Three for Two – Why not Supersize?
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? .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Gordon 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.
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.