Carmakers are charging away from internal combustion and towards electric vehicles with such staggering amounts of cash and confidence, it looks for all the world as if they know what they’re doing. Which is true, if it simply means that they know they want to get from A to B. But there’s no GPS guidance for this, no reassuring “Proceed straight ahead at lithium-ion”. They have targets. But this is a journey into Terra incognita.
Of the scores of electric vehicles coming our way, it’s impossible to predict which will be the landmarks in this new country, the 21st century equivalents of a Ford Model T or Volkswagen Beetle. Or even if they will arrive at all.
But we can be encouraged by the past. In 2021, car enthusiasts have celebrated birthdays for a handful of last century’s game-changing designs. For various reasons, the Jaguar E-type, Lamborghini Countach, Porsche Boxster and DeLorean DMC-12 invariably appear in 20th century short lists and can count themselves bit-players in popular culture. They acted as signposts during the internal combustion era and look certain to guide the electric future, too.
Nothing epitomises postwar optimism quite like this British sports car, which joined the Mini in swinging through the ’60s. It was top of the design pops for many; even Enzo Ferrari admitted it was “the most beautiful car in the world”. It also offered serious performance from a racing-derived 3.8-litre straight-six, so it attracted a fast crowd, from Frank Sinatra to Brigitte Bardot. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are more than 500 Jaguar E-types in the country, representing every year of the 14 it was in production.
Fans celebrated the model’s 60-year anniversary at Sydney Harbour Concours in March with a diverse display of nine E-types. Events in the United Kingdom also marked the occasion, although the half-century in 2011 generated more fanfare. One difference between then and now is that today Jaguar has a spiritual successor to the E-type in the F-type, launched in 2013 — its first and only true heir.
Jaguar has used the anniversary to release the F-type Heritage 60 Edition, featuring a retro green paint job, two- tone interior and commemorative badging. Power comes from a 423kW supercharged 5.0-litre V8, with all- wheel drive and racy suspension. Just 60 coupes and convertibles will be built. Rarity has been priced in at $330,000 apiece, with just five cars coming Down Under. Even more exclusive are the six matching pairs of meticulously restored E-type coupes and roadsters that take their inspiration from the original cars featured at the 1961 Geneva motor show, price undisclosed.
The former Jaguar design director Ian Callum said the impact of the E-type “is impossible to overstate” and that it “continues to inform the work we do in styling Jaguars of the future”. On a professional level, Callum discharged that debt with the F-type. But for Jaguar the brand, the E-type is both blessing and curse. It casts an indelible halo but was such a runaway hit, no subsequent model could ever measure up.
According to the new CEO, Thierry Bolloré, the attitude that inspired the car is more important than any single model. “When the E-type was revealed, no-one could have anticipated such a design,” he told the specialist British website Autocar. “We will use the same principles.” Those principles will inform his Reimagine plan, a scorched-earth reset of Jaguar’s direction “to realise its unique potential” as an all-electric luxury brand from 2025.
While the E-type was penned by an aerodynamic engineer during the glamorous birth of the jet age, within the decade there was something even more inspiring: the moon landing. It became symbolic of mankind’s ability to stretch limits and explore frontiers. With the Countach, first shown as the LP500 concept at the 1971 Geneva show, Lamborghini rose to the challenge.
Its designer, Marcello Gandini, had form when it came to groundbreaking shapes. The Lamborghini Miura, a gorgeous, curvaceous skateboard of a supercar, was the first with a mid- mounted engine — a template for high performance that has held sway since.
The Aventador is near the end of its life cycle and for its replacement, Lamborghini will transition to a new V12 boosted by a hybrid electric system, with plans for a pure battery model by the end of the decade. To bridge the gap between old and new, it has turned to the Countach. Unveiled in August, the Countach LPI 800-4 is part retro, part homage, and imagines how the original “might have evolved”.
“The Countach LPI 800-4 is a visionary car of the moment, just as its forerunner was,” says the CEO Stephan Winkelmann, adding that it “represents our philosophy of reinventing boundaries, achieving the unexpected and extraordinary and, most importantly, being the ‘stuff of dreams’.”
A “mild” hybrid, it has the outgoing 6.5-litre V12 boosted by an electric motor, by way of introducing Lamborghini customers to the technology. It’s quite a handshake: the combo driveline delivers 599kW of power capable of blasting the hypercar to 100 kilometres per hour in a mere 2.8 seconds and on to a maximum speed of 355 kilometres per hour. Short of a Saturn rocket, it will be as close as owners get to escape velocity. Naturally, the price is astronomical: €2,010,000 (more than $3.2 million) plus taxes, and production is limited to 112 units in reference to the original project code. Coincidentally, that’s 100 more than the number of Countachs registered in Australia and also 100 more than the number of people who have walked on the moon.
However, the Countach became Lamborghini’s defining document. It rotated the engine so that it runs north-south for better handling, and debuted a futuristic angular styling that the Italian brand has since made its own. Extrovert features that first appeared on the Countach, such as its upward-opening scissor doors, have appeared in every subsequent Lamborghini V12, from Diablo to the current flagship, Aventador.
