Once upon a time, anyone wishing to heat their home had little choice but to light an open fire. Logically, therefore, the fireplace became the focal point of many a room, transcending its original role and becoming a style statement in its own right. Today, although there are now far more practical ways to create warmth, many homeowners are still tied to the idea of a fireplace as the centrepiece of their lounge. This has brought about an array of highly questionable ‘substitutes’ and halfway houses; modern electric heaters dressed up like something from the Victorian era - complete with plastic coal, traditional open grates filled with pebbles or flowers, and devices resembling flat-screen televisions displaying an imitation flame, but no credible replacement for the traditional fire.
Interestingly, the automotive world could soon find itself in a similar predicament, since the focal point of many car designs has long been the radiator grille. This, like the fireplace, began as a functional necessity (although the function in this case was cooling rather than heating) but has since taken on an important visual role too. As such, it’s difficult to imagine many current cars without their iconic grilles. A Bugatti without a ‘horseshoe’, an Alfa Romeo without its ‘shield’ and a Rolls-Royce without the classical facade upfront would be like leopards without spots.
All very well and good, so long as combustion engines continue to dominate. But, given the push toward EVs (which generally require less cooling than conventional vehicles), the radiator grille, like the traditional fireplace, could soon become surplus to requirements.
Obviously, whatever the power source, car designers will always want to create strong ‘faces’ for their creations, but without a grille this might prove to be a sticking point. Take BMW’s ‘i’ models for example: understandably, BMW wanted to retain the traditional ‘kidneys’, but rather than repurposing or reinterpreting them for a new era, they’ve simply been blanked off with plastic. A bit disingenuous perhaps; if the grille isn’t functional then why fake it? A sure way to lose credibility over time.
More bizarrely, Tesla, a new brand dedicated solely to EVs, also used a false ‘grille’ on its earlier products. Although this has now been removed, it hasn’t been convincingly replaced, leaving current Teslas with a Lord Voldemort-style nose. Other EVs, like Hyundai’s Ioniq, also present very uninspiring frontals.
So, what should fill that soon-to-be empty space? Well, maybe it doesn’t necessarily need filling at all?
Many cars have successfully gone without a prominent grille or similar adornment. Porsche has made this look its trademark, hence why the electric Mission E looks so effortlessly right. Others to have pulled this off include the Fiat 500, Citroën DS, Studebaker Avanti, Mazda RX-7 and several generations of Corvette. The common denominator here seems to be small frontal areas and/or sleek proportions. If applied to a large, bluff-fronted SUV, this look would likely create a featureless visual desert... or a very gormless facial expression.
One alternative might be to use strong graphics in place of a grille – the classic Volkswagen Type 2 is a good example of this. Its ‘V’ graphic and giant emblem help form one of the most iconic and memorable faces of any vehicle. VW clearly realised this look would lend itself well to an EV, hence the recent ID Buzz concept.
Another EV featuring an enlarged logo is the Renault Zoe, with its upsized diamond standing in for an air intake. It's an elegant solution which is also functional, since the diamond swings open to reveal a charging port. Additionally, Toyota’s FT-4X concept uses robust shapes to create a tough-looking DRG without a grille – a look which could easily be developed into a family face for the brand’s SUVs.
Use of contrasting materials could also create attractive graphics. Higher-end vehicles using materials like carbonfibre and aluminium could use the contrast between painted and unpainted sections to create their own unique identity. More prosaic models could also pick up on this, by using contrasting body protection to create interesting visuals with a basis in function. Several of Peugeot’s recent concepts, including the Onyx and Exalt, have utilised contrasting materials to great effect. The marque’s ‘Coupe Franche’ has given its concept cars a strong identity – albeit only in profile – but there’s no reason why similar treatments couldn’t be applied to the front of a car too.
Illumination could also help fill the void – with lighting technology developing rapidly and manufacturers scrambling to develop unique DRL ‘signatures’, the loss of the radiator grille could create a new canvas for innovation. Although, full-width headlamps themselves are not new (see the ‘light-bar’ fitted to the '80s and '90s Mercury Sable), nor are centrally mounted lamps (see Tatra and Tucker). Both solutions could be offered a new lease of life by the latest LED and laser light technology. Concepts from Honda (EV-STER) and Mercedes-Benz (EQ) have started to explore this theme, but there’s huge untapped potential here.
Citroën SM-style transparent noses could be sculpted into all manner of unique and innovative shapes too. Perhaps luxury vehicles could replace their elaborate grilles with equally elaborate sculpted headlight bars. These, combined with sophisticated technology (along the lines of Audi’s OLED Swarm), could prove spectacular. There are other possibilities too – how about showing off some mechanical or electrical components? Think glass-backed luxury watches, or Harman/Kardon Soundsticks. In time, additional glass could also provide occupants with unrivalled forward visibility (as in MINI’s Next 100 concept), whilst still forming part of a car’s visual identity.
Furthermore, the packaging advantages of electric powertrains could make unique sculpting of a car’s front end far more achievable, making it easier to distinguish a car through shape alone. Toyota’s FT-1 concept of 2014 is interesting in this regard; although the car does feature frontal air intakes (and isn’t a full EV), its unusual beak-like nose cone defines the DRG as effectively as any grille ever could. Since plastic bumpers are easily formed into complex shapes, this approach could hold great promise. On that note, it’s also worth bearing in mind that one of the world’s most recognisable cars, the original VW Beetle, used only headlamps and stamped body panels to define its face – no grille required.
In practice, it’s likely that designers will need to experiment with numerous strategies to replace the radiator grille. The eventual solution will probably lie in a combination of several. In this era of ever-increasing constraints upon car design, the grille’s potential disappearance offers an opportunity for genuine change and innovation. Let’s just hope that the alternatively-fuelled cars of the future have the confidence to assume their own identities and be what they are, rather than becoming prisoners of their own heritage.