Field Notes From The Most Gonzo Car Launch Ever

Look, I’m not a car person. I drive a 2011 Honda Fit. And while I love the feeling of power that comes with being fairly proficient at operating a manual transmission, I can’t actually tell you much about the motor that said transmission runs. It takes unleaded gas and synthetic oil. It gets pretty good gas mileage.

Then, on a Wednesday morning two weeks ago, I found myself sitting on an airplane, en route to Berlin, having somehow managed to snag a spot at the launch of Lynk & Co, a new car brand that promised to “push the limits of the car industry.”

When I heard it this claim it immediately brought one very important question to mind: But how? How would this new car brand be any different from every other car brand out there? How exactly was it planning on it pushing the limits, breaking the mold, ending the “game of follow the leader” that the press release told me the car industry was stuck in?

Pre-launch, Lynk & Co was very cloak and dagger about their product. The invite to the Berlin launch sounded like an email scam and the early info ambiguously stated that this new company would do everything from “evolve in the hands of its users” to “challenge the way we think of mobility.”

The pre-launch website didn’t clarify things either, showing video footage of millennial-aged humans doing things like running, cycling, dancing in an urban street, and blissfully blowing bubbles against a brick wall. Where was the new, innovative car in all this?

And then Teaser #2 came out: a picture of the new auto, hidden under a red veil that hugged its silhouette and didn’t quite cover its front and rear ends. How erotic! CNET’s Roadshow speculated it would be a crossover or a hatchback of some sort.

As for me, my very uneducated speculation for Lynk & Co was that it would be some sort of a ride-sharing, collaborative vehicle, owned by a group of people rather than by a company, and convenient, somehow, to all. Of course, I had no real idea about how that might work, but it wasn’t my problem to solve. I was promised game-changing. I expected nothing less.

And then I attended the launch. And I discovered that I was very much right…and also entirely wrong.

The World’s Craziest Auto Launch

I’ve never been to an auto launch (is that even what they’re called? auto launches?), but from what I understand, Lynk & Co’s launch was very, very different. This, according to the car writer who sat next to me at the dinner portion of the launch and told me between courses of smoked foie gras and beef tartare that most new automobiles are released at trade shows, and with far less fanfare — no fashion models, Chinese drummers, or techno-DJ’s. Which means that the Lynk & Co launch effectively ruined me for car launches forever. Because this was ridiculous.

I arrived in Berlin at 7:30 in the morning and was promptly whisked off to the fancy boutique hotel Lynk & Co was putting me up in. Turns out, I wasn’t the only young writer covering the event: By the time I’d freshened myself up in the bathroom, the lobby was swarming with all manner of twenty-somethings clad in various combinations of monotone and leather. Including myself: I’d chosen to don a black dress, grey sweater, and black loafers, rather than the bright blue dress and embroidered espadrilles.

I thanked my lucky stars for my foresight and impeccable fashion sensibilities, and settled down on a schway lobby chair to people-watch and wait for the 11:15 bus to the event. And also, to drink a cappuccino. Because at that point, I’d been traveling for close to eighteen hours and had only been able to snatch a few troubled hours of in-flight sleep. I had a long launch day ahead of me.

Soon, our bus arrived and all sixty-something of us milling around in the hotel lobby loaded up. After a false unloading in front of a museum close to our destination, we came to a warehouse of some sort. Outside, there was a very dramatic-looking black-clad man with long hair and a porkpie hat standing in front of a giant curtain, arms crossed and legs set wide apart. This was when I realized that whatever awaited us inside that warehouse was going to be a show. I was not incorrect.

The curtains parted, and the bus drove inside the warehouse, which was partly illuminated by a series of booths set up with video cameras and operators. We all filed off the bus and were directed to stop in at the booths.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I told the woman behind the camera when I reached my assigned booth.

“Just follow his directions,” she instructed, nodding her head to another dramatically-clad man standing on a pedestal in the middle of the booth area and leading everyone in a chorus of “woo-hoo’s.”

“Woo hoo!” I said, my eyebrows raised in suspicion.

This effort was good enough for the videographer and I exited the booth, following the flow of post-woo-hoo attendees to the next holding area.

Not pictured: the incredibly attractive people shoving these spoons of creamy deliciousness into the mouths of confused and jet-lagged launch attendees.

Booth #2 was where the party really began. Because there were not just the sixty or so bused-in millennial writers at the launch. There was an entire room — two hundred people, maybe more, all milling around, drinking from spherical bottles of something called “Sea Spray” and being spoon-fed (yes, literally) lobster with avocado creme topped with truffle shavings. Basically, a deleted scene from Eyes Wide Shut.

At this point, I was beginning to wonder where the heck the car was. And so was everyone else. Alas, the holding room we were in was not the final step to the launch. Because we still had lunch to get through. After an unknown amount of time spent milling around the room and drinking my own non-alcoholic bottle of Sea Spray (thanks, fetus inside of me), a dramatic announcement came on the video screen at the back of the room, and we were all shuttled into an even larger arena, with tables arranged in three tiers around a center bar and stage area.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Medieval Times.

