At BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar and other luxury brands, today’s designers and engineers work overtime to preserve legendary traits that made their cars famous. Think of them as automotive geneticists pushing forward with historic design and performance DNA against a modern world rocked by shrinking engines, foreign ownership, and a shift to SUVs and electrification. Add to that the rise of (gasp!) autonomous vehicles poised to cancel out the driving experience altogether. It’s a tug-of-war between evolution and revolution, played out primarily by top European automakers in business for up to a century or more.
Laser-Focused on Elegance
Rolls-Royce, now German-owned, stays laser-focused on elegance and exclusivity as it preps for driverless cars. Bentley, also German, combines 1950s British grace with high-tech performance. Ferrari and Lamborghini maximize Italian racing heritage even as they flirt with electric motors. BMW strives for its historic ride-handling formula as its audience clamors for more luxury. And in a hyper-competitive market, Mercedes-Benz still stands out for advanced technology, solidity and safety. “Many pioneering technical innovations that are standard today made their debut in a Mercedes-Benz,” says spokesman Rob Moran.
At age 95 and now owned by India’s Tata Motors, Jaguar still adheres to its founding creed even with plans to electrify all models by 2020. “Historically speaking, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons had a slogan that every Jaguar must have three things: grace, pace and space,” says spokesman Nathan Hoyt. “That maxim is as true today as it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. The DNA absolutely remains the same, but the product has evolved to meet modern safety and performance expectations.”
Jaguar customers have appreciated “a car that has a smooth and luxurious ride, while maintaining accurate, race-car-like handling,” says Tony Anton, involved with the brand since 1982 and now general manager of the Jaguar Great Neck and Jaguar Land Rover Freeport dealerships on New York's Long Island. “If I drive a 1975, an ’85, or a 2005 or 2017 Jaguar, they all have the same characteristics and feel.”
DNA Reigns Supreme at Porsche
DNA also reigns supreme at Porsche, which fuels its 70-year sports car addiction with lucrative sales of racy SUVs, crossovers and sedans. “The 911 itself is our iconic sports car,” says Sam Gadkar, certified brand ambassador at Porsche Roslyn in New York. “The shape of the car is paramount. We’ve had the same shape of the 911 since 1951. These traditions are very important with Porsche, where form and design always follow function.”
Rolls-Royce’s futuristic VISION NEXT 100 “luxury mobility” plan combines its legacy of bespoke elegance and craftsmanship with anticipation of autonomous cars. Tension between new and old is evident in the company’s massive “Vision Vehicle” concept. This galactic ride merges Batmobile looks with two longstanding Rolls traditions: a hushed interior (dubbed “The Grand Sanctuary”) and a presence that makes itself known immediately (“The Grand Arrival”). In other nods to history, the concept’s traditional upright grille is topped by a Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament first seen in 1911.
Bow to Tradition
With design so important to automotive evolution, you’ll see the same bow to tradition in other luxury brands. Cadillac’s current taillights are grounded in the aircraft-style upright fins of its 1948 models. BMW’s ubiquitous twin-kidney grilles date to the 1930s. The Mercedes-Maybach Vision 6 Concept invokes the silhouette of a pre-World War II Mercedes touring car. And Bentley’s new Continental GT bears a strong family resemblance to its elegant 1952 Mulliner R-Type Continental coupe.
So, as the automotive world rocks and roils toward an unpredictable future, one thing is certain: the luxury automakers won’t abandon their illustrious histories anytime soon. As the French would say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
This column first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Luxury Living magazine. Read the published column here.