Rock Island

This tiny Caribbean island was beloved by ’80s musicians. Now it’s ready for a comeback.

By Mark Ellwood 15/12/2023

Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Elton John all flocked to idyllic Montserrat to relax and record albums.

The Caribbean island of Montserrat was a jet set getaway in the 1980s after music producer (and so-called “fifth Beatle”) Sir George Martin opened a recording studio there, AIR. The appeal of working with his team—and spending a few weeks or even months recording in a tropical paradise, too—was so compelling that the world’s most famous rockstars flocked there: Mick Jagger, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney all laid down tracks in Montserrat. The party ended abruptly when twin disasters struck the island, catastrophes from which it’s only just starting to recover. More than 25 years later, though, Montserrat is ready for a comeback.

Ebony and Ivory, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder Tug of War (1982)

When one of the Beatles arrived on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1981, he was mindful of security. Obviously—he was a Beatle. “Paul McCartney had bodyguards with cutlasses,” recalls local Cecil Wade, who now works as a guide and driver. “But he ended up giving them the money to go off somewhere else and just said, ‘Go ahead, enjoy yourselves.’ ” McCartney himself clearly planned to do much the same, installing his young family in a villa for several months while he worked; old pal Ringo Starr dropped in, making cameos in the home movies McCartney’s entourage shot then. His family, including daughter Stella, barely 10 then, frolic by the pool playing ping-pong, lark around on the balcony that overhangs it, and sit on the top of a cliff amid lush greenery.

The current owner of that villa, Providence Estate House, proudly points to one corner of the living room, which he has painstakingly renovated. Tony Glaser, an expat Briton who used to teach at the local university, notes there was once a piano where the bookcase sits. He indicates a framed colour photograph hanging on a nearby wall: McCartney and Stevie Wonder at that keyboard on the momentous visit when they recorded Ebony and Ivory.

McCartney came to Montserrat at the invitation of George Martin, the aristocratic, low-key producer nicknamed the Fifth Beatle. Martin had chanced upon the island in the late 1970s, when he was casting around for somewhere balmy to build another site for his studios, AIR. “George saw life in segments,” recalls David Lea, an expat American who knew the producer well and has lived here for decades. “First there was Abbey Road and the Beatles. Then AIR. Paul only came because of him.”

Give Me the Reason, Luther Vandross Give Me the Reason (1986)

McCartney wasn’t the only one. Name a chart-topping act, or an album, from the 1980s, and AIR Studios Montserrat will likely be part of the story: Elton John, Duran Duran, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Eurythmics, Boy George and Sting all spent extended periods here. Martin, who died in 2016 at the age of 90, opened his state-of-the-art AIR Montserrat in 1979. He also bought a nearby home, Olveston House; it’s now run as a B&B and restaurant. For the studio, Martin converted an old water-storage facility on a hill into a place that the world’s premier rock stars would crave to come. It was named AIR, so the story went, as the recording room was built on ball bearings so it would float even when the supposedly dormant volcano that dominated Montserrat’s skyline would rumble, but, in fact, it’s an acronym for Associated Independent Recording. 

There were guest rooms on-site where artists could stay, and a pool, too. Notoriously, many would use the roof as a diving platform, jumping off the top of the building into the deep end. “The real reason their albums turned out so good was that the studio had a pool,” recalls Danny Sweeney, a charmingly roguish surfing instructor who taught many musicians how to catch a wave. “It was a working vacation.”

The good times were not to last, as the rockstar playground of Montserrat was destroyed—not by fire and brimstone, but first by drenching rains, then by molten lava. Now, a quarter century after those twin catastrophes, the Caribbean island is making a comeback. This time, there’s no impresario to lure music’s biggest talents to the mountainous Eden, but the country is leaning into its singular place in rock history—as well as its own indigenous rocks and other natural beauty—to draw paradise seekers.

Walk of Life, Dire Straits Brothers in Arms (1985)

Today, Sweeney is rangy and flirtatious as he sits on the veranda of Olveston House. It’s easy, then, as he recounts a party almost 40 years ago, to picture him strutting around a dance floor for an entire evening, grabbing musicians’ wives and girlfriends to twirl until the early hours. He was always game to dance, but that particular night, he says, he never left the floor and was soaked with sweat when the nightclub closed. A few days later, Sweeney recalls, Mark Knopfler, the lead singer and guitarist of Dire Straits, called him into the studio while he played a snippet of a new song he’d written that Sweeney claims was inspired by his fleet-footing. “I used ‘Johnny’ instead of ‘Danny,’ in case you didn’t like being identified,” Knopfler told him. That tune was Walk of Life.

