Is the convertible an anachronism – or is driving around in an open-topped car about to experience a renaissance?
By Andrej Kupetz.
When I first met my wife, she drove an Alfa Romeo Spider. It was a 1991 Series 4 model – the last version of the classic. Series 4 had an almost rectangular tail with elegant, full-width rear lights. At the front, an endlessly long bonnet concealed the beating heart of this bella macchina: a 2.0-litre engine with overhead camshafts.
I thought the car was a perfect fit with my wife. There’s only one word for it: fantastic. We were more than happy to put up with its little quirks, like the wiring harness that occasionally plopped onto the passenger’s knees or the door panel that would only return to its proper place if you gave it an energetic shove with your elbow. I became a dedicated convertible aficionado.
The Cabriolet – a lifestyle
Our favourite place to go with the Spider was of course Italy, either via Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass to Verona or via the Gotthard Pass to Genoa and then along the Versilia coast to Livorno. And it goes without saying that we put the top down whenever possible. That wasn’t always easy, because the car’s obvious surfeit of engine power tempted you to drive faster than the headwinds actually permitted. The Nardi wooden steering wheel began to shake when you hit 120km/h, your hair was a mess, the sun beat down mercilessly on your forehead and the noise was deafening. Whereas in 1989 the Mercedes engineers had invented an ingenious wind deflector that diverts the headwind so that you can put the top down even when driving at high speeds, this Italian roadster had no such mod cons; it was just plain beautiful. But not made for a country like Germany, which has lots of rain and not many speed limits.
The beginning of a new era
The Tesla Roadster that marked the brand’s appearance on the scene in 2008 wasn’t exactly what you’d call beautiful. Instead, the car’s design was highly reminiscent of the Lotus Elise that yielded many of the components used in its production. Even so, the Tesla Roadster marked the beginning of a new era. It wasn’t just that it was the brand’s first vehicle to be produced on a large scale. Or the first electric car ever to be powered by the same lithium-ion batteries used in laptops and smartphones. What was really groundbreaking about the Roadster was that it made e-mobility attractive. Because like any convertible, the first electric roadster of the modern age quite simply had more engine power than it needed. The vehicle’s transmission allowed it to accelerate to 100km/h in about 3.7 seconds. So as not to put unnecessary strain on the batteries, however, the car was electronically capped at 201km/h to give it a bigger range. And this built-in self-restraint turned the car into a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Today – 11 years after the presentation of the Tesla Roadster, four years after Dieselgate and faced with imminent inner-city driving bans – even the Germans are debating the introduction of a motorway speed limit. It’s certainly an opportunity for the convertible to make a comeback – a renaissance of the kind of beautiful, elegant driving experience presented at Pebble Beach in 2017 by the Mercedes design team headed by Gorden Wagener. The Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet is designed madness – and despite its sheer size (5.70 metres long and 2.10 metres wide), it’s a purely electric car. Its four engines generate a total output of 550kW. That’s definitely enough to accelerate this yacht on wheels to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds, although it too is electronically capped – at a top speed of 250km/h.
A vision of luxury automobile culture
You can see it as an anachronism – or as the Mercedes- Maybach brand’s convincing response to the challenge of e-mobility. While other carmakers are struggling to find a sensible and objective design language, the Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet is the complete opposite: highly emotional and aesthetically compelling, this vision of luxury automobile culture points the way ahead to an electric future that takes your breath away: kudos! Now, with the speed limit approaching rapidly and our future set to be electric, we should regard these limitations as an opportunity: an opportunity for more beauty, elegance and cool-headedness on our roads.
The author: Andrej Kupetz
CEO German Design Council
Andrej Kupetz (*1968) has been CEO of the German Design Council in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, since 1999. He studied industrial design, philosophy and product marketing in Berlin, London and Paris. In 1997, after various positions in design management and university liaison, Andrej Kupetz joined German Railways (Deutsche Bahn AG) where he was responsible for brand management in the DB Group and for the implementation of various corporate design processes.
Kupetz is member of the advisory board of the Design Management Institute Boston. Since 2011 Kupetz has been a member of the higher education council of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main. That same year the European Commission appointed him to the European Design Leadership Board. Kupetz is married and has three sons.
This comment was first published in designreport edition 02/2019.