Between Luxury And Paradise
Are we in the midst of a fundamental shift in the luxury market? For years sport/luxury sedans have been growing in size, weight and power like American cars did in the 1960s and 1970s. More power. More electronics. More size. More stuff. It can’t continue forever. It reminds me of a discussion I had with BMW’s then-chief designer, Chris Bangle at the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show. He made a statement that today looks prescient: “Things changed on 9/11 in ways that we may not realize for at least a decade, and in ways I can’t yet predict.” He didn’t mention CO2 reduction, fuel economy or congestion charges in large cities, all things that were hot topics at the time. Bangle saw something more profound on the horizon that may cause people to rethink what is important. He’s not the first to think so.
More than a decade ago, jeweler Nicola Bulgari commissioned Lotus to develop a new breed of luxury car on the backbone of a stretched Lotus Elan M100. About the size of the then-current 3 Series BMW, though taller, it had the interior space of a 7 Series. This was accomplished by splaying the outboard rear seats slightly (the center seat was recessed) so that passengers could stretch their legs around and under the front seats without obstruction. The use of a front-drive powertrain also meant there was no large tunnel running down the center of the floor. Unfortunately, the prototype was about as stylish as a bread van, and more concept than car. Bulgari went on to other things.
Ironically, in 1997 I worked up a vaguely similar vehicle for Lotus. About the size of a 5 Series BMW, though wider, the “4+1” passenger car used an extruded aluminum spaceframe. Tall sill sections and a structural center tunnel (the car was rear-drive) created wells into which passengers would place their feet. Another variant built a floor atop the sill and central tunnel, hiding an underfloor storage area, and making it possible to carry a center passenger in the rear seat comfortably on long journeys. The front seats were mounted to the outer sills and central tunnel to create under seat foot room, and the front seatbacks were scooped out to increase knee room. The rear seats mimicked those on the Bulgari prototype.
The idea was to create a sport/luxury sedan with greater efficiency, competitive comfort levels, “command” seating heights, unexpected versatility, and a driving experience unspoiled by too much weight or technology. The platform also could support an SUV or a fastback four-door coupe. As it was, this idea was too ambitious for a small-volume maker like Lotus, and would have needed a lot of work to make it economically viable at a time the company was fighting for its life.
However, the main idea, combining lightness and minimalist luxury in a way that refocused awareness on the joy of travel and driving, is still relevant. The never-to-be Lotus was designed to do things well, and to do them simply. Yet, the industry seems to be following the French proverb, “It is impossible to overdo luxury,” when perhaps we should be listening to the words of the late Doug Larson. A British middle-distance runner who won gold medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, Larson was quoted as saying: “Utility is when you have one telephone, luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three—and paradise is when you have none.”