“I said to him, ‘Your album with this on it? It is going to sell 10 million copies or more,’ but he said the most he’d ever sold was 5 million,” Sweeney says now. “He promised to buy a new windsurfer if I was right.” He pauses, relishing the punchline to a story that he has clearly told many times before. “I am still waiting.” The album, Brothers in Arms, has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, putting it comfortably in the top 50 best-selling albums of all time. Asked to comment for this story, Knopfler declined.

Turn It Into Something Good, Earth Wind & Fire Faces (1980)

Bassist Verdine White is a founding member of Earth Wind & Fire. He and his late brother, Maurice, the band’s front man, met George Martin during the filming of 1978’s flop movie adaptation of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. White tells Robb Report that he heard about the producer’s plans for AIR Montserrat then. “He invited us to come and record any time it was convenient for us, and it was perfect timing,” White says. “We chose to record our double LP Faces there, because it was a departure from what we had been doing. We needed to go back to basics, playing good tracks without trying to be commercial.”

White was smitten with Montserrat from the moment he arrived—mostly the friendliness of the locals. “The workers in the field dropped their tools and started applauding as we passed by,” he recalls. “As the only group of colour to record there, we were just honoured and happy.” He emphasises how the relaxed, welcoming vibe of the island was an ideal creative proving ground and how much the people there embraced the visiting musicians. “We didn’t get a chance to jam with the people, but the chef who prepared our meals was also a famous local DJ. He played our records during his time on the air and gave us tremendous shoutouts almost every day. We always listened to his show during mealtimes.”

Im Still Standing, Elton John Too Low For Zero (1983)

James “Scriber” Daley, a local park ranger, has particularly fond memories of Elton John, who visited the island multiple times. “Lemme tell you, he would come hang out, and one Sunday, news got around he was in the village,” Daley recalls, noting that all the locals came down to say hello. Touched by the warm greeting, John told the bartender to put the entire afternoon’s tab on his check. (For John, Montserrat proved truly life-changing: he married AIR sound engineer Renate Blauel in 1984. They divorced four years later.)

Midge Ure of Ultravox fame loved Montserrat so much he bought a home here, though he’s reportedly called that purchase “the stupidest thing I did in the 1980s, because it was infested with termites.” Sting became smitten with the island, recording solo albums here after the Police split and renting a house for vacations with his wife and kids.

Not every rock star relished their time on Montserrat, though. One resident claims that Mick Jagger never seemed happy in Montserrat. “He hated it here, because nobody paid attention to him, so he’d walk back and forth to try and get noticed,” she says. But another disagrees, frowning. “Oh no, it wasn’t Mick. It was Duran Duran—they missed all the screaming girls.”

Looking at what remains of AIR now, though, one finds it hard to imagine those antics. There’s chain-link fencing across the driveway, featuring a KEEP OUT sign, erected by the Martin family. “We regret the need to restrict access… ” it says, almost apologetically. The site’s a ruin, festooned with wasps’ nests, its windows glassless and what remains of the roofs askew. It was pummelled not once, but twice, by those disasters that struck the country three decades ago.

Calm Before the Storm, Sheena Easton Take My Time (1981)

Hurricane Hugo punched first. The 1989 storm passed right over the country, the first such direct hit in decades. The devastation was widespread. One local estimates that 95 percent of the houses here were left without a roof. As for AIR, that bunker-like building was built to survive. The thick concrete walls, essential for a soundproof studio, withstood the winds well. The problem was power: the on-site backup generator, a fail-safe during the island’s regular brownouts to ensure that no rock star’s riff ever went to waste, was broken. “Poor maintenance,” says one local, grumbling about the lapse.

