unconventional

If you were asked to start from scratch and design a purpose-built race car, chances are it wouldn’t be front-wheel drive. But Nissan has done just that with their front-engine front-wheel drive LMP1 GT-R LM prototype that will compete in the World Endurance Championship (and Le Mans) against Porsche, Audi and Toyota’s trio of mid-engine rear-wheel drive bias prototypes, and I’m hoping that Nissan destroys the competition.

This isn’t because I’m partial to Nissan or FWD, but because it challenges the status quo. Nissan has been on a bit of a roll with unconventional setups, first with the Delta Wing/ZEOD but that was more of a proof of concept than competitive challenger like the GT-R LM. Manufacturers understandably don’t take risks on this scale very often. It’s horrifically expensive to develop and race a competitive hybrid prototype in WEC’s LMP1 class, and Nissan’s gamble could totally backfire. Bottom line, you have to respect Nissan for the effort.

The ZEOD always reminded me of Tim Burton's batmobile

The ZEOD always reminded me of Tim Burton’s batmobile

It also doesn’t hurt that the GT-R LM looks absolutely insane. While its styling and packaging is all in the name of airflow and performance, it still ends up looking more hot rod than endurance car with the driver positioned low behind the long hood and the exhaust spouting flames in the driver’s field of view. Just completely ridiculous. FWD FTW?

sleeping giants

It’s been more than five years since American automakers received government bailouts or generous lines of credit, and we are finally seeing the fruits of the restructuring that took places as these companies were forces to refocus after decades of running aimless. Ford is on a roll and in the midst of a wild turnaround. They went from inconsistent and totally unique cars for each market to a strong consolidated global lineup.

I wrote a while back that the Mustang brand was better off dead. I stand corrected with the launch of the GT350R. With a high revving flat-plane V8, carbon fiber wheels and a stripped interior, the Mustang seems to suddenly have more in common with sports enthusiasts than anything besides a Porsche Cayman or Z/28 for the money. A Mustang that’s more of a sports car than an M4? It’s incredible what a few choice upgrades can do to the perceived value of something.

quintessential halo car

quintessential halo car

Possibly the biggest sign of the turnaround is debut of the Ford GT concept, which serves to garner hype for the production car that is set to arrive next year. The original Ford GT40 was possibly the biggest home run in motorsport history. Enzo Ferrari backed out last minute in the sale of his company to Ford. Henry Ford was furious and exacted revenge by building the Ford GT40 which beat Ferrari along with everyone else at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1966 through 1968. While Corvette and Viper struggle with brand perception, the Ford GT name has possibly more cache than Ford knows what to do with. No one seems concerned about paying $200k for a Ford GT. Hopefully, the upcoming Ford GT lives up to expectations.

While Chryster and GM have each launched some interesting products recently, I’m less than convinced in their entire product line. Do I like the 707hp Charger Hellcat? Yes but it doesn’t make the Chrysler 200 anymore appealing. GM wants Cadillac to be viewed on par with the German brands but that’s a tall order. They’d probably have better luck starting fresh with a new brand. Their V performance lineup looks promising, but they have to be massively better than competition to steal customers. Brand perception is a bitch.

At the end of the day, all American brands have squandered so much cache over the decades. America is a high tech powerhouse in many regards but our automotive industry can feel at times like it peaked in the industrial revolution.

the bird

What’s wrong with Formula 1? Besides the fact that the playing field is painfully uneven, no one in F1 speaks their mind or displays any real emotion. Everyone tries to be as non-offensive as possible when the cameras are on them. Drivers seem about as genuine with their responses as someone on a first round job interview.

It’s so bad that Kimi Raikkonen, a mumbling Finnish driver of few words, has attained status as the most interesting driver to interview because one time admitted that he took a shit just before the race. Seriously, how depressing is that? So with that in mind, I just can’t get enough of this video of Red Bull F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo’s reaction to an audience member’s question on Top Gear.

