The Monterey Car Week – culminating in the Pebble Beach Concours – is perhaps better known for the huge number and vast variety of old cars that take over the central Californian coastline each summer. However an increasing number of carmakers are using this lavish setting to preview new designs.
New, in all senses, is Atieva in what was the Silicon Valley-based EV startup’s first public appearance amongst the vibrant trousers and drum-tight visages of The Quail, a Motorsport’s Gathering. The only physical vehicle on display was Edna, the company’s Mercedes van-based test mule, but far more interesting was the virtual reality setup that showed the car’s body-in-white. After a short wait (Henrik Fisker stole my place in the queue but his trousers were admittedly more colourful than mine) the impressive visualisation gave a pretty good idea of the car’s overall form and proportions.
Those hoping for a radical rethink of the car’s format will be disappointed – this is a sedan and no hiding it. But can you blame them? – Tesla has proven that this formula works. Let’s hope the interior and promised ownership models are the real progressions here.
Lamborghini's new head of design
Also new and on display was Lamborghini’s head of design Mitja Borket. He’s understandably thrilled to be heading up one of the world’s most iconic brands: “I’ve just moved my family out to Italy and it’s incredible to soak up the culture. There’s an amazing energy and passion in the company.” And an amazing history too.
When talking about the rather large shoes of one of Lambo’s most illustrious former designers (via Bertone), Marcello Gandini, Borket immediately reached for his phone to show me when he met the great man during a photoshoot for the Miura’s 50th anniversary. “You look at the cars he designed and there’s no way I can achieve that!” he says humbly, but with a brand such as this and a whole new management team headed by former Ferrari F1 boss Stefano Domenicali, this is certainly a company to watch over the next few years as it claws back ground on Ferrari and McLaren.
Lamborghini also showed a new, open-topped version of the Centenario that first appeared in Geneva. And, while it remains an extremely (overly) complex design, the matte blue body colour served to calm down the main surfaces and also created a hierarchy of elements that was missing from the visually overwhelming closed-roof version.
Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6
A six-metre, two-seat coupé is about as excessive as is possible to imagine, and head of Daimler design, Gorden Wagener, makes no excuses: “We wanted to make a real statement; to over-exaggerate everything as much as we can. It’s the coolest Mercedes proportion you can imagine with this long hood, the cab sitting over the rear wheels and this aero streamline silhouette. The main feature line was very difficult – over six meters and in three dimensions to control, that chrome trim was a real pain for our metal crafters.
“The front has a new Maybach face with the grille inspired by pinstriped suits and this could potentially be a new look for Mercedes-Maybach. Of course we will continue to build this brand as we did with Mercedes-AMG – that started with just some new bumpers and now there’s a whole car with the GT. The spine is inspired by the big Art Deco coupés. We wanted to do a car for Pebble Beach – the 1930s was a great time. We took inspiration from that a while ago with our anti-wedge dropping line.”
The project was designed in Daimler’s advanced design studio Carlsbad, California under VP of advanced design Stefan Lamm. “It was funny because we did the clay model and then I pushed it into one of my design meetings with [head of Daimler] Dieter Zetsche. I just said ‘I have one more thing’. They didn’t have a clue it was coming but when I pulled the cover off I knew they loved it. It’s a great source of inspiration because when you ask a designer to do a new C-Class they are limited, but when you ask for a six-metre coupé you get different solutions.”
The interior design theme is almost as striking as the exterior, with seat backs that loop around into the lower IP and an augmented reality windscreen for information displays. But that’s not to say that this is an entirely digital car: “I was speaking with some students from Art Center and they explained that with increasing digitalisation we will see increasing demand of analogue solutions – the movement is called hyper-analogue – a Leica camera, chrono watch or vinyl records are something that you keep and pass on. But your phone you throw away. This is a car that you want to drive yourself. You will always have the choice of driving yourself – we don’t just want to do a pod that runs on virtual tracks – that’s a great solution for public transportation but not for cars.”
And while there’s no denying its ostentation, the superb surface treatment and neat nods to the past mean that, in the context of Pebble Beach, this concept makes complete sense.
Not entirely new, but the BMW 2002 Hommage concept (first seen at Villa d’Este) was here in a new livery. In a nod to the bright orange Jägermeister sponsorship of the 1970s and '80s – but without the awkward connotations of drinking and driving – the small coupé was instead emblazoned with ‘Turbomeister’ graphics and cute turbine shields in lieu of the drink brand’s stag logo. Turbobomb anyone?
It’s fitting that America’s most enduring luxury car brand, Cadillac, chose the Monterey Car Week to show its hand as it moves into what its bosses will hope is a more global future.
Of course the Escala isn’t the first Caddy concept to be shown around the Pebble Beach event – both the 2013 Elmiraj and 2011 Ciel made their debuts at the world’s poshest car show – but this is perhaps the most significant. Significant because it is promised to represent a bigger step for the company than we’ve seen since the ‘Art and Science’ design strategy was introduced some 15 years ago.
“I’ve been with Cadillac for three years and I see it as stewardship – it’s coming up for 115 years old, so where do you take it next?” executive design director, Andrew Smith, told us at an event in the hills above Carmel-by-the-Sea. “What we wanted to do was convey the work we’ve been doing in terms of brand positioning and tonality. It’s very calm and we wanted it to exude confidence – we know where we’re going and it feels really sophisticated. The exterior colour is a direct reflection of that but it’s the interior that I think was a real surprise to people.”
And it certainly is calm, and sophisticated too. But of course the danger with trying to change the recipe is that it will always draw criticism for not being authentic. So how should a Cadillac be? “For me a Cadillac should be simple to comprehend at a first read – I wanted to retain that and I also think that the vertical lamps set up a structure that the surfaces are almost webbing between.
"But we wanted to drive more sophistication into the surfaces so it’s no longer a stealth fighter. When it came to the vertical lamp treatments it’s so strong that I don’t want to give it away but we did want to evolve it so it becomes new and more interesting. The tail-lamps were fun because we had LED and OLED so they move with you. If you think about the 1967 Eldorado – one of my favourites – the way the lamps work with segments reflecting, we wanted to capture that but with new technologies.
“I’ve spent lots of time studying previous Cadillacs and trying to understand why they were successful and generally it’s because they were exploring new ideas – you could always tell it was a Cadillac but it moved on from the one before so we really wanted to make progress.”
The real question is – with all this talk of understatement and calmness does the Escala fall into the trap of losing its identity? With the removal of the vertical front lamps and the adoption of a very European fastback format it’s certainly further removed from the Cadillacs of the last 15 years. That's understandable as the brand is trying to be taken seriously on a global sale, but it needs to be careful that its future products don't become lost in a sea of other premium pretenders.
Pebble Beach Concept Lawn
The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 and Cadillac Escala were the only two genuinely new cars on this year’s Concept Lawn, it’s always enlightening to see recent show cars in natural light and all in the same space for some real-world context.