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The Apple Car Will Be More Airplane Than Automobile

Jony Ive’s garage has clues to the design of his most ambitious project ever, but Airbus shows how it will actually be made.

02.22.15 6:01 PM ET

Like millions of other tech-challenged people I have been waiting for Apple to crash through the layers of buttons on a TV remote…waiting and waiting and waiting. If anyone could bring one-click simplicity to the original home screen it should be the people in Cupertino who bring clarity of function and design to our computers, tablets and cellphones, right?

It just shouldn’t involve three separate remotes to play a Blu-Ray movie, stream Netflix or record stuff for future viewing—three separate remotes each with its own strange hierarchy of keys and mystifying symbols.

That’s why I was alarmed to see that Apple has been busy hiring lots of talent from the automotive industry with the idea of producing an iCar. Does this mean that an Apple fully integrated TV system has been abandoned? It would seem far less of a lift than going into wheels, no matter how cute and revolutionary an iCar sounds.

But there is no doubt about who is, literally, driving this surprising line extension.

The aesthetic master of everything Apple (he was the eye of Steve Jobs’s Apple) is its chief designer, Sir Jony Ive. Wealth has enabled Ive to indulge a passion for collecting cars. If the iCar is a serious project perhaps these cars give a clue to what design references will go into it—or, perhaps not.

So let’s take a look inside his personal garage. It includes an orange Fiat 500, of the 1980s vintage that he drove to school in England; a “frogeye” Austin Healey Sprite; an Aston Martin DB9 of the breed that the directors of Bond movies like to progressively demolish during a car chase and which Jony himself virtually demolished in a shunt on Interstate 280 in California; a $300,000 Aston Martin Vanquish that is even sexier than the DB9; a similarly priced Bentley Mulsanne; and a Land Rover LR3 should off-road challenges arise.

These choices could, on the face of it, seem to call into question Jony’s taste—something that nobody at Apple would probably dare to do.

Take that Fiat 500, for example. It was more than a bit of a heresy for a Brit to choose an Italian tin box when the mother of all mini cars was the 1960s Austin Mini, designed for the British Motor Corporation by Alex Issigonis. In the pantheon of great industrial designers Issigonis is assured of permanent and lofty status. The Mini was the classic back-of-an-envelope concept—I actually saw the envelope in question in an exhibition.

Like Jobs, Issigonis liked simplicity and innovation, two qualities that don’t always fly in formation. With the Mini he introduced two things that were visionary in combination: wheels placed at the four corners of a box and front-wheel drive—the engine and transmission were combined over the front wheels. This left the part of the box for passengers uninterrupted by a bulging transmission tunnel, while the front-wheel drive and spread-eagled wheels provided amazing traction and stability.

The Mini was not just a utility car (it was every bit that) but also a hot roadster, so much so that it was soon winning some of Europe’s most grueling races, like the Monte Carlo Rally.

It was also enormously consequential. The influence of the Mini on other designers was contagious. Front-wheel drive was adopted across the world as the standard for mass-produced sedans (showing relentless German orthodoxy, Mercedes and BMW stuck with rear-wheel drive—although BMW now owns and produces the wildly successful modern Mini ) because it simplified manufacture, as well as its other virtues.

The final conquest of the Issigonis concept was its adoption by the pioneer of small cars, Volkswagen. The Germans had the foresight to invite an Italian stylist, Giorgetto Giugiaro, to design a body around a small front-wheel car that they called the Golf (first called The Rabbit in the U.S.) It was a huge gamble: the Golf had to succeed the revered VW Beetle as basic wheels. But in a masterstroke Giugiaro added the idea of a fifth door—creating the hatchback. He gave the car a clean-cut profile with no needless trim. Introduced in 1974, the Golf has been a global hit ever since.

Sir Jony’s first British choice, the Austin-Healey Sprite, was a dog. It represented the cheapening of a hitherto prestigious sports car brand. Austin-Healeys were never in the same league as, for example, Jaguar, but they had a reputation for good engineering and sporty carriage. The Sprite, with its defining headlamps popping from the hood like Kermit’s eyes, was designed to look fast but not provided with the power to go fast—under the hood was an anemic engine transferred from a baby sedan, the Morris Minor. Sprite owners invented a phenomenon much emulated on other cars, including the Mini: “go-faster stripes”—bright stripes as used by racing teams, the ultimate triumph of desire over capacity.

What stands out from Jony’s collection is how Eurocentric it is—and upscale. Indeed, a fascinating profile of Ive in the current issue of the New Yorker portrays him in one scene delivering a somewhat imperial critique of contemporary car design from the back seat of his chauffeur-driven black Bentley.

“There are some shocking cars on the road,” he says, observing a Toyota Echo that they are overtaking. “It’s just nothing, isn’t it?” he observes. “It’s just insipid.”

