Germany once ruled the auto industry, but all that’s left today are nods to history, macho fascias, broad haunches, sagging sides – and cheating on emissions tests, says John Jervis
Yes, I know, all cars today are gleaming, oversized and ugly, springing straight from concept board to production. Rigour has been abandoned for curvaceous fascias and hunched, streamlined forms – in pursuit of the unique, all have become the same.
This wasn’t always the case. Most national car industries can boast of classics, in popular and professional estimation, that possess a character that seems rare in today’s offerings. And, growing up in Europe in the 1980s, it was Germany that ruled the roost, producing iconic motors across almost all segments of the market.
Volkswagen’s angular Golf, crisply designed by Italian legend Giorgetto Giugiaro, had been intended as the new Beetle, but evolved by the late 1970s to become king of the hatchbacks. It spawned an entire motoring genre, the “hot hatch” – with Bertone’s Polo as its discreet lieutenant. BMW bestrode the world of stylish sedans, while its M series – the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” of sports cars – was an exercise in understated potency.
Mercedez-Benz was the dignified choice of company directors and ambassadors, and an innovator in safety and diesel engines – but its covetable SL roadsters also achieved starring roles in Beverly Hills Cop and Miami Vice. Porsche’s 911 was the ultimate 1980s sports car for those unwilling to succumb to Italian machismo. Audi competed with Saab as the thinking-person’s marque, yet also came up trumps with its four-wheel-drive Quattro. The list could go on. And on.
All this has been thrown away. German manufacturers had the opportunity to do so much more – they bestrode the world as their western rivals crumbled. Their cars had great design alongside reliability, performance and meteoric sales. Yet innovation began to go out the window. Almost all the models mentioned above had their origins in the 1970s, or even before. By the time the 1990s rolled around, their aesthetics were bloated – just compare the softening of the Golf across the decades, or, worse still, the 911, which slumped into a toad-like mediocrity while Porsche hawked its brand in the SUV market.
All that is left today is a series of lazy nods to history, accompanied by increasingly macho fascias, broad haunches and sagging sides. Current Mercedes-Benz cars are child’s caricatures with enlarged, grilled snouts; BMW is lambasted even by supporters for failing to do any more than increase the size of bonnets; Audi’s efforts are indistinguishable from Asian and American competitors. When Mercedes tried to come up with an entirely new product – the revived Maybach – it was unremarkable in all aspects barring its utter commercial failure.
A new approach to design seems too much to ask. And even technological innovation seems patchy. Despite advances in materials, today’s Golf weighs 50 per cent more and is 15 per cent longer than its predecessors. The Toyota Prius was launched way back in 1997. Audi launched its disastrous Duo in the same year (total sales: 60), finally producing a viable hybrid in 2007, with others German manufacturers stumbled into the field a few years later. The Nissan Leaf beat them when it came to electric cars – German models have only become available over the past few months. BMW’s recent electric i3 and remote-parking 7 Series suggest it might finally be overcoming these complacencies, but it’s still difficult to imagine German companies competing with Google or Tesla in breadth of vision or innovation in areas such as batteries or self-driving technology.
And now it turns out that the Volkswagen has been utilising software to cheat diesel emission tests – an area in which its cars had a strong reputation for economy – and perhaps more. The company’s dominance – now largely dependent on its historical reputation for engineering excellence, reinforced with endless, cack-handed repetition of design cues – has endured, despite its cars gravitating toward the bottom of reliability tables and the top of price brackets. But this grand illusion has now been undermined, perhaps fatally.
German cars are successful, but so are Barrett homes. After architecture, the presence of cars has perhaps the single largest visual impact on the aesthetics of our streetscapes, quite apart from the automobile’s sweeping influence on the development of our urban environments over the last century. The German car industry was, in the 1980s, in the strongest position to push on, to change, to improve, to innovate, but instead chose merely to capitalise on its commercial dominance. Its continued success is something to mourn.
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