Quo Vadis, Luxus?

Defining luxury in an age of conspicuous consumption isn’t easy. Judging by two concepts encapsulating futuristic decadence, this task will not become any less challenging in the years to come. 

Dr Eldon Tyrell’s personal transport, photo (c) blog.dupontregistry.com

The fight for luxury supremacy of the future officially started in March 2018, at the Geneva International Motor Show. There, Aston Martin chief designer – pardon: Vice President & Chief Creative Officer – Marek Reichman openly criticised the traditional purveyors of automotive luxury, namely Crewe’s Bentley and Goodwood’s Rolls-Royce, of pandering to an obsolete definition of top-end motoring.

Judging by the vehicles on show at Palexpo – Rolls-Royce’s regrettably stagnant new Phantom saloon and Bentley’s confused new Continental GT – Mr Reichman would appear to have a point. Luxury isn’t about the density of diamond pattern stitching on leather, the different shades of programmable mood lighting or the number of knurlable surfaces, yet those (and hides of the finest quality) are the features that are supposed to make the difference between ‘premium’ and bonafide luxury.

Of course, Mr Reichman’s statement was based on an agenda: To put his own attempt at a futuristic mobility device for the movers, shakers, rich, beautiful and famous in a favourable light. To cause a bit of controversy and show that, rather than being an tightly funded also-ran, Aston Martin (Lagonda) is, in fact, the disruptor of a complacent industry.

Reichman’s comments certainly caused Rolls-Royce Motor Cars CEO, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, to lose his sunshine boy composure for once and (rightfully) lament the unnecessarily boisterious tone of the Aston design chief’s attacks, even though he could have pointed in the direction of his own company’s supposed glimpse of the future, which was unveiled in 2016.

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Dubbed 103EX, the Best Car in the World of the Future is huge, yet only seats two. It also sports a traditional performance car silhouette with an exceedingly long bonnet and sloping tail, despite not needing to accommodate an engine in front of the cabin. Its complicated door arrangement includes a gullwing aperture that probably necessitated the creation of a fast-drying, self-cleaning variety of Wilton carpet.

Like the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, 103EX obviously attempts to marry extreme dimensions with a sense of lithe elegance, an endeavour that sounds as oxymoronic as the results have turned out to be. 103EX proves this even more forcefully than the new Phantom.

Of course, such similarities are hardly surprising, for both these cars are the first models whose design was fully overseen by current Rolls-Royce chief designer, Giles Taylor. Both the new Phantom and this concept car therefore act as showcases for what’s to come (which, of course, includes the Cullinan SUV).

Also in keeping with the new Phantom is the impression of brittle bulk 103EX creates – for despite its imposing stature, the graphics and odd proportions result in a highly compromised stance. The unused space underneath and beside the ‘bonnet’ also does not lend 103EX an air of grace, but makes it appear structurally unsound. Not to mention the side effect of rendering the awkward, enormous wheel casings even bigger and hence ill-proportioned than they are anyway.

Yet it is the shrinking the Parthenon grille to such an extent that it appears to belong to a downsized, Irv Rybicky-era Cadillac that is the most baffling component of 103EX’s exterior. The rounded-off edge on the new Phantom’s grille may not do that car any favours, but in the concept’s case – despite/because of the addition of a thick strap of chrome which also forms the ‘bonnet’s’ leading edge –  it simply destroys any sense of balance.

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Of course, any visual shortcomings could be excused in the context of an autonomous driving device, if the interior offered interesting enough solutions and pleasant enough an ambience for those to be chauffeured about. Unfortunately, Goodwood failed to come up with a worthwhile approach on this instance too.

Based on what Mr Taylor and his team created here, the luxury car of the future’s ambience shall be defined by carpet. Like a family van with the last row of seats taken out, 103EX’s supposedly sophisticated-minimalist cabin appears rather barren. Even more so as there is only so much satisfaction even spoiled plutocrats can get out of the opportunity to fully stretch their legs. Unfortunately, the floorspace isn’t quite large enough to enable stressed dot-com billionaires to indulge in a bit of yoga, either.

The choice of either taking in the traffic/scenery through the windshield (without the driver’s head spoiling the view) or watching a movie, playing a video game or monitoring the stock market in real time on 103EX’s enormous screen also hardly encapsulates ‘the good life’. But there is, of course, an analogue clock attached to the piece of interior that used to be the dashboard (and looks like a dashboard without controls and footwells)  – so all should be well in the world of the rich and famous, after all. Allegedly.

The lack of thought and beauty of Rolls-Royce’s supposed glimpse of the future is, all things considered, as irritating as it is astonishing. For this wasn’t the project of some half-talented design student at one of the less prestigious design schools – professionals got paid to come up with this. And no matter how rushed the creative process behind it may have been (very, on the basis of this evidence), the end result is of such embarrassing quality that those involved should have rather kept this under some oversized dust sheet.

So, given the enormous aesthetic and intellectual disappointment that Rolls-Royce’s 103EX represents, Mr Reichman’s statements are inevitably lent some credibility.

