Who doesn’t love a good concept car? Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, that’s who. Or, rather, he likes a good concept car but doesn’t like what it too often doesn’t become: a good production car.
“Hate it when companies bring out an awesome show car then you can never actually buy it,” Musk said recently in fewer than 140 characters. “So lame.”
I take his point. The first question posed to any manufacturer when you see a terrific new car, daintily poised on a spinning turntable on a motor show stand, is an entirely reasonable: “Will you build it?”
The answer is often along the lines of what sounds, to the layman, far less reasonable: “Ah, well, you know… design study… gauge customer reaction…advanced technology… debut of our new design language…”
It’s the sort of answer that means nothing to most impartial onlookers. And I think that a lot of us in this game – perhaps me included – get a bit blind to that.
If I went to any consumer or trade show as an interested observer, walked over to a stand and thought, “Flipping heck, I’d like one of those”, only to be told that, “Actually sir, I’m afraid we don’t make those. How about this uninteresting product instead?”, I’d feel a bit let down.
However, I can see how the industry gets here. It gets here through decades of carefully managing product cycles that have given it big factories with huge capacities. Huge capacities that it can’t afford to risk making idle, given how small profit margins are and how twitchy shareholders will get. It breeds conservatism.
Dipping a toe into the exciting and relatively cheap waters of concept cardom is sometimes a design team’s only liberating outlet.
Then here comes Elon Musk, whose other job is trying to get a space rocket to autonomously land not just any old where but on a remote platform floating in the middle of the ocean – and he tells you you’re lame for doing it.
Actually, I still think he has a point. Bold decisions – such as Audi putting the TT concept into production almost unaltered and changing the perception of its cars, or Nissan abandoning boring hatchbacks and opting to make the Qashqai instead – were some of the smartest moves in the past two decades.
What were once niches are the new normal, and – this bit still seems to surprise some mid-market car makers – people don’t have to buy boring cars any more. They have a choice, and design sells. The short of it is, if a show car makes a punter’s jaw drop, why would you not try to sell him one?