Porsche has a reputation for being a profit machine with operating margins that are
the envy of the industry. One reason is its reputation for rock-solid engineering, which earns it legions of loyalists. Another is a willingness to roll the dice on new models that stretch the brand, such as the Cayenne SUV or its first pure electric car, the four-door Taycan, and come away a winner.
But it wasn’t always like that. During the 1990s Porsche almost went bust. Its assembly lines were desperately inefficient and sales were plummeting. One solution was to enlist the help of Toyota alumni to streamline production. Another was to rationalise its range and adopt a strategy, now commonplace, of component sharing across models.
Porsche abandoned plans for a new four-seater and instead came up with the Boxster — a mid- engine roadster that borrowed parts from its core model, the 911, but had smaller, less powerful engines. With cost and complexity reduced, it was pitched at younger buyers with a more accessible price. Boxster was its best-seller until the Cayenne came along, and Porsche hasn’t looked back.
Boxster will mark 25 years of production with an edition for fans who have consistently rated it the best roadster you can buy. The Boxster 25 Years is limited to 1,250 units and comes with a 294kW 4.0-litre six-cylinder “boxer” engine, plus a red leather cabin and red fabric roof inspired by the original. Prices start at $183,900. The spokesperson for Porsche Australia, Chris
Jordan, says demand for its sports cars has been strong in 2021. “We’re benefiting from discretionary spending that would have gone on holidays — and the fact that on a local holiday, you can be driving your new car.” Like the rest of the auto industry, Porsche is pouring billions into electrifying its lineup, with a goal of 50 per cent plug-in hybrids or pure battery sales by mid-decade. The biggest challenge will be its sports cars, where the sound and fury of internal combustion is integral to their appeal.
Boxster has previously debuted driveline technology — it was the first Porsche to have water-cooled engines and the latest generation reintroduced four-cylinder units. Porsche is known to be working on an electric Boxster that, in a couple of years, is likely to be its first battery- powered sports car. It’s vital that it succeeds. But then the Boxster has come up trumps before.
If the Boxster was an ace, then the DeLorean DMC-12 was a wildcard that failed to win a trick despite its hold on the popular imagination. And even that is something of a fluke.
In the original script for the film “Back to the Future”, the time machine was built out of an old refrigerator that had to be carted around in a ute. The idea of turning it into a car, according to the screenwriter Bob Gale, came as shooting loomed and the director realised that a fridge would be a logistical nightmare. “At the time, John DeLorean was on trial so he said, ‘Let’s make it a DeLorean!’ ” says Gale, referring to the infamous fall from grace of the car company chief and his singular sports car, the DMC-12.
Released in 1981, the DMC-12 is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a plethora of events and conventions (Covid-19 allowing). But even in a regular year, the DMC-12 — one of the most recognised and adored vehicles of all time — is a source of celebration, according to Gale. “When they see the gullwing doors open up, people go nuts,” he said during a 2018 episode on the popular YouTube channel Jay Leno’s Garage.
The DMC-12’s doors, wedge shape and stainless steel body made it a standout design in 1981. That, along with John DeLorean’s reputation as a celebrity “car guy”, helped attract high-profile investors and buyers to his project. But even admirers admit that on its vehicular merits alone, the DMC-12 would be a footnote in car history. The starting price of $US25,000 pitched it against Porsche and Ferrari but it was dogged by quality issues, and its 2.8-litre V6 with just 97kW of power left enthusiasts wanting more.
Sales soon dried up and in 1982 John DeLorean’s company filed for bankruptcy having produced just 9,000 cars. In its wake it left a scandalised British government, which had poured millions into the project, plus a redundant factory and stood-down workers in one of the most troubled areas of Northern Ireland. With DeLorean’s subsequent trial on drugs charges (he was eventually acquitted), he stayed in the headlines and has since become a film/TV subject himself — a 2021 Netflix documentary series is the latest in a string of productions.
The DMC-12 remains a cultural touchstone thanks to the enduring appeal of “Back to the Future” (and its two sequels) as well as many surviving examples, including at least three dozen road-registered vehicles in Australia (out of a total thought to be about 150).
Remarkably, there’s an epilogue being written that will see the DMC-12 reborn as an electric vehicle. In the mid-1990s, the Texas-based DeLorean Motor Company (no relation), which was established to service and restore the vehicles, acquired all the DMC-12 engineering drawings and tooling, as well as millions of leftover parts. For years it has harboured a revival plan and the company’s vice-president, James Espey, says that to future-proof the car “we’re actively looking to make the low-volume DeLorean an EV”.
With a thousand original stainless steel doors on hand, parts will be a mixture of old and new, with the result closely following the 1980s shape. Suspension, brakes and wheels will be upgraded while the cabin needs a revamp — as Espey notes, “Most people don’t want an AM-FM cassette player in their car any longer.”
The plan hinges on changes to low-volume production rules due by the end of 2021 and Espey expects production to begin 12 to 18 months afterwards. Prices will start from $US125,000 to $US150,000 (approximately $173,000 to $208,000) and assembly will be limited to about 100 cars a year. Espey says the fact that the DMC-12 design was frozen four decades ago is one of its strengths, as generation after generation falls for it. “Some place in the world right now one of those three movies is on TV somewhere and someone is being exposed to it for the first time,” he says. “I can’t think of any other vehicle that gets that kind of exposure on a daily basis. You can’t buy that.”