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Opinion: Forget SUVs, let's make vans cool again

By Tim Keen, 10 Jun 2018 Features

Opinion: Forget SUVs, let's make vans cool again

Why bother copying the Range Rover when there is a cooler, more practical shape to follow?

The future of luxury is here, and it is… what’s a polite term for ugly?

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan (named after the world’s largest diamond) and the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury (named after Melania Trump’s Google history) use euphemisms like “high sided” or “high bodied”, and everyone politely averts their eyes and tries not to say things like “faintly munted” or “fugly-esque”.

To anyone who says they’re too ugly to sell: have you seen a GLE Coupe or an X6? The Cullinan will obviously sell like hotcakes purely as a status symbol, even though it bears an uncanny resemblance to a London cab. Buyer beware to the London oligarch who orders one in black: you’ll be so busy ferrying people from Pret-A-Manger to Heathrow that you’ll miss the polo chukka altogether.

But really, it’s Rolls-Royce’s own fault for taking so long to cave and admit to themselves that their long-held principles about what a Roller “ought to be” are no match for the tsunamis of cash pounding daily on the shores of car makers who swallowed that bitter pill years ago.

Every awkward-looking, self-consciously swoopy or quasi-futuristic luxury SUV out there, from the Cayenne to the RX to the Urus to the Vision Maybach Luxury... whatever it’s called, is just dancing around the fact that Range Rover pretty much locked up the popular consciousness of what a luxury SUV should look like, way back in the 1970s.

Every other SUV maker secretly wants to make a design that looks exactly like a Range Rover, but don’t want to be called copy-cats, so they add an aero detail here, a gaping Predator grille there; and the later you get started, the fewer original ideas are available.

It’s like being the person who insists they “don’t do costume parties”, but then relents at the last moment, only to find the costume shop has already rented out all the good stuff, and you’re left trying to choose between “Rastafarian sasquatch” and “plus-size Catwoman”, and wishing you’d shown up early enough to just get “Austin Powers” and be done with it.

And so poor Rolls-Royce has to show up to the party wearing a tattered Rasta squatch costume and trying to convince everyone that, no, that’s what they really, really wanted, and they’re really very pleased with it. Really.

So why play that game at all, when you can only lose? Don’t wade into an argument over whether the correct proportions of an SUV is a two-box or three-box design – set your own course with the one design to rule them all and in the darkness bind them: the one-box. The van.

You know who drives vans? Rock bands, serial killers and Mr T. It doesn’t get much more badass than the van. Or at least, it didn’t.

Vans used to be aspirational, the lifestyle choice of the alpha male (hey, these were sexist pre-MeToo times, #alphafemale, #liveyourbestlife), whether that man was a surfer or a rocker or a fugitive from military justice (or, y’know, a serial killer... but I’d leave that out of the brochure).

Then at some point, people forgot how awesome it was to have a car that you could live in if you wanted to, and had plenty of panel space to spraypaint barbarians on.

Sure, Rolls-Royce would have to go a little more upmarket – perhaps they could spraypaint Meghan Markle riding a polo pony on the side instead – but there’d be no need for those two dinky seats that fold out the cargo area: you could fit a full-size Chesterfield sofa back there, plus a little nook for your butler to hide quietly until he’s needed.

It’s time for the Van Renaissance (or Vanaissance, a term I am going to trademark as soon as possible.) I suggest that car makers embrace the inevitability of it early. Before you get stuck with the ugly leftover designs in a few years’ time.