Theme : Passengers – Threesomes

Three for Two – Why not Supersize?

GM Bench

As soon as cars got wide enough, it was taken for granted that you would fit three people in front. So the bench seat was joined in the 1930s by the column mounted gearstick allowing three people to sit abreast in comfort.  Of course, as GM’s rather coy little illustration above suggests, the bench had other attractions but, for most, it meant you could squeeze more people in.

By the late 60s, though, the bench seat was reaching its end in Europe. As cars got faster and better handling, seats that located your bum in a single position became more desirable. Also, seatbelts were becoming mandatory and that central passenger was beginning to look rather vulnerable.Lastly, despite the transmission tunnel starting to disappear as front wheel drive gained a foothold, fashion decreed that a floor mounted gearshift and a sizeable central console should be placed between two separate seats.

It held on though. The first Alfa Giulias came with bench seats, and my first Citroen Dyane had a bench seat and, although it was an intimate business, I did drive on a few occasions with three squeezed into the front (and four in the back). Catering for the need to fit three in the front lingered on lower spec models for a while, then disappeared. In Japan and the US, the bench seat held on for much longer, and was last sighted in a Chevrolet Impala as late as 2013, but is it fanciful to link the demise of the demand for the bench seat with better contraception? .

Bagheera 2
The Bagheera. Just one of various fine colour combinations.

Many enthusiasts will say that a proper sportscar should only be a 2 seater. There should be no concession to practicality or sociability. However, many people have more than one friend. Some people have both a spouse and a child. There is good reason for making provision for a third passenger and that is exactly what Matra did with the mid-engined Bagheera in 1973. This sported a single and a double seat, in the style of a Ford Transit but more sculpted, whilst its successor, the Murena, had three separate seats. Naturally, back in the dark ages, this attracted the usual sterotypical quips from us Brits about it being quintessentially French, having room for both the wife and the mistress, but it was of course a fine idea.

Murena 2
The Murena. The sports car meets Furniture Village

The late 1990s saw a notable return to three abreast seating in the family oriented Fiat Multipla. Again this used three separate seats, with the central one folding to make a useful table. Honda did the same thing with its FR-V but both these cars have now, sadly, passed on.

The Multipla
The Multipla

But the delight of three wide seating doesn’t end there. Taken a stage further, the perfect, symmetrical solution is to have a central steering position, flanked by two passengers. The best know exponent of this is, of course, the McLaren F1, but it wasn’t the first. Although they were motoring pioneers, the name Panhard means little to most of today’s motorists, even if their BMWs and Mercedes still use the Système Panhard (front engine, rear drive) and, if their vehicles still have solid rear axles, they might even employ a Panhard rod. In fact the company continues today, in name, producing military vehicles, but Citroen put an end to its car making days in the late Sixties.

Dynamic ExteriorB

Historically though, Panhard can lay claim to being as innovative a company as its nemesis, Citroen, and the Panhard et Levassor Dynamic, introduced in 1936, featured streamlined bodywork, monocoque construction, torsion bar suspension and, most controversially, a central driving position. There were two reasons for this. First, logic, the driver commanded all corners of the car. Second, the illogical fact that luxury cars, like the Panhard, still traditionally stuck to right hand drive in right side driving France – hence a central position suggested a classy compromise. Unfortunately, by 1939 the steering wheel had shifted to the left.

Dynamic Interior

Agnelli 365P
Agnelli follows the centre line : Ferrari 365P

Post War, the Tucker Torpedo was at one time intended to have a central wheel but it was decided that was one innovation too far – though that still didn’t save it. The Land Rover prototype was centre steer, but that feature never made it to prooduction either. Then, in 1966, Pininfarina produced the two-off Ferrari 365P, a design predicting the Dino, but with a mid-mounted V12. The two passenger seats are slightly staggered, set back from the driver, allowing for a bit of elbow room whilst keeping the configuration as narrow as possible and helping the driver’s side view. It is so very logical. It seems the right, even the only place to put the driver in a ‘driver’s car’.

