This month’s theme explores change over time.
Car design is driven by the combination of the needs of society, the imperatives of marketing and the possibilities of engineering. All of these factors are in constant flux and interact with other in complex ways. “Longer, lower, wider, that’s how you sell a car.” A quote something like this has been attributed to the godfather of designers, Harley Earl. For a long time this was true and since 1940s cars were usually incredibly tall there was a long way to go before it became impossible to wear a hat in a car and “lower” didn’t work. Evolution reaches dead ends.
Two oil crises in the 70s caused car design and engineering to change tack and the form of evolution in car design turned to downsizing of cars’ physical size and the volume the engines offered. Styling became inspired (again) by aerodynamics. The engine size race of the 60s was over by 1973.
Convergent evolution has been acting on the car industry both metaphorically as well as literally. In metaphoric terms, the convergence is forced by globalisation and firms have either closed or merged. Capital likes a good, big monopoly and if that’s not quite possible, a few very large firms will do.
These conditions set in earlier in the US where by the 1970s there were just three large firms. In Europe where national markets persisted longer, the number of firms has not been reduced to the same extent though clearly there are a few combines that are in the same scale as GM and Ford in the US. This convergence is paralleled by mechanical convergence.
Some say the Citroen DS was the most advanced car ever, in which case evolution ended in 1955. Others point their pipes at the McLaren F1 in which case we’ve had 20 years without real forward movement in car design. And still others (mostly in VW) consider the Bugatti Veyron as the pinnacle of automotive achievement, in which case we are in a bad way indeed. Is evolution unidirectional? Does it follow one path or is it more like the sinuous channels of an estuary system?
A road test of four mid-sized cars in the mid-70s could have put a hydraulically suspended, front-wheel-drive, flat-four engined sedan up against a steel sprung L4 saloon rear-wheel drive with leaf-springs and a rear wheel-drive, and a front-drive, McPherson strut suspended car. These days your choice is much less open but all offerings in the equivalent class handle and ride far better than their 70s examples. And crashing in a 2015 Nissan Pulsar is preferable to hitting the landscape in a ’74 ‘Scort or even a ’91 BX. Which would you rather drive?
Evolution takes lots of forms: appearance, ideas, values, colours, technology and market success or popular appeal. In the following month we will cover some of these thoroughly, some elliptically and some not at all.