F1 needs more of this. It needs to not only show people at their best, but also at their worst. We can tell when someone is holding back their feelings for the camera. F1 needs to focus on what draws viewers to sports in the first place. The opportunity to see people struggle, be imperfect and most importantly be unpredictable. F1 doesn’t have much unpredictability on or off the track at the moment.

current obsession

I pay way too much attention to almost every car on the street. I’m a prosecutor’s dream witness when they need someone to identity the car in question. Color, make and model? No sweat. I am dangerously aware of all cars, including those headed in the other direction, while I drive. My unhealthy appetite for all things automotive leaves me occasionally obsessed with seemingly minute details of particular cars.

Right now, I can’t get enough of the Mini Cooper Countryman color palette. Yes, that weird bulbous SUV interpretation of the original Mini concept. Put aside your feelings for that car, and just look at the colors, particularly their “light white”, “blazing red” and “starlight blue”. Do not pass judgement by browsing photos. Look at these colors up close in person.

Intentionally the right car with wrong color. Must see in person.

Right car, wrong color. Go see the right colors in person

Your first reaction is probably along the lines of, “so what?” One more shade to add to the countless variations on red, white and blue. What is important about these colors is not so much the particular shade unto itself, but rather these colors in the context of a Mini. They exemplify the brand. Fun, light and slightly eccentric could be used to describe these colors or the Mini brand itself. It’s a rare occurrence when color and car actually match.

Starlight blue or blazing red won’t translate to all cars, and likewise, Minis can’t wear all colors. But I see a lot of cars with drab or outlandish colors that don’t fit the brand or even the car itself. Color is a difficult thing to get right. People go for the safe choices, because most of the time the other options don’t suit the car. Just look at how popular silver and black are for reference. But when those colors are done right, they add another dimension to the car’s personality.

 

it’s just a name

I’m not the biggest fan of Top Gear. The reviews border on painfully overzealous with comically quick transitions between the host screaming at the top of their lungs and the car drifting past the camera at 100 mph. But Top Gear is made with the jaded television viewer in mind, so it has to contend with the myriad of cop murder dramas and the endless race to the bottom that is reality TV. James May holds rank as the quiet mild-mannered host of the Top Gear trio. While the other two squabble to win the audience’s affection with the wittiest putdown of their co-hosts, May manages to put together some great insight with his time in front of the camera.

Model names are for the masses. 

Diehard owners never simply state that they drive an M3 or GT3. It’s always the generation designation first (e36 M3 or 997.1 GT3) because they understand that those distinctions matter. As I touched on in a post before, brands that carry a model to a successive generation are merely creating a modern reinterpretation of the original. The 991 911 shares nothing in common with the original besides the overall concept and that’s fine. Singer 911s, even if sold at a price point comparable to a 991, probably wouldn’t keep Porsche afloat today. There is no perfect iteration of the 911 anyways. Better to have it evolve than die.

Ferrari just does this better. 

I was set to write an article about how great Ferrari is with naming their cars. Then they debuted the LaFerrari, and I had to shelf that idea. But I’ve gotten over it. It’s not like I’m buying a LaFerrari so it’s really of little consequence to me. The point I wanted to touch on was that each new Ferrari bares a new name. While American (Mustang/Corvette) and German (911, S class, TT) are happy to continue their using their model name in perpetuity, Ferrari starts fresh with each model. The new model doesn’t have to be anything but better than the one it replaces. Mr Manzoni, the chief designer of Ferrari, shed some insight into the brand’s overall philosophy when he was asked in a interview about brand consistency when designing a new car.

this is the challenge we are faced with every time we work on a new ferrari. the challenge resides in coming up with a completely new shape while staying true to the values ferrari stands for. any repetition of design ideas invariably gets dismissed by our president mr. montezemolo as ‘déjà vu’. the basic rule is that a true ferrari must be immediately identifiable even without any badging. contrary to other brands we do not rely on a precise set of design guidelines which can be simply implemented across the model range. we instead call upon on a higher paradigm and need to come up with a fresh interpretation of it every time. with each new model we search for that subtle link with tradition and with the other models in the line-up. it is not a link that derives from the repetition of ‘graphic’ traits, but from the comprehension of the kind of plasticity and formal language a ferrari lives by.

