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Over the past century, hundreds of once-familiar brand names have been shipped off to the automotive scrapyard, but two long-dead makes will be vying for a revival next month at the annual Geneva International Motor Show.
To find a place in a rapidly evolving auto industry, British-based Lagonda and Spain's Hispano Suiza are looking forward into the past, blending heritage with futuristic technology, including all-electric drivetrains. The emergence of electrified powertrains and autonomous driving, experts suggest, could open the door not only to new players like Tesla, but provide an opportunity to bring back some old brands.
Battery technology "isn't ready for the mainstream, but the luxury market is a different matter," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "With luxury vehicles, the cost of batteries isn't a big deal," but the potential benefits, including extreme levels of performance, can provide an appealing alternative to conventional gas-powered models.
The Geneva Motor Show would seem the ideal place to launch two old-is-new luxury brands, according to Cole and others.
The largest of the European auto shows, which opens March 7 and is held each spring, has a tradition of providing space for often oddball brands looking to carve off slivers of the global new-car market, typically with an emphasis on premium niches.
Hispano Suiza was once a regular participant in Geneva. The company's roots date to 1898 when a Spanish artillery captain, Emilio de la Cuadra, started building electric vehicles in Barcelona. He hired a Swiss engineer, Marc Birkigt, to work with him, though the company eventually switched to gas-powered models. In a series of moves, the enterprise changed hands several times, finally adopting the name La Hispano-Suiza Fabrica de Automoviles in 1904. It became famous for its over-the-top designs and massive gas engines, still popular with collectors like comedian Jay Leno.
Hispano Suiza briefly produced aircraft engines after World War I before returning to automotive manufacturing. But it abandoned the car market entirely in 1946, and several attempts to revive the name have faltered.
Now, the fourth-generation heirs hope to do a bit better with a retro-futuristic "hypertourer" called the Carmen — named after the granddaughter of Hispano Suiza's founder and mother of its current chief. The Carmen, a company statement notes, "takes inspiration from the Dubonnet Xenia, one of the elegant and luxurious vehicles built by Hispano Suiza in 1938."
The Carmen may hark back to the days of rumble seats and running boards, but under the skin there's an ultra-modern carbon fiber chassis, and the new model trade's the Xenia's 8.0-liter gas engine for an all-electric drivetrain.
The decision to go all-electric isn't entirely surprising. Battery power is an option a number of super-premium manufacturers are exploring, from start-ups like Rimac to established brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini. Electric motors provide massive amounts of instant torque, as Tesla has shown with its Model S in "ludicrous mode," which can launch the sedan from 0 to 60 in just 2.3 seconds.
Another manufacturer plugging into battery power is Aston Martin. It recently launched a limited run of all-electric sedans and is developing a battery drive option for the DBX sport-utility vehicle it will launch next year. But Aston's big push into electrification will come with the revival of another long-forgotten brand it purchased back in 1947. The last Lagonda-branded model hit the streets decades ago.
But it will be back at the Geneva Motor Show in the form of the all-terrain concept. Though officially dubbed a show car, it is a thinly disguised version of the production crossover due to come to the market in about two years, Aston officials acknowledge.
"The Lagonda All-Terrain Concept offers explicit clues regarding what will be the first Lagonda model to enter production, and further demonstrates how Lagonda's zero emission powertrain enables us to create spectacular cars that will radically redefine their sectors of the market," Aston CEO Andy Palmer said in a statement.
The revival of Lagonda was put into motion as part of the seven-year plan Palmer laid out after joining the British automaker in 2014. A second model, a sedan, is expected to join the crossover by around 2022. And, like the all-terrain, it will be all-electric as will all future Lagondas, Palmer told CNBC in an interview last fall.
Neither Aston nor Hispana Suiza has announced pricing, though both models are expected to push well into six figures, the Carmen potentially topping $1 million, according to various reports that compare it to other ultra-low-volume hypercars.
It remains to be seen if either brand name will pull off a comeback but both manufacturers are hoping that by going all-electric they can stand out from more traditionally focused competitors.