The ability to turn at least one set of wheels, photo (c) motorpassion.com.mx

Next to the Rolls-Royce, the Lagonda’s proportions certainly augur rather well in comparison. Despite claims of a ‘Concorde-like’ silhouette and having drawn inspiration from William Towns’ seminal 1976 Lagonda saloon, the luxury vehicle of the future bears most similarity to a sleek MPV – or, in other words: A less amiphibian-looking take on the semi-forgotten Mercedes R-class.

Though not nearly as visceral a damnation as this may sound at first, it nevertheless suggests that prospective buyers would have to have been prepared to accept such a set of proportions in the context of a luxury device in the first place.

Jaguar’s excellent I-pace has only recently begun the process of introducing EV-appropriate, yet appealing packaging to the production car fold, but it’ll take much more drastic changes on a far bigger scale to make the Lagonda’s basic form palatable to the very rich – and that includes the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Mr Reichman openly panders to. After all, even Steve Jobs owned a BMW Z8, rather than a Fiat Multipla (which would’ve been a more appropriate substitute to the original iMac design).

Nevertheless, the Lagonda’s complete absence of a ‘prestige gap’ is unquestionably preferable to the  Rolls-Royce’s daft ‘prestige crevice’.

The future of the carpet industry is secured, photo (c) leftlanenews.com

In keeping with the ‘sleek MPV’ theme, the Lagonda’s interior features seats that can be swivelled, not to mention a far more intricate environment than its Goodwood counterpart.

In addition, Reichman and his team have commendably chosen to employ some unusual materials for a luxury car interior, just as they decided to abandon polished wood, chrome and the typical fine-grain leather. In terms of seating comfort, the Lagonda could therefore be expected to be a more pleasant experience than the Rolls-Royce, both in objective and subjective terms.

Unfortunately, in striving for a striking, dynamic silhouette, Aston Martin designers have either inevitably or inadvertently lent the Lagonda a rather restrictive window line.  The addition of glass elements in the roof cannot quite counter this basic flaw, either.

However, some time spent in a Range Rover or previous generation Renault Espace would have been enough to demonstrate what a pivotal role daylight plays in creating a thoroughly pleasant, generously proportioned interior ambience. And a stint in the back of a Rolls-Royce Phantom would have shown that this can be combined with a sense of privacy, too.

Yet another caveat concerns the Lagonda’s basic shape though.

Showing the backside to the competition, photo (c) Car Design News

The man in this picture is the originator of the somewhat boastful claims that form the core of this very article. Admittedly, Marek Reichman is of above-average build, being about 1,95 metres tall. Yet even taking factors such as the distortion caused by a camera’s lens into account, it would appear as though the Lagonda’s cabin isn’t all that commodious, due to a simple lack of space. The seats certainly don’t give the impression as though they would bestow Mr Reichman himself with an awful lot of comfort, owing to the fact that they are just a bit too small.

But unlike Rolls-Royce’s affront of a concept car, the Lagonda warrants a closer look. Yet above all, both vehicles highlight the simple truth that none of these purveyors of luxury automobiles have a convincing answer to the questions autonomous driving might bring.

This isn’t to say these questions shouldn’t be asked in the first place, but it does suggest that no answer is better than an insultingly silly one.


The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at www.auto-didakt.com


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

14 thoughts on “Quo Vadis, Luxus?”

  1. When I first saw the Lagonda concept I remember thinunking this would have made a great first production car for the newly created DS brand. If only DS automobiles would have started with such an arresting and futuristic design to “ground” the brand in the first place. SUVs and superminis like the DS7 and DS3 are important to make volume but I still think the brand needed an unconventional flagship car first and foremost to recapture the essence of the original car.

  2. As much as I like the Lagonda concept I have a strange feeling about Aston Martin. Some of their work look amateurish, I’am not sure if it’s because they’re tight on cash but I realised only a few years ago that the products, as prestigious and strong as the brand is, have a certain “laissez-faire” attitude about them. They don’t look as well-put together as their German or Japanese counterparts. I always get the feeling the brand is on the brink of bankrupcy even when they’re not.

  3. I really like the concept that AML are trying to pursue. The puerile side of me still can’t help but look at the profile of the Lagonda, though, and see the Pink Panthermobile.

  4. I feel that neither concept is really satisfactory. The Rolls looks as if it were designed for a bad guy in the Marvel universe. The Lagonda does not seem to know what it is or who it is for.

    1. I can see what you mean for the Lagonda. It has that blurry quality to it. The fact that as an ultra luxurious concept it has a one-box MPV like set-up doesn’t help to clarify its position maybe ?

      The Rolls is just disturbing. The design almost has an orthopedic feel to it.

    2. AML should have kept quiet about any alleged Towns Lagonda or Concorde references. The concept car looks like a decent, but rather generic Autonomous Luxury effort that doesn’t feature any noticeable brand values.

      However, the Lagonda’s saving grace is the utter daftness of 103EX. They should’ve sunk that one in a lake. A very deep one.