In the wake of the power loss caused by the storm, both heat and moisture wreaked havoc at AIR. When Martin arrived to inspect the damage a few weeks later, Danny Sweeney recounts, the impresario opened the piano to look at the keys. The ivories were already covered in green mould. There was no money to restore the studio—or rather, no point. As the 1980s ended, record-company budgets were shrinking. With improved technology, corporate studios became obsolete, and the penny-pinchers saw little reason to underwrite a three-month stint in the sun for Paul McCartney, Dire Straits or anyone else. “I asked him if Hugo hadn’t hit, whether it would still be open,” says David Lea. “And George told me, ‘Oh no, never. Digital was taking over.’ ”

Rock and a Hard Place, Rolling Stones Steel Wheels (1989)

Perhaps, though, Martin might have found a way to reboot his enterprise—AIR still operates a site in the UK, after all—had a second disaster not struck just six years later. The locals had long learned in school that the volcano here, Soufrière Hills, which dominated the southwest centre of the pear-shaped country, was a dormant relic despite the occasional burping rumble. In 1995, those lessons were proved wrong. Rumblings continued for two years, until a major eruption in summer 1997. Nineteen people were killed, and two-thirds or so of Montserrat’s land—including all of its most fertile farmland, as well as the thriving capital, Plymouth—became uninhabitable, buried beneath ash and lava like a Caribbean Pompeii.

It’s possible now to visit what remains of Plymouth, albeit with a guide, and wander around the rubble-strewn roads. Three-storey buildings sit, poking slightly out of the ground, their interiors full of once-molten lava. Entering the exclusion zone here—a no man’s land, a tropical DMZ—one notices the roads instantly become rougher, and the air starts to stink with sulfur. “When the eruption happened, it was so strong you had to hold your nose. It burned,” says guide Cecil Wade, standing in the centre of the former downtown. Now the only activity is the dusty thunder of trucks, which crisscross the land carrying sand mined from the volcanic ash—so much better for construction, as it’s salt-free, unlike a beachy supply. It’s commodity as apology, as if the volcano is trying to give back something after wrecking the locals’ lives.

The volcano is still considered active, and its seismic movement is closely tracked via an observation post manned by staff from the University of the West Indies. It’s deemed safe enough, however, for the authorities to open some sections on the northern edge of the exclusion zone to visitors to explore unaccompanied, including the area around AIR Studios, for example, or the once-upmarket district of Richmond Hill. Most of the homes there are half-hidden in the undergrowth, after 25 years of nature reclaiming the landscape. Occasionally, though, one shows through, gleamingly pristine—take the squat blue box, its window sills painted egg-yolk yellow nestled amid the ruins. “They can’t go back,” says Scriber Daley of the owners of these sentimental but futile renovations, which still lack electricity and running water. “But psychologically, in their minds? They have it that they might one day. Sometimes people now go and lie down there, sleep and rest themselves for a while. Just to reminisce about the past.”

Living in the Past, Midge Ure The Gift (1985)

It was a ruinous disaster for a place with such a storied history. In the aftermath, Montserrat’s population was offered free passage, and passports, to live in the UK. Three-quarters of locals took one-way flights out. A hardy contingent remained, though. “I wasn’t tempted to leave,” recalls David Lea. “When the last ferry leaves, I’ll be on the one after that.” Instead, he salvaged what he could—one dial from the old Plymouth clocktower, for instance—and created a shrine to that era in memorabilia, ranged among the tables of his bar, the Hilltop Coffee House.

Modern Montserratians may now have British passports, but the first Europeans here were Irish, mostly indentured workers banished to the otherwise uninhabited island from the plantations on nearby St. Kitts after one too many rebellions. Their culture is palpable even now: in places with names such as Cork Hill or Galway, the shamrock on the welcome stamp in every passport and even the national dish—squint a little at a bowl of goat water and it could be Irish stew. St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday on Montserrat, the only country other than Ireland proper. “We’re Afro-Irish,” adds Kenneth Silcott, a former champion calypso king who now runs the arts council. “At the St. Patrick’s feast, you’ll see some people in full green garb and others in African dress.”

Hot Hot Hot, Arrow Hot Hot Hot (1983)

Those Irish immigrants also brought music, which was a cherished part of the Montserratian life well before Martin and co. arrived. Their love for it commingled with the African traditions of the enslaved people who were shipped to the island to work on the sugar plantations. “Music for us is an integral part of our culture,” says Rose Willock, a longtime host at local radio station ZJB. Music here, she explains, combines Celtic and African traditions—the Oriole String Band, for instance, today plays a repertoire that ranges from soca to chanteys. Look closely at the carnival dancing, too, and you might recognise Irish toe-stepping in its movements.

