These are the most interesting interiors I’ve been fortunate enough to gawk at in-person. I get pretty excited about judiciously designed cockpits, and I enjoy the challenge of photographing them. This shot was taken at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. It’s the luxurious back seat of an extremely rare 1937 Chrysler Imperial limo.
The car was presented in original condition, replete with boxes of parts in the footwell. What a time capsule. Can you imagine rolling around in the back of this thing during the depression? In a tailored suit, with the rich, expensive smell of cigar smoke wafting out the long windows, drawing the attention of drifters in the breadline. Their sunken eyes bore through you, radiating awe and disgust. You’re one of the lucky ones. You’ve made it.
A Ferrari FF interior. It’s sumptuous, curvaceous, ultramodern, and therefore undeniably Italian. Sure, there are way too many buttons on the steering wheel, but they’re exquisite. From the bright red traction control selector, to the carefully sculpted paddle shifters. You know you’re looking at something special when you poke your head through the window. Nothing in this space is ordinary. Even the transmission selector is exciting; it’s a piece of modern art.
Remember the Fisker Karma? The interior design was my favorite part. Its design language is the antithesis of the FF’s; the shapes are clean and cohesive. There’s nothing ostentatious about this space. Unless you spec it with the fossilized leaf trim. Yikes! That said, I appreciate the fact that all of the wood Fisker utilized was sourced from fallen or sunken trees.
BMW Rolls Royce Wraith. This cabin isn’t cohesive and it isn’t particularly modern either. It’s all about creating a sense of space. Massive swaths of leather and wood dwarf everything else in the interior, highlighting its immense size. The iDrive selector and the window controls are sandwiched between two big chunks of veneer. The door handles are lost in a sea of leather.
I don’t fantasize about owning a Rolls Royce, but I’d love to drive one around for a day. Preferably with a beautiful woman in the passenger seat. Not that I’d notice her; the center armrest is the size of a football field and it looked like there was well over two feet of space separating the front seats. We’d waft through the city in our sensory deprivation tank, enjoying the silence and the smell of expensive leather.
I have extensive experience with this one. It’s the ludicrous interior of my first car, a 1989 635csi. Everything was covered in double stitched leather. The door cards, the sun visors, the center console, and even the lid of the beverage cooler in the back seat. Driving this car felt like piloting a spaceship. I loved the angular design and the way each section of the center stack jutted out towards the driver’s seat at a different angle. No matter what it takes, I WILL own one of these again.
This vintage Cadillac. I can’t tell you exactly what it is because I don’t know anything about American cars, but does that really matter? Just look at that horizontal speedometer, and the massive wheel. Everything is huge, even the brake pedal. The clock on the righthand side of the gauge cluster is bigger than the central horn button.
This place symbolizes a time when might was right, and Detroit was churning out some of the largest cars our young interstate highways had ever seen. Old Cadillacs are another category of automobile I’m not interested in owning, but would love to take for a spin. Classic cars allow us to participate in bygone eras, and this old boat takes me back to the glory days of burger joints and drive in movie theaters. The era my Dad grew up in, which thrived on the symbiotic relationship between five thousand pound behemoths, dirt cheap gas, and massive, inefficient V8s.
The Porsche 964. Stuttgart’s design philosophy has come a long way since the early nineties. When you sit down in a Macan or a Cayenne, you’re met with luxury that rivals an S Class. Conversely, this cockpit is all business. You get a simple gauge cluster, archaic sliding HVAC controls, and two bare bones steering wheel stocks. One for lights and turn signals, and one for your wipers. The owner of this example spun the tachometer in its housing so he could keep an eye on the RPMs at the upper end of the rev range. That’s a common modification, which tells you that 964 owners are as serious about driving as the men who designed this space.
DeTomaso Pantera interiors mirror the car’s exterior styling. It’s angular, bold, and unapologetically seventies. The owner of this example swapped out the original 351 Cleveland, hence the retrofitted white gauges. I think they’re a nice touch. The gated dogleg shifter and it’s muscle car pool ball knob symbolize the marriage between Italian styling and American V8 grunt. The vertical head unit looks out-of-place, but that shows us how often the owner enjoys his pride and joy. If this was a garage queen, it wouldn’t be there. The stock switches and vents look very “parts bin” so it’s not like he’s ruining a masterpiece. All of these modifications epitomize the nature of the Pantera community, where stock examples are rare, and customization is the norm.
Another seventies icon, the Lamborghini Countach. This is the only one I’ve ever seen. A perfect example of the “stuff all the gauges into a big rectangle” era that lasted until the late eighties. At least it’s covered in leather! I like the contrast between the brown dash and the cream pieces of the cockpit. However, as you can see, there isn’t much space in here. The footwell is tiny, and the steering wheel is too. Italian quality control issues are also evident. Check out the panel gap on the misaligned glove box and the deformed rubber boot on the steering column. Some say Audi stole Lamborghini’s soul, but I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. Inspecting this interior reinforces the notion that these cars drive like trucks.
More eighties BMW goodness. This time, an E23 735i. The center stack isn’t as elaborate as my old E24's, but the giant chunks of wood make up for the lack of driver-oriented controls. Now that convincing plastic veneer is everywhere, there’s something extra special about unpolished woodgrain. I find it interesting that the rest of the interior looks very similar to an E30 or an E28. Back then, BMW wasn’t as invested in making the “Oberklasse” model’s cockpit decidedly nicer than a 3 series in every way. The trim was enough.
The 280SEL. A different interpretation of luxury. Classic perforated MB-tex adorns the seats and the door cards. Contrasting colors are everywhere. The wood is low-key, occupying a small space at the bottom of the dashboard. The theme here is elegance. All metal surfaces are polished: the vents, the HVAC controls, the door handles, the ignition cylinder, and even the knobs on the radio. This has to be my favorite Mercedes interior of all time. When I picture the perfect big body sedan to cruise around in, I imagine myself at the wheel of a vertical headlight S Class. And by the way, it smelled REALLY good in there. Like wood, vinyl, and aristocratic old money. I need one badly.
Finally, we’re back in 2016, sitting in a BMW i8. New German interiors are polarizing, but I happen to be a big fan of ultramodern design. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that it takes immense skill to pen dozens of 3d shapes that come together to form a space that makes sense. Every shape, and every angle, has to relate to the design elements that surround it.
The popup GPS screen emerges from a waterfall-esque area of the dash. That “stream” continues on the center console, leading your eyes to the iDrive knob. Connecting the infotainment screen to its controls like that is just pure genius. The transmission lives within a pleasing shape that mirrors the contour of the “river bed” on one side, then flattens out to match the ledges that shelter the seat heater controls and the radio buttons. Finally, instead of simply placing the start/stop button on the dash somewhere, BMW dedicated a miniature sculpture to it, to the left of the gear selector.
“So, what’s the takeaway here?” you might ask. Well, my argument is that if you look closely, a car’s interior can be just as exciting to look at as the exterior, if not more so. Plastic, leather, wood, and metal can be sculpted in so many ways. Now that safety regulations force manufacturers to create disappointingly homogeneous slab-sided vehicles with tall hoods and thick pillars, the interior is often the only aspect of an automobile designers can utilize to create something unique.