“You wonder what Rinspeed is about. How we make money, maybe.”
Well, yeah. Learning how the Swiss company, long known for its wacky concept cars, keeps the lights on is the main reason we sat down with founder/ CEO Frank Rinderknecht at the Geneva motor show.
“Don’t be too shy,” he adds, chuckling. “Everybody asks.”
The simple explanation is that Rinspeed is a consulting company that builds concept cars to showcase emerging technologies. This is also the most boring explanation. To really understand what Rinspeed is about — and why it operates out of tiny Switzerland, of all places — you have to look back before the new autonomous, terrarium-equipped Rinspeed Oasis concept. Before even the modular electric city cars (“Dock+Go,” 2012), hovercraft- deploying beach cruisers (“X-Trem,” 1999) or submersible Lotuses (“sQuba,” 2008).
“I started my career as a young student by importing sunroofs — it was the mid-1970s — from the States. I was the first one in Europe,” Rinderknecht, a Zurich native, says. “I started tuning VW Golfs same time as Brabus, AMG …” Turbocharged Golf GTIs and Ferrari Testarossa-inspired Porsche 911s followed, but Rinderknecht eventually went in a different direction.
The Rinspeed Tatooo.com, the first vehicle with a name that is also a website. Sadly, Tatooo.com is no longer active.
“I just followed my passion. If I didn’t like a thing anymore, I stopped doing it and followed my passion again.” Hence, 1992’s tuned, Rolf Knie-painted Nissan SpeedArt. Based on a 300ZX, it was the first in a series of increasingly extreme concept cars.
After selling the tuning business a decade ago, Rinspeed now focuses entirely on the concepts. “Once a year, we initiate our own concept car. We make the ideas, the concept, the story, and then we assemble leading suppliers around this car,” Rinderknecht explains. “In old terms, we’d call it ‘consulting.’ I’d rather say I’m a ‘sparring partner’ to the automotive industry to (help it) understand the future of mobility.”
The concepts aren’t meant to reach production (although Rinderknecht points out that larger automakers have been known borrow the company’s ideas — compare the new VW Sedric concept with Rinspeed’s 2013 microMAX bus), but they are somewhat grounded in reality.
Rinderknecht contrasts Rinspeed’s approach with, for example, the Airbus-developed flying car/drone concept on display at the other end of the Geneva show hall. For him, it’s not enough to simply put a wild car on a show stand; any attention-grabbing features or gimmicks aside, the tech on display should have some chance of actually making it to production.
“We have always focused on what we call ‘the dotted line,’” his term for a plausible path forward for new tech. Rinspeed’s creations try to follow that dotted line — or one of many possible dotted lines, at least — six or so years into the future.
The Rinspeed Bedouin concept. The longer you stare at this image, the weirder it gets.
Perhaps the company, like its creations (at their best, reminiscent of the flights of fancy unveiled by American automakers at the height of their postwar power), could only come from someplace like Switzerland. There’s no big Swiss automotive industry or distinctive car culture to tug the shop one way or another; its neutral territory is fertile ground for Rinderknecht’s offbeat imagination.
If he ever got to a point where he and his team couldn’t bring an element of fun to Rinspeed’s creations, bet that Rinderknecht would again follow his passion elsewhere. A sense of humor is what helps sell the concept of Rinspeed in the first place — what helps the little shop stand out on a gigantic world stage, and what transforms its concepts into something more than supplier-sponsored showcases for unsexy future tech.
After all, Rinderknecht says: “Life is serious enough, isn’t it? We have to have that twinkle of the eye.”