Matt Prior: are we returning to the glory days of coachbuilding?

VW ID Beach Buggy

The versatility of Volkswagen’s MEB electric vehicle platform means it can underpin the revived Beach Buggy….

Volkswagen’s MEB-based beach buggy is proof of the greater design freedom afforded to manufacturers by EV platforms

Electric drive provides great freedom for designers,” Volkswagen’s head of design, Klaus Bischoff, told us recently. “We minimise the cooling holes; the axles move further apart and generate stunning proportions. We have the unique chance to lead Volkswagen into a new age.” 

And so arrive preview pictures of the Volkswagen ID Buggy, a concept car that’ll be at the Geneva motor show next month, which is precisely where a concept car like this would stay were it internally combusted. 

But because it’s electric, it might – might – have a future. 

Car companies have sometimes been wary of the phrase ‘platform’ in the past, often preferring ‘architecture’ to define an engineering structure that pertains mostly to the parts between a car’s front and where the driver sits. 

In a typical internally combusted car, it’s where the expensive bits are: the powertrain, the electronics, and complex bits of the crash structure. 

Creating many different models from one common architecture, then, is cheaper than redoing the whole shebang for each one. 

But it brings limitations: there’ll be different engine sizes, the beefiest of which will need more cooling, which might define the car’s bonnet height, which determines windscreen height, and therefore roughly where the driver sits and the roof height. 

They are restrictions that would make a car proportioned like the ID Buggy impossible to produce (unless based on a Porsche 911, I suppose). But most EVs use – and there’s no great shame in the phrase this time – a genuine platform kinda thing; a skateboard-like tray of batteries along the floor between a car’s axles, and a relatively compact electric drive unit at either end – maybe both. 

Granted, I’m simplifying. But it’s a less complex mechanical set-up than an ICE car, and the possibilities almost feel like a return to the old coach-building days: take your common platform, stretch it to whatever length you like, and apply bodywork around it. 

Good aerodynamics increase an EV’s range but, on a Buggy, does that matter? There are fewer weight restrictions than on an ICE car because even a heavy EV has zero tailpipe emissions. And if you want a low rear deck (as on, say, a VW Microbus), put the motor at the front. If you want a low front (as on the Buggy), put it at the rear. 

Little wonder, then, there are dozens of start-up EV companies, because the (relative) simplicity means cost of entry to car making is lower than it has been for decades. Select batteries from a big supplier, pick some electric motors and, even if they’re not the most efficient, the differences in thermal efficiency of the best and worst are small in the 90% range. It’s not like the difference between a four-cylinder turbodiesel and a petrol V8. 

And here’s a thing. That electric motors look and feel similar is as a result of their terrific efficiency. Noise and character, the things that set so many cars apart from each other today, are a result of dreadful thermal efficiency – sub 50% – of their ICE engines. Great sound is just power that’s going to waste. 

Yes, motors take that character and differentiation away. But they’ll allow much greater creative freedoms in design elsewhere.

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Source: Autocar Online

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