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Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 6 (May-June 1951)

Lunacy in Motor Car Design

Lunacy in Motor Car Design

A few months ago it was reported from a motor-car show in London that English makers were ceasing to follow American lead in design, and were returning to English traditions. I don't know how far this has gone or will go, but it is a relief to hear there has been a breakaway from a trend that has produced some of the ugliest goods of our time. True, the English car has not achieved the vulgar bloated hideousness of some American models. These expenses of Hollywood spirit in a waste of chromium suggest various comparisons, such as sleek overfed beasts at a show, or the traditional representation of a capitalist, a fat man with a gold watchchain stretched across his stomach. (This is less popular now, for we know that the predatory capitalist is just as likely to be a thin man suffering from a duodenal, incurred in getting where he is.) Most striking description of this type of car, however, is “a pregnant whale with prominent teeth”. True also, the English manufacturer has had to consider his customers, including Americans; there is fashion in car design, as in everything else. The fact remains that in recent years English cars have lost something in aesthetic appeal. Line has been sacrificed to curve, proportion to suggestion of bulk, dignity to fussiness, and window-space to streamline effect.

Windows bring me to the question of utility. Our first car, got second-hand, was a mid-thirties model of an English make. It had agreeable lines, was comfortable, and gave good service, but when it grew old and we had to face the possibility that it might break down in awkward circumstances, we sold it and bought a nearly new 1947 model of another English make. It is a good car and we are lucky to have it. The all-over design is moderately modern and less pleasing to us than that of the old one. Improvements include more seating room, but against this the car is more difficult to get in and out of, the windows are smaller, and the head-room less. Being old-fashioned enough to think that one should be able to enjoy the widest possible view from the inside of a car, I measured the windows first thing. It was a week or so before I sat in the back seat, when I was astonished to find I could not wear my hat, because the top of my head touched the roof. Shortly afterwards I rode in the back seat of a new model of another English make, and found the roof was just as low. I am just under six feet, which is not very tall for a man. There must be millions of men over six feet, and some women, who ride often in cars; how do they fare in these new models. This low head-room has its dangerous side, for if a car bumps in a bad rut you can get a nasty knock from being thrown up against the top. Perhaps the designers think that if your head is already wedged against the top, even without a hat, there is less risk of injury. This cutting down of height has apparently been done to get streamlining effect. Comfort of users is a secondary consideration.

A more vital consideration is drivers' visibility. I don't drive, but I have travelled a good many thousands of miles in the front seat, and I should say that prolongation and bulging of the bonnet, plus lowering of the driver's position, lessens the driver's view of the road, and especially of what may come on to the road suddenly from the side, such as a child. Is it anyone's business to see to this? Can a manufacturer put any shape of car he likes on the roads, irrespective of its risk factor? Is there a Lloyds in the motor-car world, and if not, why not?