Over the last few years, the legacy automotive brands have been clamouring to tell the world they’re still relevant, as electric power becomes the new normal.
They’ve modernised their logos, revising formerly 3D metallic badges into flat, bright and colourful consumer marques. Some like Kia have gone further, redesigning their logo completely to leave their past firmly in the rear-view mirror.
New specialist brands have entered the market promising a break from the past – Tesla lead the way, but there are also legacy brands with a new wrapper. Polestar from Volvo promises a cleaner more dynamic driving experience without the carbon guilt – their brands are the major weapon in their battle to communicate change and win new customers.
All very well, but in all of this, one element of the automotive brand armoury – second in importance only to the logo – has been left behind. Electric motors don’t need a radiator - so a grille is redundant.
From the start of automotive history, it’s been the grille that has given every marque its personality and character – a place to frame and set the badge. From the grand stately home portico of a Rolls Royce or Bentley to the toothy, metallic grin of an old Cadillac or the puckered lips of a BMW. Car designers have played with our ability to see two headlights and a grille as a face, giving the cars we buy a personality, so they maybe even become a reflection of how we see ourselves – cheeky, aristocratic, smiley, alpha-male aggressive or friendly and cuddly.
Manufacturers have used the grille as the link between all the products in their range and every car advert features that front three quarter profile as the main selling shot. In today’s world of computer aided design and aerodynamic efficiency – that has arguably eroded car design into a consistent formulaic, streamlined, four-wheeled box - the grille has become even more important to manufacturers to help them express why they’re different.
So, what replaces it as the means of building product and brand personality?
The answer isn’t where lots of manufacturers and designers currently are – sticking ridiculous fake plastic grill adornments to the front of their next generation electric cars - the automotive equivalent of mock Tudor beams in a 1960s cul-de-sac. It’s time for car designers and manufacturers to step up to the footplate and think more radically about the way our cars could and should look in the future - and properly leave the past behind.