  5. As some manner of knowing homage to ‘Thunderbirds’ Gerry Anderson, 103EX could be viewed (at a pinch, one supposes) as the rather prim old Spirit of Ecstasy demonstrating both her pop culture chops and a self deprecating ability to laugh at herself. However, it does appear that Rolls Royce were serious. Oh very, very dear…

    If Reichman’s Lagonda concept comes across as a little ill-judged and perhaps somewhat half-baked, it is at least not laughable, which in the context of Goodwood’s overture, can be judged as (grudging) success. Had Torsten Müller-Ötvös been smart, he would have treated Reichman’s outburst with a haughty and disdainful silence, instead of getting his beautifully stitched and painstakingly handcrafted leather handbag out.

    Mind you, to stretch this further, the smart thing would have been to have forbidden 103EX to have escaped from the secure confines of the fragrant Giles Taylor’s studios. With that in mind, if we are to question Müller-Ötvös’ taste and judgement (and I believe we ought), what are we to say about Taylor’s? And where do we stop once we begin?

    1. Arguably most unconcerning about 103EX is that it shares quite a few traits/weaknesses with the new Phantom. I guess Mr Taylor intentionally went for that this ‘brittle bulk’ look. Cullinan will be interesting…

  6. The most pertinent comment so far is that the Lagonda could very well have been a haut de gamme DS and that DS ought to have started from the top down. And the question of luxury is tricky: I think there is some manner of limit before luxury becomes revolting. The conception of luxury revolving around more and more of better and better was valid and open ended at one point. Versailles (the palace not the “Lincoln”) more or less showed how much was too much. In cars, the Maybach is the end-stop of gratuitous everything-on-top. Designers need to be more subtle but perhaps the customers are not going to accept it low-key good taste.

    1. The references to the Towns’ Lagonda or indeed to Concorde are lost on me. I cannot see either.

      Luxury has already moved past the revolting stage in my view. I found images of the latest Bentley interiors to be positively distressing. Mercedes’ top-line interiors are similarly stomach turning. Even the once immune Rolls Royce now regularly strays into the realm of vulgarity.

      Luxury ought to be about serenity. A repose and respite from the clamour of the outside world. Lovely materials, yes. Beautiful craftsmanship, absolutely. But quiet, please. Know your place. These modern luxury interiors would give me a migraine.

    2. I couldn’t agree with you more. That Nissan Teana interior on Sunday summed up luxury to my mind.

  7. The reason I got into this car design business was a misguided belief that I might one day aspire to making a contribution to automotive elegance.
    Not only have I failed personally, it could be argued that the whole opinionated bunch of us have let the side down.
    The automobile has been rendered vulgar, disposable and pretty much instantly forgettable these last twenty years.
    Some measure of proof of how dire the product has become can be found in the booming popularity of the product of the past.
    The E30 BMW, the Saab 900, any 105 series Alfa Romeo or Lancia Fulvia and the ultimate vehicle of desire these past five years, the air-cooled Porsche 911. Preferably a pre-G, but prices being what they are..
    In fact, pretty much anything that has resisted the ravages of time and can provide a stylish way of getting about that won’t become elecronically obsolete is cool.
    Today’s product is guaranteed to be consigned to oblivion by its own complexity.
    The fact that most mass-market cars have faces that resemble a buggered baboon’s is curious, given that shameless displays of naked agression are somewhat frowned upon today. Or is it that the excesses of car luxury design are filtering down, that we are giving people a taste of what they really want but can’t afford?
    Beacons of hope are provided by Land Rover (thanks Gerry!) and Volvo. Respect for company heritage rater than shameless pillagig of the past with a liberal dose of name dropping.
    I lament the passing of Setright and Bulgin. Two chaps who would have put us jumped-up stylists in our places.
    Up to you, chaps!

    1. Rob, thanks for stopping by. While we will forever be teetering on the shoulders of giants, I can assure you, we will do our best – not least the author of this fine piece.

      I suppose one question worth asking is whether these nakedly aggressive exteriors and absurdly fussy cabins are a reflection of our times, or are instead helping to fuel it. Perhaps the answer is both, simultaneously. One curious aspect of this disposability you refer to, is that the manufacturers must realise by doing so, they are hastening their own demise. After all, who will stand up for the human-piloted motor car if it becomes not only indefensible, but subject to apathy?

      It is a subject we will return to shortly, but in the meantime, speaking of the estimable Mr. McGovern, tomorrow’s DTW offering may interest you – on a number of levels…

  8. The 103EX is barfworthy; god knows what they were thinking. Perhaps channeling their inner Plymouth Prowler and adding steroids and uselessness

    The Aston thing fails at a fundamental level – height of seat off floor. No purchaser of a so-called *luxury* car, whether they be chauffered by a human or some bodged set of autonomous driving electronics, is going to be satisfied sitting in the back, legs sprawled in front of them, becoming experts on local council kerbstone design. Just a pathetic premise – low-slung *luxury*. Who cares about external design in the case of the Aston when the final product is completely unfit for purpose?

    On the other hand, thanks to DTW for reminding us that these abominations exist. I had seen them before in show reports and instantly dismissed them from my mind as nothing more than misbegotten whimsy.

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