I’m not even going to try and pretend this is a new idea, or even my idea. But it’s an idea that I’ve always liked, and have always been surprised it never managed to make it into reality in any significant way. It just seems to make so much sense. It’s the idea of a car that can be easily made to do pretty much anything.
You’d probably be asking “How?” How, Jason, how can this be?” if it wasn’t for that animation up there that pretty much gives it all away: modular, swappable body components. Actually, more specifically, it’s just one section, really — the rear half of the car from the B-pillar back.
The idea of swappable bodies on a car certainly isn’t new — back in the 1910s and the heyday of the coachbuilding era, cars were routinely built by taking a manufacturer’s chassis and then a coach building company would install a body on it for the client. If the client decided they wanted to use the car for a different purpose later, a whole new body could be fitted. It worked, but it was still expensive, cumbersome, and required specialized labor.
Since then, the idea of having a swappable car body or some portion of a car body has returned a few times. Honda showed an electric minicar utilizing the swappable bodies idea in 2012, and Nissan, back in the 80s, had the Pulsar NX, which featured swappable tailgates to turn the car into a shooting brake or a notchback. But, really, that’s about as mainstream as the idea ever got.
It’s a shame that the swappable-body segment concept never caught on more, because, done right, I think it could have a lot of potential for making cars much more flexible and usable for people. For example, I occasionally will do large-scale art projects, and they tend to be large enough that I can’t fit them into any of my usual cars. So, I used to have a great little Isuzu pickup I’d keep around for just this purpose.
And while that Isuzu was incredibly handy, the truth is most of the time it spent just sitting around. It still had to be insured, maintained, registered, and all that, but if I’m honest, outside of the times I was actively working on a project, it got used maybe one a month. Maybe.
If I had a car I could easily transform into a truck as needed, well, that would have been a much better solution. Or picture someone who works a normal job but is also in a band; they probably want a comfortable, efficient car for the daily commute, but need a van to haul gear for gigs every few weeks or months. If that person could easily transform their car into a van on occasional weekends, wouldn’t that work well?
Or the person who has family come twice a year, and then and only then needs to carry six people. Or a person who wants a convertible two months a year. Or maybe wants to take a camping trip one summer. There’s all kinds of reasons why you may find yourself needing a kind of car you don’t have.
So, with that in mind, let’s think about what a viable, flexible-body car would be like. I’m picturing some very conventional FWD base. Something small-to-mid sized, like a Focus or a Golf or maybe an Accord. Something that makes around 200-250 HP or so (or more why not?), to make sure it has enough grunt to deal with the extra loading that could come from a laden pickup rear or a camper module.
Almost every major car company already makes a car basically like this. A transverse FWD platform — it’s likely the most common auto platform currently being built. I’m picturing the car staying normal and boring all the way up to the B-pillar, when things change very fast. From the B-pillar back, the car is more like a cab-and-chassis truck platform.
There’s a full floor, the gas tank and all the usual frame stuff is there, but it’s totally open. There’s also a strong and flexible rubber seal around the open rear of the passenger area, and a set of standardized mounting points along the perimeter of the lower frame and the front half of the car.
This is the basic platform. On to this will mount the rear body modules, which can be as simple as a hatchback with a bench seat, a higher-spec sedan rear, a wagon, a pickup truck, a fully-outfitted camper module, an open jeep-like rear, and more. You could have convertible rear sections and maybe even a low-weight, aerodynamic rear just for track use, if you ever wanted to give that a go.
Installation should be as easy as possible. All electrical connections would use a standardized plug that connects when the module is placed on the frame. Electromechanically-operated latches would engage when the module is placed on the frame, and allow for a dash-switch-based lock/unlock module system. I’m imagining that installation would be as simple as three or four guys lifting the module into place (well, for the camper module and maybe some others, you may need more or mechanical help), aligning the receptors/connectors, and hitting the LOCK MODULE switch.
I think the key to making this work is in how you get access to the modules. The average owner would own one base module that would be on the car most of the time, and go to a dealer to rent other modules as needed, with the dealer storing the owner’s base module.
Maybe if you use a second module all the time, and had a place to store it and all that, you’d have your own. But I think for this to work, it needs to be the sort of thing where you drive to the dealer, pick your module, and leave with the new one inside of 15 minutes. And I think that should be possible.
Third-party companies could make custom modules for any niche need they want; rolling howler monkey cage, ice cream van, drivable aquarium, portable sex dungeon, whatever. Ideally, the mounting system would become standardized, which would make everything even easier and more flexible.
It seems like most of the damage that happens to cars comes from when we try to use them for purposes that they just weren’t designed for — and very often, that means using them like trucks or vans or cramming in too many people, and so on. Issues that have to do with body design more than anything else.
Of course, this concept is inherently one of compromises. If you need a truck or a performance car or a camper 100% of the time, this probably isn’t the best solution for you. But for that large number of drivers who find that their needs are often far more variable and flexible than one kind of car can actually provide, and who don’t want to deal with the hassle, space demands, and expense of multiple vehicles, I think a modular-body car could be a really viable solution.
So. Am I still an idiot? Probably. But I’m curious to hear what you think of this.