At Easter, DTW came across a Tesla Model X parked in a field in France.
From the start I was always very open-minded about Tesla, and generally feel that attitude has been vindicated. If, as I’ve been informed on various websites, it is just a scam, designed to relieve hard-working Americans of their ‘tax dollars’, it turns out to have been a remarkably long-running one that has cost Elon Musk an awful lot of money. Yes, it’s a pity that the Model S appeared rather mainstream and didn’t make more of its difference, but it looks reasonably imposing , well-proportioned and well-detailed, with a bit more presence to my eyes than a Jaguar XF. From reports, there are some things that, as a start-up manufacturer, they have overlooked and I am not sure how much I’d enjoy a car whose controls are so dominated by a huge touchscreen, bearing in mind the various glitches I’ve encountered with iPads and their like. Nevertheless, as viewed from afar, Tesla’s progress has been hugely impressive. The sight of two Model S’s plugged in to the Superchargers at Folkestone Eurotunnel the other week was testimony to the owner’s confidence that they were up to a long-range trip. But then I saw a Model X close up.
From my youth, I remember car magazines running articles about backyard inventors who had ideas to improve on the products of the established industry. In hindsight most of these were crude and clumsy answers to questions no-one was asking. Who wouldn’t like an electric hotplate built into every car dashboard allowing hot snacks on the move? Tesla’s first ‘first’ is a production car with rear gullwing doors. Its second ‘first’ is in renaming gullwings, falcon wings. In the photos I’d seen I admit that the Model X‘s falcon wing doors add distinction, though not elegance, to a reasonably ordinary shape. Beyond that it was hard to see exactly what their advantage was and my first encounter close-up the other day did not endear me at all.
The term “Gullwing Doors” is, for some reason, hugely evocative to certain people. Does no animal rights lawyer want to take up the case of the elegant gull (or falcon), whose efficient, light and streamlined wings are compared with 50 kg or so of clumsy welded metal and glass? The original Gullwing Mercedes 300SL was a product of expedience. Its huge structural sills made a conventional door impossible and, of course, in the look-to-the-future 1950s, it was a great selling point. Since then others, including Mercedes themselves, have tried to emulate, but it never really works. Yet, even being linked with that automotive butt of jokes, DeLorean, never seems to have discredited the roof-hinged door.
As street theatre the Gullwing Effect obviously does the trick. Park your new Model X in the driveway and neighbours will watch in good-natured amusement as the doors purr up and down, at least the first couple of times. But what else do they offer? To me nothing. They are indiscreet, you can’t park in a tight space next to another car, or a wall, or in a low garage and, if you aren’t careful and are tall, you will hit your head on them. They look clumsy, all the more so grafted onto a reasonably conventional looking car, and they reveal too much of the car’s inner architecture. They belong in a 1960s episode of The Outer Limits. If I had ever wanted a Tesla X, they would be a total deal breaker.
So should we be concerned for Tesla, or at least should its shareholders be concerned? As I pointed out a fair while back, you dismiss General Motors as dinosaurs at your own risk. The Silicon Valley community tends to think that it can solve most problems better that the hidebound status quo. And in many cases, some deservedly, some less so, they have proved themselves successful. But the Bolt shows that Chevrolet can match, or beat, the Tesla on range. No, it doesn’t have a ‘Ludicrous’ acceleration mode, but that is a novelty that wears off pretty quickly. What GM has in its favour is the size, patience and cynicism to stand back and let someone else do the groundwork, and the good sense not to piss away engineering budgets on producing something as physically substantial yet conceptually insubstantial as a pair of novelty doors to please low attention-span owners for a couple of weeks. Also, doesn’t Elon Musk’s supposed idea that his first four models be named S, E, X and Y hint at an Achilles Heel of smartarsedness – a self-unawareness of when you cross the line of frivolity and just become irritating? Even new, alternative, blue-sky, car companies need to generate customer loyalty for something that takes years to develop and will be in production for several years and the IT generation is notoriously fickle.
If Tesla decides that its ‘Ludicrous’ mode has become a tired joke, it can just disappear with the next software update. Unfortunately a door mechanism is not so easy to re-engineer. Tesla have tried leading the way and, in many respects, successfully so. Without Toyota and then Tesla, it’s unlikely that GM would have got off its gargantuan arse and bothered to re-investigate the EV. But, on the too-rare occasions when management has deigned to let them loose, GM has proved to have some of the finest engineers. And that’s just one of the established companies. So I wish Tesla well, but maybe they should concentrate on putting a lot more depth into their products.