Hidden in the shadow of the Sports Utility Vehicle’s claims for world domination, another, hitherto almost extinct category of automobile has gained some new-found relevance.
Forty years ago, the car body shape of now, and presumably the future too, was the fastback. Aerodynamically efficient and avant-garde in its appearance, the fastback acted as the stylistic embodiment of the progressive values of the 1970s. It wasn’t some stuffy estate car (those were only really for craftsmen and catholic families anyway), yet almost as practical. It wasn’t a bourgeois saloon either, finally doing away with that silly remnant of the carriage age – the separate boot, without being, well, a craftsman’s car.
The fastback’s reputation as a representative of progressive values was not so much due to it being remotely related to futuristic teardrop-shaped experimental designs from the pre-war era (Schlörwagen, Dymaxion car, Tatraplan) or the Kamm tail. Its eminent popularity during the late 1960s was an immediate consequence of a concept car whose relevance simply cannot be overestimated: Paolo Martin’s seminal Pininfarina/BMC 1800.
Alas, just like the reigns of centre-left heads of state such as Jimmy Carter, James Callaghan or Helmut Schmidt were coming to an end by the early 1980s, so was the industry-wide belief in the superiority of the fastback’s architecture.
To add insult to injury (or, depending on one’s view point, extending the geistig-moralische Wende into the aesthetic realm), a proper regressive movement was set in motion, which resulted in more than one automobile explicitly designed as a fastback being retroactively revised as a saloon shape.
Certain (mostly leftfield) manufacturers may have kept their faith in the fastback since, but the last volume model fastback went out of production with the final generation of Renault’s Laguna in 2015.
So far, so predictable – what with the wider public having adapted a penchant for visual traits that are the opposite of the fastback’s implied qualities of intelligence and progressiveness in particular. However, the fastback not only lives on, but has been staging a clandestine comeback for some years.
For all its generic flair, what Tesla unquestionably achieved with their first series production car, the Model S, has been to (re)establish the fastback as one of the cyphers for cutting-edge progressiveness. In a staunchly conservative sector – that of the luxury saloon – Elon Musk and his chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, prudently, yet disappointingly chose an anti-confrontational stylistic approach for entering this end of the market with a game changing product.
Rather than challenge or possibly even alienate tentative customers with wildly imaginative shapes or previously unknown design solutions, they went for a body shape that isn’t quite the norm, but still quite clearly an automobile as we know it – bonnet, prestige gap, rear haunch and all, even though it wouldn’t need any of them.
In that context of deliberate stylistic conservatism, the Model S’ fastback adds exactly enough leftfield appeal for the Tesla not to appear utterly staid. In addition, the practical and aerodynamic benefits of this basic design have obviously remained the same since the BMC 1800 – the difference being that the lack of exposure to the concept over the past two decades or so have made it appear more original than it is.
The Model S’ fastback shape has this turned what the Toyota Prius’ Kamm tail is to the more mundane part of the market to the more sophisticated end of ‘green motoring ‘: A stylistic benchmark, whose basic features have had a profound effect on the entire industry, despite neither vehicle being a paragon of style.
Despite the design’s almost virulent spread since the Model S’ success stunned the entire industry, it remains to be seen whether the fastback is here to stay this time around. But for the time being, one could do worse then welcome back one of automotive design’s smarter concepts. Even more so in the context of the increasingly anti-intellectual climate within today’s car design realm. Bonnet, prestige gap, rear haunch and all.
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