“Let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a whileHeaven can wait we’re only watching the skies Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”
– Forever Young by Alphaville, 1984
No more synthwave. No more chrome word art. No more pixels. No more neon. It’s enough. Enough, enough, enough al-fucking-ready. If I’m subjected to any more of the above, I’m going to plotz. To quote Captain Picard in First Contact, “The line must be drawn HERE. NO FURTHER!” Goddamn Millenials and Zoomers. Stop rehashing Generation X’s pop culture and go and make something new of your own.
You’re goddamn right. I did get out of bed on the wrong side. What is it that’s really put a dent in my normally sunny demeanor this morning? CES is happening in Vegas right now (our very own Patrick George is now there petting snow tigers and betting the entire Autopian mortgage on black) and overnight a new BMW concept appeared with a marketing video that leans so heavily into 1980s references it features not only the walking condom full of walnuts himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but hair perm in a leather jacket David Hasselhoff. Jesus Helicoptering Christ. The only thing creaking more than their ancient bodies was the video itself under the weight of all the ham that was crammed into its six and a bit minutes running time.
Before we get started on the ’80s, remember the ’90s? It was an embarrassment of cultural riches, from Grunge driving a stake through the heart of hair metal (RIP) to the reinvention of John Travolta as a heroin-addicted hitman. Technology was moving at lightspeed. Sony turned computer gaming from something boys did alone in a dark bedroom to a post-night-out living room activity with your buddies. Mobile phones were changing shape and form factor by the week. As the decade rolled on, the dirty collages of David Carson gave way to the futuristic pop art of The Designers Republic. The year 2000 was approaching and it was the fucking future, man. Translucent organic forms, bold colors and almost indecipherable graphic design showed us the shiny tech utopia we’d all be living in just a few short years’ time. It was a digital Wild West. When the calendars flipped over and the century began with the number 2, it all fell apart.
The Baby Boomers had already planted the poisonous seeds for this earlier in the decade, but we Gen X-ers were curious enough to indulge them and they had the positions of creation. We were only in a position to consume. Hollywood began digging up the corpses of long-forgotten ’60s TV shows and splashing them on the big screen starting with The Addams Family in 1991, and following that with adaptations of all manner of boob-tube dross that don’t stand up to contemporary viewing. Lost in Space. The Fugitive. The Flintstones. Shit, they even made a Beverly Hillbillies movie.
Car manufacturers got in the act too, starting with the Prowler Concept in 1993. Chrysler shat out plenty more retro vehicles, but the man probably most singularly responsible was my old tutor J Mays, who had a fucking book written about his work: Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays (coincidentally he had a brief spell at BMW in the early ’80s). As president of Volkswagen Group design, he oversaw the New Beetle, the Audi Avus Concept and the Freeman Thomas-designed Audi TT, before moving to Ford and doing it all over again with the Ford GT, Thunderbird and various Lincoln and Mercury concepts. The Nostalgia Wave of car design had truly arrived.
I have a theory about why this happened. The year 2000 was approaching; for the Boomers, it was frightening. The kids with their internet and their PlayStations. Why didn’t they stop slacking off and get real jobs? The Boomers had grown up in the ’50s and ’60s, which very real discrimination and equality issues aside were a period of incredible economic progress and prosperity. A decent blue-collar job would support a mortgage, a family, two cars and a college education. By the ’90s, this was a bad joke and Generation X was the butt of it, recognized as the first cohort where prospects were significantly worse than that of their parents, not better as had been the case for previous generations.
Although globalization was presented as the cure-all that ended the cold war, it had very real consequences in the gutting of whole industries as manufacturing across the western world was offshored, leaving entire communities in grinding poverty. So it’s entirely natural the Boomers wanted to look back to a more certain, familiar time when things were “better” and teenagers respected their elders rather than shrugging their shoulders at them.
For a lot of people not in the middle classes, the ’80s were utterly shit. Aside from being left behind by the wealth being generated elsewhere, those of us in the inner cities and the industrial heartlands had to contend with Reagan and Thatcher deregulating and privatizing previously publicly owned utilities and the destruction of social safety nets in the name of profit and “efficiency.” Whole working-class communities were destroyed never to recover.
As life online re-emerged from the ashes of the dot-com bust, it began to pervade our everyday existence. No longer was it a place for tedious fandoms to argue about which imaginary character could take another imaginary character in a fight; it became a place for Generation X to start storing and discussing their cultural childhoods. I’m not entirely blaming Ernest Cline for this, as he came along much later. But he made it official and codified it. How cool you were was not now defined by how up-to-date your clothes were — it was how many Glen A Larson television shows you could name.
As mentioned in my piece about the Hyundai N Vision 74 (still a shit name), I was born in 1973. Without looking for sympathy, my childhood was a miserable disaster. Poverty and abuse aside, I had a lot of behavioral problems due to undiagnosed autism. The (dubious) solution the local council came up with was to send me away to a private boarding school. I went from being the smartest kid in a local school to the poorest kid in a rich kids’ school. It was hell.