Montserrat’s most famous homegrown musician, though, was Alphonsus Cassell, better known as Arrow. He and his brother wrote the worldwide smash “Hot Hot Hot” on the island, and Arrow carved out a path for a distinctive soca sound that incorporated merengue beats into its rhythmic fusion. Cody Greenwood was a regular visitor to Montserrat as a child and just 5 years old when the eruption happened; she produced the recent documentary Under the Volcano, about the AIR Studios era. “It was important for me to acknowledge local music in it—the soca, too. It’s been embedded in the culture forever, and Arrow is really the local hero down here, even now,” she says of the musician, who died in 2010. “The strong music culture meant when artists would come down, the locals would sing on a lot of the albums, like for Elton John or Dire Straits.”

Boat Drinks, Jimmy Buffett Volcano (1979)

Greenwood hoped that her film would pique viewers’ curiosity about Montserrat and tempt them to visit—she’d even intended to premiere it on the island with the goal of luring some of those rock-star icons to return for a nostalgic look. Pandemic lockdowns precluded any such celebrations. The local government does have concrete plans, though, to draw tourists. They’re centred on Little Bay, close to the northern tip of the island and near the country’s new commercial and political hub.

Little Bay became the emergency base for supplies after the eruption, but the waters here are too shallow for much commercial shipping or any superyacht. Dredging to rectify that problem has begun, and there’s a big patch of dusty scrubland on the waterfront ready for construction of a port that can harbour high-end cruise ships and private vessels by bolstering the jetty to 130 metres and the depth of waters from 3 to 8 metres. “Little Bay is one of the most sheltered harbours on the island,” explains Dion Weekes, the project manager. “And we want to have yachts calling there in 18 months.”

Spirits in the Material World, The Police Ghost in the Machine (1981)

Doubtless, many will come to make pilgrimages to AIR and Olveston House, a chance to connect with an overgrown corner of rock history. But there’s more to Montserrat than rubble. Much like neighboring Dominica’s, the countryside here is lush and quilted with trails.

Scriber Daley—he earned his nickname at school, because he was such a good describer—is the ideal guide for exploring. Walking under the forest canopy with him is like accompanying Dr. Doolittle. He holds a thumb to his lips, sucking and tutting simultaneously like a scolding kiss. In response, the tree up ahead starts filling with Montserrat orioles, the national bird found only on the island; they twitter noisily in reply, more and more gathering to answer his calls.

Daley relishes the chance to take folks hiking for hours over Hope Ridge or Katy Hill, looking for birds or the Montserrat orchid. But one animal no one ever sees or hears now is a cricket he calls the spoon-in-glass. “It would go ting-ting-ting, and it was a sign to drop everything and leave the forest, because night could come over very fast,” he recalls. After decades of its silence, though, Daley fears this insect was wiped out in the wake of the eruption. “I have slept over there in the forest to see if I could hear the sound. It was so lovely. I never have.” He remains hopeful, though, and he doesn’t stop trying.

Despite the natural disasters’ upheaval, little about the island’s culture has changed. “My mum always used to say to me, ‘You don’t lock up here—no one will rob you,’” says Greenwood. “We had over a million dollars’ worth of camera equipment, and we could never find a key for our villa, but people just said, ‘You don’t have to worry.’ On Montserrat, you don’t have to worry about a thing.”

 

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Watch This Space: Justin Hast

Meet the game-changing horological influencers blazing a trail across social media—and doing things their own way.

By Josh Bozin 09/07/2024

In the thriving world of luxury watches, few people own a space that offers unfiltered digital amplification. And that’s precisely what makes the likes of Brynn Wallner, Teddy Baldassarre, Mike Nouveau and Justin Hast so compelling.

These thought-provoking digital crusaders are now paving the way for the story of watches to be told, and shown, in a new light. Speaking to thousands of followers on the daily—mainly via TikTok, Instagram and YouTube—these progressive commentators represent the new guard of watch pundits. They’re actively swaying the opinions, and the dollars, of the up-and-coming generations who represent the new target consumer of this booming sector.

JUSTIN HAST

@justinhast

Credit Oracle Time

There’s something comforting about Justin Hast’s watch commentary. It could be his broad English accent; a soothing melodic chime that hits all the right notes. But rather, it’s probably his insatiable thirst for all the little things in and around watches. It jumps right off the page with anything he’s ever written, and it’s infectious if you tune into his Instagram reels, where he speaks to over 50,000 followers almost daily.

