designers like Robert Eugene Winfield, Syd Mead and George Barris are regarded as the originators of custom cars – individually remodeled vehicles providing the space for presenting a huge ego. They became the idols of an industry and even today they still inspire visionary studies, films and advertisements.
Many designers have dreamed of building a car that can swim. And some of them have done exactly that. The sQuba from Rinspeed really can go for a dip, to a depth of ten meters. It is powered by three rear engines. One of them drives the car on land, and the other two power the propellers for underwater travel. They are supported by two powerful Seabob water jets in the front of the vehicle. As soon as the car enters water, it switches to aquatic mode. It dives when the door is opened a little way to allow water to enter. So the passengers get wet. Air is supplied via a compressed-air system like that used by divers. The oxygen for the two occupants, who have to wear diving masks when submerged, is sufficient for a good hour under water.
sQuba was created by Frank Rinderknecht from Switzerland. He’s an original among the automotive futurists. No-one else has been building outlandish concept cars for as long as he has. Rinderknecht founded his firm in 1977 while studying mechanical engineering in Zurich. During its initial years the company produced vehicles for disabled users and sold car sunroofs. Rinderknecht later switched to building custom cars and became the exclusive representative of brands such as AMG and AC Schnitzer in Switzerland. His bizarre and always spectacular cars never missed the Geneva Motor Show. None of them has ever gone into series production. But that is not the intention. In that respect Rinspeed is making a great job of its own marketing. The concept cars principally act as advertising for the firm’s development expertise: building prototypes, small series and special series, and developing mobility and sustainability concepts. And alongside cars, Rinspeed has also designed motorboats and helicopters.
However, the current trends in autonomous mobility concepts as the nerve of the automotive future could become a turn-off. The joy of driving is being eroded by an algorithm that thinks defensively and abides by the rules. There are no more adventures to be had on the roads. Will the desire for more individuality and superb styling have any chance in an autonomous future? Will OEMs and customizing firms come up with new distinguishing features that appeal to our instincts? Who knows, we could see a totally different development, the digital democratization of customization: customers versed in programming and the latest printing technologies could become the new creatives using 3-D printers to implement new ideas and improvements for their car’s exterior and interior. If something doesn’t quite fit, the part is just printed again – and again, until the aerodynamics of the newly designed tail fins are just right, the wheel rims have the required shimmer, and the transparent dashboard becomes a worthy replacement for polished wood.
Start-ups will develop business models enabling customers to acquire the new customizing features via a kind of app store, and to adapt them by themselves as needed. The imagination knows no bounds: personal engine sound and a specially composed voice for the GPS, visual projections on the windshield, user-defined interior lighting and holographic information, all the way to individually adjustable seats. There are practically no limits on today’s digital customization in the age of self-driving vehicles. And if we get an attack of nostalgia, we can still have a “vintage driving experience” for a fee – thanks to the customization – and take the wheel ourselves, without a whole load of electronics but with a lot of sensuality.
Stage Photo: © Rinspeed AG
The IAA 2021 will focus on innovative mobility in all its forms. Intelligent traffic solutions, visionary ideas, automobiles and the entire mobility chain. Everything that will shape the mobility of tomorrow and turn it into an experience. Come to the show!