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Ive’s Bentley is an extremely sexy car, but beneath its exquisitely-sculpted body there is a gas-gulping anachronism, an engine first produced 55 years ago that is rated now at 11 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway, which means that it can only go for 50 miles on one tank of gas. Bentley is owned by Volkswagen and under their direction all the models have grown heavier; the larger head-of-state limousine versions are graceless exercises in ostentation.

In the 1930s Bentley produced some of the finest English cars in the grand touring category—not flashy but lean and efficient for those lucky enough to spend summers swishing around Europe from one luxury hotel to another. That purity of styling and purpose has been lost as the brand has become infected by the design tropes of the hyper-luxury market. Under Jony’s influence Apple is tilting the same way. The new Apple Watch, going on sale in April, will have special solid-gold editions predicted to cost “many thousands of dollars,” according to the New Yorker profile.

Rather than take his car cues from Europe, Jony might take a broader ride down memory lane. In particular I would have expected to see in his garage more of the glorious machines from America which is, after all, the place a lot of the world still looks to for bravura styling in automobiles.

And nothing epitomizes that more than the 1965 Ford Mustang. Any iCar would need to equal the marketing brilliance of the Mustang, Ford’s most radical breakaway from their approach to the assembly-line car since the Model T. The Mustang was the affordable 1960s American Dream—styled as deftly as any European grand tourer but never elitist and given its ultimate charge of testosterone, its climax if you will, by Steve McQueen in Bullitt, the movie that left all previous car chases standing in its throaty wake.

There is, in fact, already a tenuous link between Ford and Apple: Apple has hired an industrial designer to join the 1,000-strong team working on the iCar, the Australian Marc Newson, who in 1999 produced a concept car for Ford, the 021C. It never went into production but its utilitarian, boxy shape displayed the kind of disregard for convention and needless adornment that Newson’s longtime buddy Jony has made into a design religion. (Some critics were harsh in their response to the 021C, saying that it reminded them of the Soviet-era East German econobox called the Trabant, an atrocity in both form and function.)

The mother of all American concept cars has to be the Ford X-2000 of 1958, designed by Alex Tremulus. This was the beginning of the jet age, and production cars were already sprouting jet-like tailfins, but Tremulus produced a car that looked impatient to be on the ground, taking its cues more from a Buck Rogers rocket ship rather than a Boeing, and it was never realistic as a production model.

Tremulus’s finest work was also fated for a short life. He designed the 1958 Tucker Torpedo for Chicago’s Preston Tucker, a would-be visionary automaker who ran out of money after producing only 51 cars but left a legend, celebrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Tucker. The Torpedo was not just beautifully balanced and slickly designed, it had some very advanced safety features like headlights that adjusted to the bend of the road ahead.

The Apple designers don’t need to worry about burning through the money like Tucker. The company is sitting on a cash mountain of $178 billion. Nor would they be building their own smokestack plant. From approaches they have already made to subcontractors it seems to me that they might be following the Airbus model—building a chain of suppliers and subcontractors and themselves doing only the final assembly in a virtually labor-free robot plant. This would be one way of showing Apple’s genius for not only radically rethinking an existing product but also transforming the way it is produced.

Designing the iCar would be similar in other ways to designing an airplane. The structure will need to combine strength with light weight, calling on composites and aluminum; the shape would reflect aerodynamics as much as aesthetics; the power will draw on the latest battery technology; the cabin will be loaded with connectivity and advanced navigation aids.

When you look at the project this way, its appeal to an industrial designer with the chops of Jony Ives is obvious. The iCar would move automotive design and manufacture far, far away from the Detroit model, and at the same time redefine the purpose and uses of a car as much as the iPod revolutionized music players and the iPhone transformed the appeal and role of the cellphone.

When it comes to Silicon Valley money being diverted to cars, Elon Musk led the way with Tesla, lifting the electric car from being a basic eco box to becoming an object of desire and lust. But the project has cost him $1.3 billion so far and break-even is not predicted until 2020. In contrast, the iCar can be ready for the road without draining much of Apple’s ever-accumulating riches and might well, like the iPhone, be another global money machine.

OK. Enough already about Ive. Time to fess up. In London I once fell for my own dream machine and I love her still. She was red. She was Italian. And she seemed to spirit me straight into the world of La Dolce Vita: a 1966 Alfa Romeo Giulia coupe. Her body suggested speed even when she was standing still. The prominent stick shift was polished steel and in her highest gear, fifth, she cruised without strain at 80 mph. But even when obeying the speed limit she was bait for traffic cops who pulled out and followed as if drawn by a magnet until noting my restraint. Frustrated, I took her to a deserted airfield and floored the accelerator. We nudged past 100 mph before the end of the runway came up.

Then I grew up. I passed her on to the owner of an Italian restaurant who had coveted her for a long while. They did brio together. And the restaurant invented a pasta in her honor—linguini a la Giulia: sea urchin, tomato, a dab of cream.