Above all, he simplifies what, for the everyday enthusiast, can sometimes be a dry, jargon-heavy topic.

“I never really trained as a writer, photographer or producer of any kind,” says Hast. “It was very much, get stuck in and see what sticks. It’s not lost on me what a privilege it is to have access to these brands, these watches, and to the shows and events. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning every Monday.”

After spending a decade researching watches, enduring the drudgery of his office job, Hast’s big break came when he met Frank Geelen, owner and CEO of the influential Monochrome Watches website, at a Bell & Ross boutique opening in London.

“I can’t remember how much Frank drank that night when he agreed to allow me to write a story for him,” he quips. “That was the starting point that allowed me to pick up a camera and explore the watch world.”

From that chance encounter, Hast has gone on to contribute influential words to the likes of Hodinkee, Mr Porter, Revolution Watch and Forbes. He is the author of The Watch Annual, which was created for watch enthusiasts in 2020 as a means of cataloguing the best timepieces of the year.

 

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A post shared by Justin Hast (@justinhast)

Listening to Hast, it’s fair to say that he lives and breathes watches, and it’s been this way for a large chunk of his life. He recalls two formative moments: the first, age 10, when he received his first red G-Shock watch from a schoolfriend; the second came with the passing down of his grandfather’s Omega Constellation Day-Date —a watch designed by Gérald Genta.

That experience goes a long way to explaining Hast’s affinity with vintage dress watches. Unsurprisingly, then, his top four picks from the recent Watches & Wonders fair in Geneva are all vintage-inspired pieces designed for the modern watch consumer: the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept Tourbillon, the IWC Portugieser Eternal Calendar, the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony 39 mm in rose gold, and the Laurent Ferrier Classic Moon.

Hast’s motto for life is “win the day”, one that he lives by as he continues on his journey to “inspire the next generation of watch enthusiasts”. And it’s clearly a mission already accomplished.

Read more about the watch industry’s horological influencers Bryan Wallner and Teddy Baldassarre.

 

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Watches & Wonders 2024 Showcase: TAG Heuer

This year at Watches & Wonders TAG Heuer continued on its path towards high-watchmaking status.

By Josh Bozin 09/07/2024

There was a moment last year when TAG Heuer surprised the watch world (and naysayers of the brand)—you couldn’t have missed it. At Only Watch, the biennial charity auction of luxury one-off timepieces, TAG Heuer dropped the proverbial mic with its release of a unique Monaco Split-Seconds chronograph; a piece completely left of field for the otherwise mid-entry level luxury watchmaker.

It was then inconceivable to arrive at the Palexpo in Geneva, day one of Watches & Wonders, to find the very same Monaco Split-Seconds Chronograph as TAG Heuer’s hero release of 2024. Don’t mistake TAG Heuer’s intentions; this is a big moment for the brand, particularly as it endeavours to reach cult high-watchmaker status.

 

TAG Heuer Monaco Split-Seconds Chronograph

 

This new $200,000 Monaco, which is aptly released in its 55th anniversary year, is an absolute workhorse of a timepiece. Retaining all the hallmarks of its legendary racing history, the new Monaco features an open-worked aesthetic that completely draws the eye to its intricate design details and mechanics. This is, folks, the first mechanical split-seconds (or ‘Rattrapante’) chronograph that the brand has made, essentially allowing the wearer to measure two separate events that start simultaneously but have different durations.

Of course, powering such a watch is no small feat; TAG Heuer has called upon the expertise of Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier—a specialist manufacturer of high-end mechanical movements—to help craft the new TH81-00 caliber.

Available in two colour ways, red or blue, the watch also features a grade-5 titanium case (allowing for its lightness), a sapphire dial, and a neat 41 mm package that makes this a truely “wearable” timepiece—if the price tag doesn’t deter you.

If this is an indication of things to come for TAG Heuer, we’re all in.

tagheuer.com

Read more about this year’s Watches & Wonders exhibits from Rolex and JLC.

 

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Property of The Week: Swing Into Seclusion in Otago

Looking for the perfect marriage of seclusion and sophistication? This home’s proximity to world-class skiing and wine region makes it an irresistible asset.