McLaren F1Gordon Murray chose this layout for the F1 which, like the Fiat Multipla, is another regrettably rare case where a designer was allowed to give his clients what he knew they needed, rather than what a marketing person thought they wanted. There seems to be a healthy demand for used F1s, but still this didn’t set a precedent. Presumably it was decided that a lot of the people who could afford an F1 were neither young nor svelte and, even if they were, did not enjoy their staff seeing them crawling in an undignified manner into their $1m plaything. So, although logic would have suggested otherwise, the central position has disappeared from all subsequent McLarens that aren’t driven on a regular basis by Jenson Button.  For a while it seemed its best hope for the future was Gordon Murray’s T.25, but Yamaha’s Motiv iteration of his iStream concept appears disappointingly conventional, with a handed steering position.

T25 Seating

It’s a pity. Sure there are problems. You need one of those shelf grabbers for toll booths and somehow it seems to look more incomplete with just two people in it than a two seater does with just one. But sports cars should be about uncompromised solutions and it’s a pity that central steering didn’t become a McLaren trademark, just as it’s a pity that Fiat’s Multipla replacement, the 500L is so very unadventurous with its two front seats. Absolutely a waste of space.

9 thoughts on “Theme : Passengers – Threesomes”

  1. Thanks for that. This is a tricky one. It seems that a central driving position in isolation is a logical idea as the driver´s properly located with respect to the car´s extremities. It´s also better in terms of balance in theory. Perhaps it even allows a better steering system as the rotational input doesn´t have to be carried by linkages changing direction from hand to wheels. But. But. The result seems to annoyingly fly in the face of some deep-seated expectation. If it looks right, it is right goes the old adage so if it looks wrong it is wrong. Yet this example is certainly ambiguous enough to call into question that certain rule of thumb. What counts against the central steer position is mostly a silly one of access. You can flop into a left or right hand drive car so easily and you can reach the door too. The steering and access are seemingly both primary requirements although not ones that need to be satisfied simultaneously. I think the convention of off-set steering is deeply ingrained. The chance to avoid that convention was a 100 years ago when people didn´t have so many preconceptions. Isn´t a horse and carriage steered centrally?


  2. I drive two left hand drive vehicles in the UK, as well as a central position one (motorcycle). I don’t find the LHD position that problematic in fact so, in terms of making progress I have no great preference. However, the remnants of my childhood OCD mean that there is something satisfying to me about the central steering position and, for a hard core sports car where, if you intend driving fast you should be totally serious in your approach, I think it’s the best idea.

    There is something rather nice about the Dynamic interior shot. It looks like a mobile living room or, with that rope across the back of the seat, like an intimate cinema where a real-time story unfolds beyond the windscreen. You can envisage a serious Papa in suit and hat driving, surrounded by his three young daughters with Madame in the back seat reading a new translation of Rebecca whilst the serious older son beside her does some homework.

    In Westerns, I seem to remember the stagecoach driver sat on the right. When did they change over in the US.

  3. And I drive a right hand drive vehicle in a left hand-drive region, and I have a bicycle. Having the steering wheel on the incorrect side for this region, hasn´t made so much difference to my life and I expect a centrally mounted one would be the worst of both worlds. That said, haven´t we forgotten that it´s easier to peer ahead if the steering wheel is off centre? When in a local traffic jam, I notice cars here pull leftwards to see what´s up; I just steer a little right and have a much longer view.
    But we are here to talk passengers. The central position only benefits passengers as a side effect. More convincing are the bench seats of American cars and recent oddities like the Multipla. I had an American car with a bench seat and it was nice to drive around sprawled all over it. That lack of control of the occupants make it hard to arrange the airbags so I expect the bench seat is most certainly history. What a pity as it spoke of the possibility of the car being something other than a racing machine.

    1. The Multipla offered airbag protection for all three occupants. It’s worth mentioning the Citroen Cactus here if only in disappointment at its faux bench seat. Promising but not delivering as usual PSA?

  4. “Isn´t a horse and carriage steered centrally?”
    Yes for the horse, but (usually) no for the carriage – the ones for human transport at least, since there already sat passengers next to the “driver”.

    1. Ah, just recognized Sean already touched upon that.
      I remember somewhere in the deep nothing of my brain reading a piece on the history of human transport that explained that very change in the US driver position. But, as always, I seem to have forgotten the crucial point, so I am of no help here.

  5. The traditional explanation of driving on the left is that it meant that your sword arm was on the correct side to repel troublesome folk coming in the other direction. The traditional explanation of driving on the right is that it was at the behest of Napoleon, so his armies could pass by unthreatened and unhindered. This explanation is particularly loved by the British since we can crow about our glorious military history. But, why should the Americans drive on the right, unless they just want to point out they aren’t British?

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