Last week’s Beijing takeaway has led to an unpleasant case of indigestion, courtesy of our friends at Baden-Wüttermberg.
“We have a social responsibility. Somebody has to stop this nonsense.” These were the words of BMW’s Hans-Peter Weisbarth, spoken in 1989 in the context of the horsepower race that was consuming the German car industry at the time. One I might add, which shows no sign of abatement some thirty years later.
But today, they also lend themselves to a different race to the bottom which seems to hold the motor industry in a deathly grip. Much has already been said (on these pages and elsewhere) about the increasing uglification and visual aggression of modern car design, but last week’s Beijing Motor Show has opened a new and disturbing front in the vulgarity wars, one which suggests a rapidly approaching watershed.
It’s therefore perhaps appropriate this harbinger should emanate from the studios of Daimler AG Chief Design Officer, and believer in beauty and intelligence, Gorden Wagener. With no trace of irony or embarrassment, but a hefty dollop of tautology, the stable genius of Sindelfingen heralded the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury’s show debut, lauding it as “a totally new archetype of kind never seen before.”
Please indulge me here, because Daimler’s CDO truly has a unique way with words. “With sensuality and pure sophistication”, Mr. Wagener continued, “we have created a timeless vehicle that underscores the position of Mercedes-Maybach as the ultimate luxury brand.” The only great unknown it would seem is where exactly the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury lies on the all-important Hot and Cool spectrum, upon which nostrum, the blessed one has remained frustratingly silent.
While the question of how many people’s idea of ultimate luxury the united perfection of an Allegro Vanden Plas and a jacked-up Mazda 121 actually represents is one we might choose to leave for another time, what we can say without too much ado is that the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury is in visual terms both unintentionally and unabashedly hilarious.
But once the hysterical laughter subsides, one soon realises it isn’t much of a laughing matter. Because this isn’t the result of work of some jumped-up Chinese-market pantry boy who doesn’t know his place, and while we should probably be inured by now to the assaults upon form, surface and taste that characterise the Sensual Puritan of Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, this latest concept raises some unsettling questions.
We are rapidly losing the argument for unmonitored, user-managed personal mobility. A combination of external factors; environmental, commercial and technological, combined with a growing distaste from the driving public for an industry which has not only proved conniving but untrustworthy, is leading to a dangerous vacuum where nobody is making an intelligent case for the motor car as we know it.
What has the Maybach concept got to do with this, you ask? Plenty. Because in all its lurid vainglory it represents the latest, perhaps sharpest yet, nail in its coffin.
It’s no use trying to justify this sordid confection on the basis that it’s aimed specifically at Chinese tastes. That’s simplistic and patronising. It’s targeted at a rarefied (if growing) market where mindless consumption, preferably of the scarce or endangered variety is viewed not only as a positive virtue but a divine right – and one not expressly confined to East Asian command economies. These are deeply insecure vehicles aimed squarely at the deeply insecure, a perfect feedback loop in a World seemingly gone stark raving nuts.
From the frankly ludicrous exterior with its desperate aura of delusional self-importance, the chintz-palace cabin with its unicorn hair stitching, child-mined rose gold appliqué, magic wood and duck’s tears, you have the perfect vehicle for today’s tin pot plutocrat – preferably one with the requisite pair of tiny hands.
Today’s Dieter Zetsche-helmed Daimler has become so untethered from its past values that it has ceased to be anything one could recognise, let alone admire. But even if it has become the ne plus ultra of everything that’s wrong with today’s motor business, Mercedes are not alone. The entire German industry appears to have fallen into the same decadent spiral – one eerily akin to that of Detroit’s Big Three during the immediate pre-oil crisis period when it appeared as though the bonanza would never end.
One of course could (cogently) argue that in Mr. Wagener we are dealing with a mediocre talent promoted well beyond his capabilities, who having fortuitously attained commercial (and critical) success, not only appears to have bought into his own deluded sense of omnipotence, but has successfully convinced a credulous and apparently visually illiterate Daimler board of it as well.
But it’s pointless blaming the child, even if he’s had too much fizzy-pop. It’s the adults in the room who ought to know better. Irrelevant too against the wider issue of where all this is leading, because where it’s likely to lead is to proscription. In 2009, BMW’s Hans-Peter Weisbarth spoke of social responsibility, a quality today’s generation of motor business leaders appear to have lost sight of in an adrenaline-fuelled dash towards the cliff-edge. Certainly we look to them for leadership or any sense of restraint or decorum in vain.
Who will stop this madness? On current form it seems unlikely to be the German industry, who are failing not simply those of us who still hold the motor car dear, but ultimately the very industry they serve. History is unlikely to judge them kindly.