By Belinda Aucott-christie 12/07/2024

Located in the charming hamlet of Arrowtown this six-bedroom country home offers plenty of room to breathe. With its proximity to pristine ski fields and world-class wine regions, the two-acre estate will appeal to active city-slickers seeking a sustainable tree change.

Just a putt away from the social life of the renowned Hills Golf Club, 214 McDonnell has private access to a world of laidback leisure.

Manicured gardens and luxurious minimal interiors makes 475 sqm of house feel even more expansive and cinematic. Adding to the dream is the property’s sunny north-facing position. Each of the main rooms has breathtaking views up to Mt Soho and Coronet Peak, then across to the stunning Crown Range. 

A grand entertaining terrace centres on a log burning fire with a layout that encourages indoor/outdoor dining.

Residents will never be lonely. They can expect to welcome children home for the ski season each winter, and to welcome friends to Otago’s excellent wine regions in summer.

The home’s interior has been kept minimal and maps perfectly to the awe-inspiring location. Modern integrated technology, heating and convenient fixtures deliver a fresh take on country style. Open-plan living invites easy contemplation of the mountain views, while interstitial spaces help to keep life uncomplicated.

The opulent master bedroom, with ensuite and walk-in wardrobe, enjoys a chilled L-shaped layout with commanding views of snow-capped mountains beyond the window frames. The master’s inviting nook not only caters to owners who are fans of 5-star hotels, but also situates the love nest in a sun trap perfect for reading.  

The three extra guest bedrooms and two bathrooms are meticulously presented; the fixtures and fittings recede from view with materials that meld flawlessly with the nature-first vibe.

The piece de résistance is the stand-alone guesthouse, featuring its own private entrance and terrace. Here the interior mimics the main home, with pleasant open-plan living, separate dining, kitchen and bathroom. And it boasts its own private, outdoor zone. 

The village itself is equally inviting. With a tree-lined main street featuring heritage row cottages and a good selection of restaurants, shops and cafés—you’ll never want for attraction beyond the front door. 

With the Alpine tourist hot spot of Queenstown just 20 minutes away by car, you can be at the airport in under half an hour: Either taking off on your next adventure, or collecting treasured guests to deliver back to your private estate.

Learn more from Sarena Glass at Sotheby’s New Zealand. Email: sarena.glass@nzsir.com

 

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Why BMW’s First Electric Cars Are Future Classics

Many things still feel contemporary about the BMW i3 and i8.

By Raphael Orlove 11/07/2024

In 2008, BMW committed to a multi-billion euro plot. It would retool its Leipzig plant to assemble two of the most environmentally-conscious cars ever designed, with carbon fibre passenger cells holding electric, plug-in hybrid, and gas-powered range extender drivetrains. Not until 2013 did they begin production. You could say they were a decade ahead of their time, but we’re still not ready for cars as daring as the i3 and i8.

Years before cries that EVs are too heavy and that plug-in hybrids offer a better compromise for the average car buyer, BMW poured resources into making an EV without the typical downsides of a battery electric vehicle. The idea was to make an electric car that didn’t require a gigantic battery pack, one that wasn’t perilously heavy. To do so, BMW would make the i3 into the world’s first mass-produced car made out of carbon fibre. This was no small feat.

The earliest uses of carbon fibre in cars go back to British race cars from the 1960s, and the first complete chassis to be made out of carbon fiber dates to the early 1980s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that we saw a carbon fibre chassis in a production road car, and that was with the Bugatti EB110, which cost around 3.2 million and required outsourcing the carbon work to the rocket division of French aerospace company Aerospatiale. Even in 2008, BMW’s plans for what it ultimately called the i cars really were at the leading edge.

The first of these to make production was the i3, a hatchback city car that would look at home parked in front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Big windows gave great visibility, and while the car was too short for four full doors, BMW squeezed suicide doors behind the fronts. With both opened up, the i3 was outstandingly bright and airy. The light interior, seats finished in wool and the dash finished with eucalyptus, certainly helped. BMW also used a plant called kenaf in the interior trim; it’s a natural fibre similar to jute. Kenaf had been used as a backing material underneath a synthetic coating. With the i3, BMW put it up front, lighter and more sustainable.