And rightly so — because, much like Medieval Times, what followed was both a show and a meal. But instead of being served soup and roasted chicken and rooting for our section’s knight, we were served small bite after small bite with descriptions like “taco-fried roti-bread with tomato, porcini yogurt, cilantro, and deep-fried turbot” and told of the wonderful innovations of a car we had yet to lay eyes on.

What Lynk & Co Actually Is: A Dumbed-Down Explanation

The aforementioned fetus is probably what saved my hide when it came to writing this assignment. I was jetlagged, yes, and fading off to the soothing tones of Lynk & Co’s Chief Digital Officer David Green (hey, it was dark in there!), but I wasn’t was absolutely smashed — which I definitely would have been under any other circumstance, thanks to the incredible alcoholic creations that were placed on our table in between every one of the six courses.

As it stands, I remained sober through Green’s speech, as well as through Lynk & Co Senior Vice President Alain Visser’s speech, so I have a good idea of what this new auto is. At least, I think I do.

First, the details: Lynk & Co is owned by Geely Auto Group, a China-based auto manufacturer that also owns Volvo. Like I said, I don’t know cars, but Volvo is a name that’s familiar to me. Obviously. So it would seem that these people know what they’re doing. In a pre-launch press release, the car was described as a tech-laden SUV with an open API and built on something called the Compact Modular Architecture. It boasted both sharing possibilities and the first dedicated app store for cars.

The only thing I understood in all that was the “app store for cars” bit. An app store for cars! What sorts of fun car innovations would people come up with? Pacman for the road? A voice to encourage you on long trips. “You’re doing great E.H.! Don’t hit anyone!”

Both Green and Visser’s speeches cleared things up for me.

“The world doesn’t need another car brand,” Visser told us. That’s the though process Lynk & Co had when they set out to disrupt the industry. What they were going for was an “absolute revolution” — leading technology combined with safety combined with connectivity and electric capabilities. But they found themselves facing three challenges. First, they wanted to produce the best vehicle in the industry. Second, they wanted to be the first Chinese manufacturer with a global footprint. And third, they wanted to do things differently.

So they decided to take a look at the current state of the car industry and take notes on how it seemed to be evolving. The first thing they realized was that the dealership model of car sales had been the same since the invention of the automobile. “The car industry is such an arrogant industry,” Visser said, pointing out the fact that the mobile phone industry has evolved more in the past five years than the auto industry has in 50 years. Consumers aren’t the same as they were ten years ago — they’re beginning to expect connectivity in everything, to place more value on experiences rather than ownership, and finally, to care — about everything from the environment to politics to health. So why keep doing the same thing?

Consumers, Visser said, were looking for seven things in their automobiles: online sales, direct contact, personal service, connectivity, the need to experience rather than own, price transparency, and choice.

Lynk & Co’s new car, purposely given a model name of simply “01,” is the company’s attempt to address every single one of those consumer desires. It will be available for purchase online. There will be pick-up and delivery options for servicing the car. It will be available via “subscription,” which will allow customers to upgrade for free with each new model release (think Apple’s iPhone Upgrade program). The car will be available for one price with certain options — no more base models with add-on options. There will be an app store open to 3rd party developers.

And, oh yeah. There will be a Share button feature.

This is where I wasn’t entirely incorrect in my assumption about Lynk & Co’s innovation. The car is still owned by the consumer, yes, but at the same time, the consumer has the option of putting the car in Share mode via phone app, making it available for use by anyone in need of a ride. So instead of your car sitting in a parking lot for eight hours while you’re at work, it could be used for a ride to the grocery store, or the doctor’s office, or anywhere else someone needs to drive to.

Of course, the Share button immediately brought up all sorts of questions in my mind. Namely: how will this work with insurance? What keeps a person from taking it out on a joy ride? What happens if someone manages to completely trash the inside of your beautiful Lynk & Co 01 in a single afternoon? Does the owner get a cut of the profits for being willing to share her car?
I asked Green these questions after the event, but he didn’t really have a solid answer for me — after all, he said, the car was still in the early stages of development, with a projected launch in China at the end of 2017, and a North American launch with electric options in 2018. There were no MPG statistics available, not even a price range, though Green did hint that the 01 would have as economical a price tag as they could give a car with premium features, but that the subscription plan would offer a different option of payment for those who weren’t in the market for purchasing outright.

And did I finally get to see the car? Yes. At the end of the entire production, in a grand finale involving the Chinese drummers and the fashion models and even a stripped-down orchestra, the walls of the bar at the center of the arena were rolled away, revealing the silvery body of the Lynk & Co 01. It had been with us the entire time, hiding in plain sight.

And yeah. It looked like a car. Because that’s exactly what the 01 is, when it comes down to it: a car like any other. But at the same time, it’s a car for monochrome and leather-clad millennials who don’t mind paying a monthly fee to drive a car that will automatically tell them how to avoid the traffic jam on the way to work, or the location of the nearest pub. It’s a car in the same way the iPhone was a phone, when it was first released. As David Green said, while I nibbled on my butter-fried levain bread with cinnamon and cardamom meringue and bun-ice cream, “What’s next for Lynk & Co? It’s entirely up to you.”