This design approach is indicative of the entire brand’s philosophy towards building cars. Ferrari’s core values guide the design and engineering of their cars as opposed to the other way around, where design and engineering specifics define the brand. As a result of this approach noting is sacred at Ferrari. Look at turbo power for the California T or dropping the manual completely for paddles as far back as the 360 Challenge Stradale. They even went AWD and hatchback for the FF. How cool is that?

Ferrari FF, the rich man's Golf GTI

Ferrari FF, the rich man’s Golf R

While Porsche’s steadfast adherence to its past was the impetus for this article, BMW is actually the worst offender of the design by guideline approach. With Hoffmeier kinks, kidney grills, angle eyes, L shaped tail lights and most recently front fender vents constricting so much of the design, BMWs feel boring and fussy at the same time. The supposed design revolution that Chris Bangle started at BMW with the e65 7 series was not a success. Rather it only served to further emphasize these signature design cues and create an increasingly narrow window for design as more and more design cues became a necessity to the brand. M cars are even worse with their own set of design guidelines stacked on top of the already overstyled base model.

BMW’s i series (i3 and i8) demonstrate that BMW is well aware of the situation. These cars only carry the kidney grills while the rest of their design is left unrestricted. While it’s hit (i8) or miss (i3), it’s just what BMW needs to coincide with a dramatic shift in brand philosophy. We’ll just have to see how much of the i8/i3 aesthetic gets directly transplanted onto future models.

 

 

 

just click print

What constitutes a unique product? Are the minute variations in hand made products like an e34 M5 enough to warrant that each example be labeled a unique product? I would argue no. While hand made products carry a certain aura, they are not unique.

Sergio - open top heaven

Sergio – open top heaven

Anything that is genuinely unique is incredibly expensive. Design and fabrication of unique parts is incredibly time and labor intensive. Today, building a one-off of something along the lines of Pinifarina’s Sergio will cost you millions of dollars and takes months to complete. 3D printing looks to change this in the future.

While Ford is demonstrating using 3D printing to test parts for production, it’s easy to see process eventually being applied to end-use products. I see 3D printing working in a manner similar to GM’s Hy-Wire concept from the early 2000’s. Basically, the chassis and drivetrain are standardized (and thus built in a conventional manner) while rest of the car is up for individual interpretation, allowing for unlimited variations with 3D printing. You can already see the the auto industry moving in this direction with examples like VW’s MQB platform. VW uses the chassis to underpin a variety of VW and Audi cars like the Golf, Jetta, A3 and TT.

3D printing is poised bring a renaissance to coachbuilders and small volume manufacturers. Unless you’re the Sultan of Brunei, this means one day you may actually be able to afford the car of your dreams, not merely someone’s else’s interpretation of the idea.

because not race car

A McLaren P1 spitting fire mid-drift around the Bahrain circuit at night is mesmerizing. It borders on automotive nirvana. It’s also totally removed from reality, just as it should be. While supercars may scream to be measured objectively, it is ultimately a misguided exercise. If anything, it destroys the mystique of the car. Quantifying a car’s performance is effectively embracing its obsolescence.

I want to be there.

I want to be there.

There is this perceived correlation between performance and driving enjoyment. Newer = faster = better. It’s a form of planned obsolescence through technical advancement. Road cars are built to manufacturer’s individual objectives, not the rulebook of a race series. There is nothing stopping them from adding wider tires, more downforce, more power and more aggressive gearing. The lap times that people obsess over have no real context. Any legitimate race series takes these performance imbalances into account, separating cars into classes and further leveling the playing field by limiting power, grip and weight discrepancies.

Road cars are not race cars, even in light of how fast and powerful some have become. This relentless increase in performance neglects the fact that road cars are experienced in subjective isolation. Back roads and track events are about the driving experience, not the performance of one car/driver relative to another. Road cars should not share the same priorities as race cars.

The Nissan GTR, a turbo’d double clutch AWD sled, may keep 14 year olds up at night with its gaudy performance numbers, but I’ve never heard anyone with a driver’s license commend the car for its driver engagement. Do you think a Ferrari 250 GTO’s value is pegged to where it sits in the pecking order of Nurburgring lap times? The lasting appeal of a car is tied to everything but its outright performance.