Photo: NurPhoto

BMW even sourced its carbon fibre from Washington State, where the factory could rely 100% on local hydropower. The company was using technical solutions to make a more sustainable new car.

Its styling was daring, as was how BMW put the i3 together. BMW effectively split the car in two. All of the car’s essential systems – battery, motor, suspension, crash structures, and the optional range extender – were carried on an aluminum skateboard called the “Drive module.” The “Life module” that housed the interior and framed the body panels was what was made out of carbon. The top and bottom halves were glued together, or “chemically bonded” if you want that to sound less scary.

BMW did successfully make the car pretty light for what it was, coming in between 1200 and 1300 kilograms depending on the trim. A Nissan Leaf weighed hundreds of kilograms more, a Chevrolet Volt nearly 400 kilos more.

Sticking to low-weight principles meant that the i3 was never going to have a huge battery, and the biggest available pack was still only 42.2 kWh. The EPA rated it at 246 kilometres of range. The “REX” range extender boosted that figure to 320 kilometres, with a two-cylinder engine from BMW’s motorcycle division shoehorned under the trunk. For all of BMW’s investment in the i3, these weren’t earth-shattering numbers.

Photo: picture alliance

All of its innovation was costly, and BMW’s city car ended up relatively expensive. It started at €34,950 in Germany, $61.300 AUD. That went up to $67,000 for the Range Extender model. The most expensive versions of the i3 topped out at nearly $89,000.

(Rather curiously, all range-extended BMW i3s have 10.9 litre petrol tanks. In the U.S., however, to legally qualify as a range-extended electric vehicle, the i3 could not have more range available from its internal combustion setup than its pure battery. At that point, the government would have classified the i3 as a plug-in hybrid, not unlike the Chevy Volt. As such, all range-extended i3s initially sold in America were restricted by software alone to use just 8.6 letters of that 10.9 litre tank. Only in 2017 when BMW introduced a longer-range battery could BMW digitally unlock the full 10 litres.)

Its high price meant the i3 asked a lot of compromises of a luxury car buyer just to have the most environmentally-friendly vehicle possible. A regular 3 Series cost about the same and was much easier to live with, unless you were regularly parking on dense urban streets. Most Americans don’t.

If anything, the rather practical i3 was too good at its job. All the money that BMW had invested in its technical innovations cost it its chance to make a dent in the car market.

That would have been fine if BMW continued to roll its high development costs into future models, perpetually bringing down its own prices, but BMW wasn’t interested in keeping its i thing going. Chief executive Norbert Reithofer stepped down early in 2015 and BMW canceled the car in 2022 with no second generation. The company has gone back to completely conventional ICE, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and EV options. All of its EVs share their platforms with gas-burning equivalents, saving costs in development and on the showroom floor. They sell better than the i3 ever did.

BMW i3 Photo : picture alliance The i3 Brought Carbon Fiber to Mass Production

The only follow-up BMW did to the i3 was the dramatic i8, with butterfly doors opening up into a low slung cabin, flying buttresses directing air around its mid-mounted three-cylinder turbo engine. A dedicated PHEV, the i3’s engine did actually drive the rear wheels, and an electric motor drove the fronts. What shattered the illusion was that the front motor only made 97.6 kilowatts and the rear engine only 131. It might have looked like a supercar, but it didn’t drive like one. Like the i3, its carbon construction set it apart from its contemporaries, but also made it much more expensive than they ever were. In the U.S., the i8 started at a hair under $136,000 (AUD 200,000), which was a big ask for a car with three cylinders.

Following the same troubles as the i3, the i8 looked like one thing but was priced like another. It went on sale in 2014, not far behind the i3, and soldiered on through 2020, dying without a successor. An open-topped Roadster came in 2018 but didn’t change the car’s fate. Americans bought a grand total of 6,776 i8s through its entire production run. We buy that many Porsche 911s in a single year. Sometimes twice as many.

Photo: picture alliance

Taken at face value, the i8 is still a remarkable machine. A Porsche might be better on track, but the i8 is a dream realized in production form. It looks like nothing else on the road, even now.

And there is something that still feels contemporary about the i3. Its focus on low weight and low-impact manufacturing remains honorable. The electric car vision does us little good if it only reproduces the same more-is-more excess of internal combustion that clogs our roads with oversized vehicles.

