Theme : Roads – An Introduction

What are cars for without roads to run them on?

2015 road image crop

Quite a lot of ink is used discussing the handling and ride of cars. Is it ride or is it handling that comes first? For some, these parameters are the deciders when it comes to assessing a car’s excellence or otherwise. Very thorough people go so far as to take in interest in tyres since some cars’ behaviour is affected directly by the rubber chosen to deck the wheels. This raises the question of why ride is an issue and why tyres matter. Perhaps only singular writers like LJK Setright ever really got to grips with the things that grip the road beneath. Yet there is even further one can go towards considering the way cars are and how we can drive them.

2015 Driving-on-a-tree-lined-r-001

It is the road underneath which is what makes life complicated for chassis engineers and makes children sick on long journeys. The surfaces have fine, medium and long wave undulations. The radius and even rate of radius change. Camber flips. Rain, ice and snow add ceaseless variation to the road’s mu. One set of tires, one chassis set up must find a compromise for all of these.

Not only do roads vary enormously within countries but they vary between them too. Think of the lumpy roads of middle France and the concrete ribbons of Belgium or the unbending highways of the US interstate system. Railroad engineers can eliminate this kind of variability almost entirely since the quality of the rail-road surface can be defined by the dimensions and grade of steel used for the rails.

Another DIN defines the construction of the material under the rails. Input defined. Outputs determined. Thus almost all trains ride the same (an exception is the Danish IC4 train which has a worse ride than the Siemens-Bombardier ICE trains and Bombardier IC3 trains using the exact same tracks. Well done Ansaldo Breda)

2015 switzerland-road-tripThe variability of the road plus weather means engineers are confronted with a tough problem: how to manage diverse inputs so as to produce constrained outputs in the vehicle system.

Looking at roads from another angle, we can see them as the both a means and an end. As a means, roads are just strips of a smoothish, hard covering to allow vehicles to get from here to there. Taken to their logical extreme we have four-lane motorways with huge minimum radii and almost all features removed from the adjoining landscape. See London Orbital by Iain Sinclair for full exposure to this. He walked around the M25 and treated it both a place and a placeless place.

The road is also a thing we seek to travel on, not because we want to go to the Wheatstone Bridge B&B in Durham but because we like the challenge of driving and the pleasures of the senses that fast motion provides. Le Corbusier and Hitler hated winding roads. For some they are a chore and for others they are the reason they chose the lithe and agile Elise over the comfortable and spacious Insignia for the trip.

Motoring magazines and indivduals have their favoured roads which is interesting as it means the chore of travel has become an end in itself. We look back on holidays, for example, and it may very well be the 35 km between Prüm and Neuendorf that we recall rather than the charms of Prüm itself. When I think of France I think of the coast road from St Raphael to St Jean Cap Ferrat. I only did this trip once but I will never forget it. I don’t recall St Jean Cap Ferrat at all. Blue? Sand?

What are those roads and why do they appeal? How do cars and roads relate? Is there a link between geology and the skills of a country’s chassis engineers? These and other road-related topics will be explored in what I think Simon and the team will agree is one of the most challenging Themes DTW has undertaken since its founding in late 2013.

Happy reading!

Richard Herriott

(Simon Kearne is away from his desk)

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

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