While I was there probably half of my classmates had parents in the British military stationed all over the world, but mainly in what was then West Germany. Until the Berlin wall came down in 1989 (the year I left school) the very real threat of armed conflict was EVERYWHERE.
Threads was a nuclear apocalypse war drama created by the BBC and shown in 1984. It’s so disturbing in its depiction of society’s collapse after a nuclear exchange (I honestly have never had the balls to watch it) that not only did it prompt Reagan to pursue peace with the Soviet Union, it was not broadcast on British television again for EIGHTEEN years. [Editor’s Note: The analogue for us Americans I think has to be The Day After, from 1983. It was just as grim. – JT]
In English Literature class, not only did we read Brit-lit staples like 1984, Cider with Rosie and Shakespeare. Oh no. We had to read, discuss and write essays about a novel called Children of the Dust. Take a wild stab in the dark at what the subject matter was.
Let’s circle back to cars, since that’s the ostensible reason you’re all here.
BMW basically defined its whole brand in the ’80s. In the UK, an E30 became a de rigueur fashion accessory for newly minted City of London banker boys as much as a pair of red braces or a Motorola DynaTAC. F1 engines running rocket fuel making 1500bhp in qualifying and DTM racers trading paint every other weekend established BMWs credentials as a thrusting, upmarket macho brand.
Forget old BMW. It’s a dead baby. If you watch the film accompanying the I Vision DEE (what the actual cocking fuck) it’s puzzling because it’s taking a steaming dump from altitude on its past models while using a version of the past to sell the future. The I Vision DEE (for Digital Emotional Experience) is a precursor to the new Neue Klasse electric saloons that are coming. And given their recent visual abominations it surprisingly doesn’t make me want to blind myself by chugging a quart of Torch Oil.
In the side view the line of the fender as it bends down towards the front is a little severe, making me think it could use a bit more dash to axle so that curve has more room to work. The shark nose, Hofmeister kink and kidney grille are once again all present and correct, but halle-fucking-luiah they’re been kept crisp and modern.
The most noticeable improvement is the calmness of the surfacing and the absence of tortured direction changes in the sheet metal that have characterized recent BMW concepts (and production cars). There’s no fighting of graphical elements here. It’s serene, yet subtly aggressive like the best BMWs of the past have been.
The exterior panels are made up of color-changing screens, which is some concept car hand-wavy magic bullshit. It’s probably appealing to stereotypical BMW owners because they could park illegally and then make their car blend into its surroundings so it becomes invisible and they don’t get a ticket. If you look closely past the seizure-inducing color patterns you can see faint lines fanning out from the wheel arches and where the bodywork wraps around the corners of the car – probably because there’s a limit to the amount of curvature those e-ink panels can achieve.
The overall effect looks a bit like Autodesk Alias’s surface diagnostic tools – probably not the effect they were aiming for. The only real complaint is that it’s a little plain – it could use some trim to fancy it up a bit, but that would get in the way of the chameleon gimmick so it’s understandable they’ve kept the surfaces as uncluttered as possible.
My suspicion is that Adrian van Honkytonk is one of those designers who thinks he needs to be bleeding edge at all costs to have any credibility. Which is, of course, bullshit.
A good designer shouldn’t be tied to the past but neither should they neglect it. There are lessons and meanings back there if we look past the surface and understand the intention. I’m not one for wallowing in nostalgia. I think hoarding roomfuls of plastic crap because it’s associated with something that made you feel happy in the past is pointless. We live in the now. But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate the past. I have a B&O Beolit 600 radio from 1970, and it’s delightful. Its appeal to me is very much rooted in the present – its built quality and thoughtful design are as relevant today as they were when it was new. Also, it still works faultlessly, and I have a love affair with radio as a medium.
I hear you now. “But Adrian, you identify with a sub-culture that’s rooted in the past! Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”
Well, again here’s the thing: While goth grew out of punk, the look has adapted and evolved over time to take into account changing tastes and fashions. The attitudes, sensibilities and outlook are as relevant today as they always were. I listen to two podcasts a week containing completely new “goth” music, despite the fact The Sisters of Mercy haven’t released a studio album of new music since 1990.
So yeah, my view of the ’80s is considerably less neon-tinted than that of those who never experienced it firsthand by dint of not having popped out of the womb in time. And this is what dicks me. The ’80s weren’t just a few visual shorthand cliches, it’s not even one aesthetic: It’s a whole bunch of generational circumstances and events that forged a unique decade.
Millennials only think it’s cool because the internet told them so, and they’re so used to living online that they don’t realize there’s a whole load of context and history they’re missing out on. I regularly have to implore my students to go to the library when doing their research. The fact that the entire history of everything isn’t contained online is a completely alien concept to them.
[Editor’s Note: I believe Mr.Clarke would like everyone to get the hell of his lawn now, please. – JT]