Fastback To The Future

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. 

The other The Car Of The Future, photo (c) Avengers in Time

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.

photo (c) carstyling.ru

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.

The Car Of The Future, photo (c) Tesla

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.

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine //

13 thoughts on “Fastback To The Future”

  1. It is always good to see the Trevi being mentioned.
    What made the fastback such an odd concept was the fact many of them did not have fifth door but a bootlid. That means there was a strange (and hard to clean) wedge of room enclosed by glass but not accessible. The fastback only made sense if it meant the car could have a fifth door. The Beta was super odd in that there were two four-door cars, one with a boot and one with a fastback. I don´t honestly know how that was justified other than pure expediency.

    1. The concept of a non-hatchback must have been taken to its extreme by the original Citroen GS where only the vertical part below the window opened including the centre part of the bumper. You got a completely rectangular boot that could be loaded only in an absolutely horizontal direction. CXs and early ‘Suds weren’t that much better. The Sud in particular had an enormously large boot and a letterbox lid. The sprint was even better in having a hatch but non-folding rear seats and an enormously high load sill.

  2. I like fastback cars, but loathe the mutation of this style that is the “Coupé SUV”, a totally pointless invention that enables drivers of large SUVs to turn up their aggression another notch or two:

    BMW seems to be especially incapable of designing a pleasing looking fastback:

    1. I agree with you Daniel, these high rise ‘coupes’ are a disgrace.

      But you are being a little harsh in ignoring the 4 Gran Coupe – awful name, but a nice-looking car that has challenged the Three box orthodoxy.

    2. Good morning, Jacamo. Funnily enough, I thought about the rather good looking (by BMW satandards, at least) 4 and 6-Series Gran Coupés, but I don’t regard them as true fastbacks as they still have a discernible horizontal bootlid, even if the 4-Series is a hatchback. I’m probably splitting hairs here, but my post, so my rules!

    3. I still think the 1st-generation GT5 is an excellent looking car that was unfairly maligned. The front end was particularly well executed.
      The X6 I find on the other hand particularly offensive.

  3. Dictionary result for fastback:

    /ˈfɑːs(t)bak/

    noun

    a car with a rear that slopes continuously down to the bumper.

    1. I don’t know of any car with a rear that slopes continuously down to the bumper. Surely such an arrangement would look like the front of a Lotus Espirit. Every fastback must feature a bit of a Kamm tail.

    2. Hi John, I think Google means the rear extremity of the car, rather than specifically the bumper. In other words, there is no horizontal section between the sloping section and vertical rear panel, as is the case with both the BMWs above.

    3. How about a Bentley Continental R

      Porsche 356 A

      Alfa Giulietta Sprint Speciale

      Tatra 603

      VW 1600 TL “Traurige Lösung”

  4. On the subject of the Pininfarina Berlina Aerodynamica whose styling theme was applied to the 1800 and 1100 as well as by BMC/BL themselves on the Mini as the Pininfarina 1000 Aerodynmica (albeit on a Minivan platform with a length close to 12ft / 144-inches).

    One cannot help but contemplate a Citroen that made better decisions developing an early-70s equivalent of the Citroen Axel with shrunken Citroen GS like styling akin to the Pininfarina Berlina Aerodynamica or Mini-based Pininfarina 1000 Aerodynmica, interestingly the Citroen Axel is itself roughly of similar dimensions to the 1100/1300 despite being featuring only 3-doors (unlike during its development).

    On top of that it appears there were unrealised plans for Citroen to converted its air-cooled Flat-2/4 engines to water-cooling with displacements up to 95 hp 1654cc+

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