John McIlroy is Deputy Editor of Auto Express
Mark Twain once said: "There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations."
You could be forgiven for thinking that the car industry is hell bent on proving the American author's theory. Only last week, BMW used the prestigious Concours d'Eleganza at Lake Como in Italy to unveil a concept preview of its forthcoming 8 Series -- a return for a badge that was last used more than 17 years ago.
Reviving the archives
In truth, the reborn 8 Series is really about BMW rejigging its model line-up, moving its big two-door coupe further upmarket to allow space for the existing 6 Series to become something else.
BMW Concept 8 Series Credit: BMW
But this not the first time the German manufacturer has delved into the archives for a 'new idea.'
It has spent billions reinventing the Mini brand, boiling down the traits that made the little British car famous and distilling them into a modern product. Even away from production considerations, it has used previous Concours events to reveal 'Hommage' concepts, unapologetic nods back to its own M1 supercar, 3.0 CLS and 2002 saloon.
There is plenty of evidence that the wider automobile industry is as fixated on its past as it is its future.
Volkswagen, that most mainstream of car brands, couldn't let its 21 million-selling Beetle lie -- so almost 60 years after the original entered production, the German brand started building a pastiche of it, called the New Beetle.
It, in turn, spawned its own successor, which is still on sale today. And VW hasn't stopped there; at least one of its forthcoming range of pure-electric vehicles is going to be a silent-running tribute to the iconic Microbus.
Volkswagen reinvents the iconic microbus Credit: Volkswagen AG
Italian manufacturer Fiat has taken things to extremes; it scored such a smash when it reinvented its classic 500 city car back in 2007 that its line-up has since become based almost entirely on vehicles from that lineage -- a dangerous case of lots of eggs in one basket, according to some industry analysts..
Revamping old ideas
Some brands have demonstrated that shaking off the past completely can be refreshing and profitable.
Land Rover's DNA does exist in the baby Range Rover -- the Evoque -- but the car has been a smash because it took enough of the rugged off-road credibility and squeezed it into a desirable, ultra-modern crossover.
Same goes for its sister firm Jaguar, whose cars ended the nineties still looking like close relatives of vehicles produced in the early 1970s. Under the guidance of Ian Callum, the design team there has successfully broken clear of that lineage, producing cars like the F-Pace SUV that are restoring the company to profitability.
Heritage and 'hampering innovation'
Is it true, therefore, that too much awareness of heritage actually hampers true innovation? Upon reflection, perhaps we're being a little harsh in forgetting the confines with which car designers have to work.
They're usually given a brief from a marketing department on what the public wants, told to roll in 'brand values' and styling cues that will allow existing customers to buy into what's coming next. Car technology moves pretty quickly; much of what surrounds it tends to evolve at a more conservative pace.
Then there's safety legislation, which is forcing cars' dimensions into an increasingly tight set of restrictions.
In particular, the angles around the top of the headlights and the front bumper are controlled as much by pedestrian impact rules as they are the heart of any designer drawing a sketch. And since the rest of the car's proportions start from there, this plays a key role in side profiles too.
Finally, there's the biggest piece of legacy design of all. The fundamental layout of cars has not changed in well over 100 years: two seats up front, one occupied by the person at the wheel, who needs to be able to see ahead, to the side and to the rear.
But if autonomous vehicles do indeed allow us to go 'brain off' instead of merely 'hands-off' or 'eyes-off' by the year 2030, why would there be the need for everyone to face forwards? Or to have glass at all?
Could new tech inspire new design?
VW's chief designer Klaus Bischoff is the man responsible for the snail-like pace of styling evolution on cars like the Golf.
But he believes that autonomous tech and electric powertrains could be such a liberating factor that they may even halt the inexorable rise of the SUV.
"Maybe SUVs will start to look old at some point," he says, "and people will point at them and say, 'He's driving a dinosaur.' We don't see that now, but I strongly believe that we're going to see much different vehicles when we get to Level Five [full] autonomy, and then it becomes much more open. All-electric platforms will help too; the new packaging, where you just have a platform with the wheels in the corners, is also paradise for designers. We can move things around; it gives us a lot of fun."
The Sedric by Volkswagen Group Credit: Volkswagen AG
It is in these areas where we see designers really at play -- embracing the moment where their bosses will stop selling cars and start selling 'mobility solutions.'
Witness the VW Group's Sedric concept -- a futuristic box on wheels -- and the Mercedes F 015, a self-driving luxury lounge. Or, indeed, BMW's own Vision Next 100, a vehicle that's a world away from any of its nods to glory days past (although it still features the firm's characteristic double-kidney front grille).
At some point in the distant future, of course, the manufacturers will probably reference these cars as well. But in the meantime, if their freedom of expression is anything to go by, we could be on the verge of a period of unparalleled creativity.