Reflections on Glazing
The phrase ‘privacy glass’ has always concerned me. Do you have a right to privacy when you are on the public road? Despite my not always restrained driving style, I get on pretty well with my fellow road users. The reason is that I acknowledge my errors and praise other people’s politeness. If someone seems to stop to let me through, even if I suspect they might be dropping someone off or that they are just stopping because the sight of me swinging round the corner and accelerating towards the contended space is too much to bother dealing with, I always wave and smile as though they have done me a fine favour. And I like it when I am on the receiving end. In both cases, I don’t fool myself that we have established a lasting bond, but it’s just a simple acknowledgment that we both share the road and that one of us has taken what the other has been graceful enough to give.
This isn’t of course confined to driving, it’s a simple courtesy that can be used throughout life, and that the lack of which is responsible for a great deal of strife. If you can’t manage eye contact with your fellow drivers, you really shouldn’t be sharing the road with them. This is where expanses of smooth clear glass come in and why, cool though you (wrongly) think you look, you can’t bond from behind deep tinted windows. Also, although the driver following me might be focussed half a metre in front of his bonnet, I like to look through the car in front and see what’s coming. I can’t do that through black glass, or sheet metal.
The Sixties was a decade of openness. That’s not really true, but lip service was paid. Triplex (well they would, wouldn’t they) sponsored the Ogle Reliant GTS estate, a vehicle whose generous screens and side windows were complemented by a glass roof covering the entire load area, allowing the propagation of plants at 3 figure speeds. Bertone’s Lamborghini Marzal had fully glazed gullwing doors. Quasar Khanh took it to the extreme with his design for Unipower, a glass box on wheels displaying you to the world. Back then everything was groovy, safety was such a drag and, anyway, no-one who mattered ever crashed.
The Mini-based Quasar actually sold a few. The Triplex Scimitar GTS was a one-off that lost much of its glass when it became the production GTE. When the Marzal inspired a production vehicle, the Espada, the lower glazing was no more. But these exercises notwithstanding. the Sixties did make glass popular and, as technology improved, glass areas could be bigger and be formed into complex curves. The Volvo 145 Estate had a huge side glass in the loading bay, with an equally deep view through the rear tailgate. Its saloon brother and the far more adventurously styled NSU Ro80 saw the firm re-establishment of the third side window behind the C pillar, once common on many 40s cars, but now far larger and with thinner pillars. Things were getting panoramic. This continued through the Seventies and the Eighties. We could see for miles. Then we couldn’t.
The Fiat Multipla of 1999 was one of the last cars to be totally guileless. It had panoramic deep glass all round. You could see everything around you, and the world could stare in at you and your family enjoying themselves in sophisticated play school surroundings. Compact, seating six and easy to park, it was the perfect car for the school run, so what did we actually get parked on the zig-jag yellow lines, blocking the road? The Range Rover Sport. But even its glasshouse was too welcoming to the unwashed peering in at all that leather, and JLR closed it up further to get the letterbox rear window of the Evoque.
The Marzal’s trick was repeated relatively recently with BMW’s i3 and i8 show cars but, to no-one’s surprise, yet again the lower glass never made it to production. Practical problems aside, that is hardly surprising. Lower halves of people’s bodies in cars are not at their best. Clothes get rumpled and, moreover, taking advantage of traffic lights to adjust you clothing, or deal with that uncomfortable itch, might possibly be misinterpreted to the point that the authorities become involved. That thought raises an interesting question as to how far your car is a public place.
Despite being willing to lay their lives bare on Social Media sites, in the physical world people seem less inclined to relate openly to one another. The car is seen not as a window on a passing world, but as a cocoon where your pleasures are catered for through a multi-touch interface. There are exceptions. Incorrectly termed ‘panoramic’ roofs are popular, allowing you to view the clouds from your cocoon, if not the pedestrians. Vauxhall and, then, Citroen produced the windscreen that stretched up into the roof but, generally, in today’s world, big glass isn’t popular any more. No-one wants transparency. This suits the motor industry since glass adds more weight and cost per unit area to a car body than steel, and it can’t be shaped to increase crash protection. It’s easier and cheaper to increase the sheet metal and decrease the glass and, with cars like the Audi TT and Chrysler 300 leading the way, shallow glass has become fashionable and stylists are encouraged to play on this.
But why do we accept it? I’m loath to single out individual cars, but I’d feel bad about taking my hypothetical kids off for a long touring holiday in the back of a Honda Civic. There’s so much they’d miss seeing through those little windows. But we maybe feel more threatened now than 50 years ago and, in response, we’d like to hint that we might be a bit streetwise and mean. Shallow glass is mean. From a chopped ‘49 Mercury onwards, shallow glass has always said that you don’t take shit.
At this point, my concerns at encouraging social interaction take a back seat to my desire to feel safe. I am an involved driver of reasonable ability. As such, I find the view from modern cars restricting. I can adjust the mirrors, I can move my head but, sooner or later, I fear I am going to miss something, by which I really mean I am going to hit something. The realisation that I share the road with drivers who regard conducting a car as an unfortunate chore, to be made as pleasant as possible by any distractions to hand, is made even more worrying by the fact that their view of their surroundings is greatly restricted – out of sight, out of mind.
I actually feel safer with a nice expanse of glass around me. My secondary safety might be diminished a bit, I might not feel snug and cosseted, but my primary safety is enhanced. I am out there in the road, aware of what is happening and, actually, out there is no place to build a cosy nest. Let’s look at the Quasar again. Imagine roads full of them. It sounds like a bad SF movie but one thing you can be sure of, the drivers would be making sure they didn’t hit each other, and they’d be behaving themselves – no sneaky looks at YouTube on the smartphone on their laps. So, if that’s the situation in extremis, then it’s certain that a bit more glass and a bit more perceived, though not necessarily actual, vulnerability would be a good thing.
But then, somewhere, car makers do still think glass is important. They can’t remember why, but they know it must be there. This fact can be the only explanation of the costly but useless sections of glass that appear on various of today’s cars. The most futile in a probable usefulness-to-cost ratio is surely the section behind the C pillar of the Renault Clio 5 door. This is so tiny that it can be no good to anyone yet, instead of putting just a cheap black plastic moulding there, they go to the expense of fitting glass. Is this just silly, or does it mean there is still hope that manufacturer’s might really see the light one day?