As we now watch Tesla Cybertrucks lumber down the road at over 3,129 kilograms, GMC Hummer EVs pounding the pavement at over 4350 kilograms, BMW’s post-Recession vision is as relevant as ever.

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On the Crest

Surfing superstardom came early for Jack Robinson. Now Australia’s humble hero is chasing Olympic glory – keeping his head down.

By Horacio Silva 09/07/2024

There is a video on the internet of Jack Robinson at 15. In it, the pint-sized, towheaded Robinson, who was already considered the best young surfer on the planet, sports a cheeky gap-toothed smile and blunt bob to rival Lindy Chamberlain’s. Asked what he likes most about the sport, the shy grommet struggles for words, eventually offering, “Barrels, big hacks and airs.” 

Even at this age, Robinson prefers to let his surfing do the talking. But, as his interviewer surmises, don’t mistake reticence for unpreparedness: “When this young gun hits the surf, even the seasoned pros shake their heads in dismay.”

Aaron Hughes for WSL

Sixteen years later, Margaret River-born Robinson still beggars belief with his ability to seemingly walk on water. The bowl cut is gone (replaced by a new do that Robinson got for a recent photo shoot and that he jokingly refers to as “the full GQ”), but the difficulty in getting his point across remains, though not from a lack of effort. “Sorry, I’m trying to get my words together,” says Robinson, now 31 and based on the Gold Coast. “I didn’t sleep much last night and I’m hurting.”

He quickly explains that he was not out on the town with hard-partying surfer mates—far from it. These days, Robinson and his Brazilian wife, Julia, have a five-month-old baby boy, Zen, whose behaviour did not live up to the serenity of his name.

Beatriz Ryder

“I just woke up from a nap, actually,” Robinson adds. “At this stage, I get sleep wherever and whenever I can.”

He would do well to get some shut-eye. Robinson heads to Teahupo’o in Tahiti next month, where this year’s Olympic Games surfing competition is being held. Though he is currently ranked number three in the world, he has mastered some of the most challenging big-wave conditions, including a win with a late barrel at the Tahiti Pro in Teahupo’o last August, and is tipped as one of Australia’s best chances for gold.

With good reason, says Tom Carroll, the two-time world champion and Quiksilver ambassador. “That wave is up his alley,” says Carroll, who is now a meditation teacher on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. “He knows that break in all its various moods and forms. If the conditions are not favourable on the day, when some of his biggest rivals fall apart, he can still feel it out. He assesses the conditions in a nanosecond.”

It’s that fearless ability to be in the moment, to paddle out in anything and feel at home, that Carroll first noticed when Robinson was 11. “He has an innate sense for the water and the way it moves,” Carroll continues. “It revealed itself from the get-go and to see it expressed is quite extraordinary.”

Beatriz Ryder

These days Robinson is more focussed on the ordinary. “I’m trying to keep it simple,” he offers, “to stick to the same routines, and make sure that I am in a good headspace going into the Olympics.” Beyond countless hours in the water and gym, this means time spent on meditation, yoga and breath work. “It’s a super mental sport now,” he adds. “You have to be a smart competitor. It’s not just about surfing.”

Aside from the boards, gym equipment and yoga mats, the Robinson household is all prams, toys and nappies. “It doesn’t leave room for much of anything else,” he laments. “I love fishing and cars, and really want to get into flying planes but that will have to wait.” His role as a father has given him a different perspective on his sport and his own upbringing. Robinson, like many sporting phenoms, was coached by a domineering parent (his father Trev) and concedes it wasn’t always a swell ride.

“It was challenging growing up for sure,” he says. “But to reach this level you need people in your corner. Even if he was looked at as a little crazy by some people, he gave 100 percent and then some. I have a newfound respect for that.”

Aaron Hughes for WSL

He has the same regard for his competitors. When asked about the chances of his biggest rivals, Americans Griffin Colapinto and John John Florence, he is diplomatic to a fault. “I haven’t really thought about the other guys too much,” he demurs. “I’ve just been inspired by them. Even the last event with John John”—when Florence defeated Robinson in his native Western Australia—“I was just really inspired by his performance. It makes me want to do better.”

Perhaps if the whole modelling caper doesn’t pan out, after he retires from the sport he may want to consider a career in politics. “Nah,” he admits. “Leave that to others. Maybe that’s a path for Zen.”

The Olympic Games surfing competition begins July 27. 

 

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