In June I was a member of the jury of the Concours d’élégance at Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, the most prestigious old-timer event in the Netherlands. We chose the most beautiful cars in a range of classes, from pre-war antiques to glamorous cars from the 1970s. With a German colleague, I fell head over heels for the BMW 507. A 1957 movie star coupé in the off-white they had in Germany. ivory call it weathered ivory. That car, apparently born in the wrong time, nobody wanted at the time for more than 26,000 D-Mark. Now collectors readily pay one and a half million for a good copy.
It’s hard to imagine that today’s digital cars, cool machines that brake themselves and follow voice instructions, will make it into classics. Technology has that stigma of soullessness. Romance on wheels has the grace of human deficiency; it must be mechanically breakable, then it is alive. The BMW 507 is unimportant how it drives, which indeed it does not do great; in Apeldoorn we honored its atmosphere, its significance for the style of an era.
On the other hand: if the poetry of old-timers lies in their expression of the zeitgeist, today’s high-tech turbo language will also feed the nostalgia of tomorrow. Can the cult flavor of the future be predicted? Perhaps the Apeldoorn competition winner of 2050 is a hybrid with a plug, or the first Tesla Roadster. In any case, it will be a car whose shape captures the ambitious discernment of all times in a timeless image of higher aspiration, a romantic aesthetic. I know of one, and it’s another BMW.
Driving 58 kilometers, it still works
While a Dutch athlete swims over 160 kilometers with a body that is not intended for that, I try to drive 58 kilometers electrically with a car that according to the factory should be empty after 53 kilometers. It still works. The plug-in hybrid BMW i8 is now also available as an open roadster and as if to celebrate the disappearance of the wall between technology and nature, the thing has been given a slightly larger battery of 11.6 kWh. This increases the emission-free range without affecting the exquisite driving pleasure. The electric motor still produces 143 hp and although the i8 weighs 1,670 kilos, it is sufficient for a convertible-compliant driving style and modest petrol bills. There is also an ordinary combustion engine; a three-cylinder turbo with acoustic amplification that doubles the cylinder number for hearing. Together, the two power sources take care of the four-wheel drive with power on the front and petrol on the rear wheels.
They do this very capably and, above all, efficiently. The fanatical ecophile should be able to achieve the manufacturer’s specification of almost 1 in 50 over short distances, but BMW does not have to be ashamed of my practical consumption of 1 in 20. No 911 does that.
Of course he isn’t. A total system power of 374 hp is far too little for the hard core of wealthy road pirates. Even in its homeless guise, it belongs to the soft sector of the sports coupés. It’s there with its superb chassis balance for elegant fast rides, and maybe not even that. It is primarily the car that you keep looking at.
When the i8 Coupé was introduced in 2014, it was the most exotic sports car on the market. It says a lot that it has remained so in its class of near-supercars, where the creativity of the designers usually has free rein. The roof, which also closes and opens within 15 seconds when driving up to 50 kilometers per hour, has not affected the shape, the swinging wing doors have been retained.
He’s good, but I never wondered for a second how good. I keep watching the body panels – half spoiler, half canopy – slide from the roofline to the bowl-shaped taillights and float above the rear fenders as if on a magnetic field. The i8 is a magical once-in-a-lifetime utopia whose time will erase the novelty but spare the grandeur. Like the 507, it will be understood too late as the work of art it is. He is the dream that will only recognize the future as ours. In forty years he will be in Apeldoorn with a street value of one and a half million and he will win all the prizes. Justly.