If one wants to define the future, they must study the past. This famous quote by the philosopher Confucius is probably at the back of every car designer’s mind.
Many people recognise the link between heritage, the present, and the future — and nowhere are these connections more visible than at an event such as the illustrious Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este at Lake Como in Italy. So obvious is this concept, that these days car makers use events such as Villa d’Este, Pebble Beach, and the Goodwood Festival of Speed to unveil concept cars and prototype models.
BMW revealed its new 8 Series concept, surrounded by the beautiful architecture of Villa Erba (the house next door to Villa d’Este, although we use the word “house” very loosely here). The 8 series sees the return of a badge, which disappeared in 1999, and its debut shows that while there might be lots of talk of downsizing and small, urban-friendly vehicles, there is still a big market for luxury and performance.
And BMW wants in on it. “We are committed to upper-segment opportunities,” says Ian Robertson, BMW board member for sales and marketing. The company could sit back and leave this market to its Rolls-Royce subsidiary, but no, it wants its own slice of the pie, and, to this end, will have the new 8 Series, together with an M8 and the luxurious X7 SUV, not to forget the super-executive 7 Series.
The 8 Series might be only a concept now, but it is certainly not just a design study. The car is well into its development phase, and will go on sale in 2018. The company even ran a prototype of the M8 ahead of the start of the famous Nurburgring 24-hour race recently.
The 8 Series indicates a dramatic design change for the company, although we fully expect some aspects to be toned down substantially in the final production model. It also signals the start of a new era at Munich. “In the next two years we will have the biggest, most comprehensive change ever seen in this company,” Robertson says. The promise of a change that big means a complete revision of the model line-up, along with some major new models, such as the X2 crossover.
The lawns of Villa d’Este and its neighbour are undoubtedly beautiful places to debut a new concept, but they are also a place to gain inspiration from the past, from legendary automobiles that were icons both of their time and of automotive history.
Few are more beautiful than the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Prototipo (prototype), the car that was judged best of show by the Concorso jury. Like the 8 Series, this was also a concept when it first debuted back in 1957. It went on to inspire the Alfa Giulietta Sprint Speciale of 1959. It is an example of pure elegance, of a time when designers could put beauty ahead of almost everything else.
Contemporary designers must long for the days when they weren’t constrained by all the engineering rules that exist today, and could focus purely on aesthetics. Most car designers we talk to have a design in their drawer; a design that ultimately had to change to accommodate different legislation around the world. In 1957 you had two choices — make a car that was practical, or make a car that was beautiful.
There have been examples of cars that are both, of course, although it is all subjective because practical need not mean affordable and beauty is, as we all know, in the eye of the beholder.
An example of this is the car that won the public vote at the event, the 1935 Lurani Nibbio. We had never heard of it, but it was developed by a chap called Giovanni Lurani Cernuschi, who was a well-known racing driver in his day. He competed in more than 160 races, including three entries in the famous Mille Miglia. The Nibbio was built for speed, with a top end of 100mph, but you had to lift off the whole body to get in before having someone replace it. Beautiful, perhaps, but practical it was not.
Wandering between the 52 cars entered into the Concorso, there were some incredible examples from various eras of automotive history, but one in particular caught our eye. Actually it was not so much the car — a 1930 Duesenberg J convertible Berline — but a plate mounted on the rear. That plate showed the country code ZA. A South African entrant at the Villa d’Este? Sadly not, but the car did spend time in South Africa many years ago and is now in the hands of Ion Tiriac, the billionaire former coach to tennis legend, Boris Becker. The ZA plate was on the car when he got it and so it has remained there.
There is a big social aspect to the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, but ultimately it is about the cars: cars such as a 1922 Bentley 3l, a beautiful if slightly too perfect 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, a Ferrari 250 Europa GT Speciale, and the incredible Lamborghini Miura P400.