As a society, we’ve talked a lot about cities this year. It’s been too long since we’ve talked about city cars.
Nearly 30 years ago, in the far-off decade of the 1990s, several revolutions were brewing. The tech industry felt them most dramatically, but the influence—and impact—of developments in digital technology and manufacturing on the auto industry changed the ethos of the automobile in ways we that we struggle, even today, to consider.
City cars, as a concept, were nothing new, even in the 1990s. You could spend hours naming experimental three- and four-wheeled transportation solutions produced from the first 50 years of the automobile, including BMW’s own Iso-licensed Isetta bubble car and its slew of post-war competitors.
The Isetta was designed for a specific environment: the European city, where construction adhered to centuries-old design limitations. In the post-war urban landscape, the Isetta achieved its purpose: offer a local transportation solution to those who had never had one before. You might say that it had two competitors: the Messerschmitt KR200, and walking.
For plenty of people, it was the right fit, but the bubble car and its buyers were honest about its limitations. Ask someone who’s driven or owned an Isetta, and they’ll tell you that it’s no overland vehicle, or even a suburban commuter.
But in the U.S., where cultural standards were being quickly set, travel beckoned. Here, the vision of a European car was one of grand touring, an image promoted by the comfortable reliability of cars like the BMW E3 Bavaria or the practical entertainment of the iconic 2002—and German manufacturers, especially, were happy to aspire to this image.
By the time the 1990s arrived, this had been the benchmark for automotive construction, ownership, and purpose. The European sedan became an everyday essential luxury, like fine cookware or high ceilings. In hindsight, I’m not really surprised that the record scratched so dramatically when a new technology—robust plastic construction—dropped city cars on this mid-century scene.
To illustrate the point, let’s picture one of my favorite fantasy spaces: a European BMW showroom in 1989. To your left, you have the boxy E30 325iS and E28 535i. In the center, you have the aging 635CSi—a car whose predecessor was the E9 3,0CS coupe—next to a brand-new E32 750i, a conservative visual update filled with new digital technology and a V12 so smooth it could balance a coin. Imagine this for context when you look to your right in the same dealership and see two wildly-futuristic vehicles: the brand-new 850i and the unique, all-plastic Z1.
Given this context, it’s no surprise that plastic city cars were met with skepticism. Just two years after our fantasy visit to 1989, BMW unveiled the E1 concept—a city car employing construction similar to the modular Z1’s, and offering 124 miles of electric (!) range. Looking back on that car today, it’s handily considered an engineering marvel, but through the lens of a 1989 750iL or a BMW 325iS, its assets could easily be mistaken for shortcomings.
City cars aren’t really perfect for the city. They demand parking spaces, insurance, and attention, the same as any compact car or luxury sedan, and in exchange, owners are asked to forgo certain standards of comfort and utility. Whether you’re looking at these early BMW concepts, Mercedes’ Smart brand, the original EU-market MINI One, or the space-efficient BMW offerings that arrived on the scene later, all have been cars that excel at suburb-to-suburb commuting, but have not made inner-city driving any easier. Electrified vehicles have been even better for suburbs, but even more challenging for truly urban owners without access to a convenient garage, unless you can charge at work or at a public charger. These vehicles work—and work well—in a place like Southern California, but not in the confines of a city served by public transit.
What if we’re thinking about it all wrong?
At the dawn of the COVID-19 crisis, I found myself in Munich visiting a friend (you can read about that, and the adjacent Swiss adventure, in the autumn-winter issue of BimmerLife now in print). I had been driving an X7 press car for the better part of a week, and the anxiety of finding a place to park the big seven-seater was beginning to get to me. BMW’s press garage, however, was clean and spacious, and not far by train from my hotel.
In town, I walked a couple blocks through the chic German evening to meet my friend for a beer. Munich is quiet, for a city, and its streets peaceful. I was expecting to take an Uber to the airport in the morning, as I would in the U.S., sitting in traffic and watching the check-in time slip away.
That sounded absurd to my local friend. “Just take the train,” he told me—and he was right.
The next morning was quiet. There was no uncertainty in traffic, no last-minute Uber panic. Munich’s train system gave me a sensation I’d never felt in my years of traveling to airports: peace. Without the anxiety of having to park and look after the X7, I found myself wishing that I were taking the train back to the press lot to take it for one more drive.
And that’s when it hit me. Public transit is no secret, nor will it be a replacement for the automobile for everyone. That’s not what I’m presenting. But I think that we’re looking at city cars the wrong way. Why should we bend the identity of the luxury automobile to fit a definition concocted from thin air 30 years ago?
In the morning light of Bavaria, I realized that I already own the perfect city car. It’s my 1986 635CSi, with a five-speed, sport seats, and a rumbling BB Triflow exhaust. Its home in an urban environment would be a rented garage space, near a subway station, where it would sit covered until it was time to drive for the sake of driving—my own Red Barchetta.
We’ve seen the photos of cities adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, turning thoroughfares into walking streets and placing restaurant tables in parking spaces. It’s a quieter future, with less-persistent thoughts of auto maintenance and parking, less time spent unintentionally. It’s a future worth keeping, even when it’s safe to be inside. The future of the city does not necessitate the death of the automobile, or its evolution into a city car. An intelligently-designed city leaves the car free to be a car, and to be an escape with no constraints or bounds.
If you lived in a city, what would you rather have: an Isetta as your only car, or a train ticket and a 2002tii? A BMW E1, or a bus pass and an E30 M3? A Smart ForTwo, or a subway card and a BMW M2?
Building a walkable, rideable city means more time to drive for the sake of driving, more money to spend on a fun car, and less time spent worrying about snowplows and alternate-side parking. Let the city car rule the suburbs; I’ll put my money into an automotive escape.—David Rose
[Photos courtesy BMW AG.]