Theme : Evolution – It’s Just A Bloody Lump Of Metal!

Driven to Write asks how important is Bloodline?

Beetle Sphere by Ichwan Noor
Beetle Sphere by Ichwan Noor

In the spirit of the biomorphism that we just can’t help applying to so many inanimate objects, with cars we try to emulate natural processes by using the term DNA to describe the hard-to-otherwise-define traits of a particular brand, and we speak of Evolution, a natural process about which we remain relatively ignorant, when one model supplants another..

Real evolution is a painstakingly long-winded process. My own bad back forever reminds me that the human spinal structure is still catching up with our pretentious insistence on scurrying about on two legs. Of course, we are at a point in our understanding of genetics when that situation might begin to change and we can start to tailor future generations to our preferred specification. This makes me relieved it didn’t happen 100 years ago, or I’d have an extra leg now made near-redundant by the ubiquity of automatic transmissions.

In the natural world, we probably put too much store on bloodline. It’s often a cause of conflict and, taken to extremes, it feeds racism and the concept of eugenics, a theory of controlled breeding notoriously espoused by the Nazis, but actually invented in Britain. On a more harmless level, it results in the current obsession with genealogy, a form of research that was once the province of people who could be bothered to travel around looking at parish registers, but now available to the armchair explorer due to the presence of so much information on the internet.

The default for many seems to follow the family tree up the male line which, as anyone with the rudiments of biology knows, is foolish. The female line is a far safer, though still not foolproof, route to ensure continuity. But whichever route you take, and even if you believe that your family have been honest and faithful to each other over the centuries, does it really matter if you are descended from Empress Matilda, a conceit far more easily found in documentation than if you were descended from her latrine cleaner?

A Typical Family Tree
A Typical Family Tree

Likewise, does it really matter that a brand of cars has a familial identity that you can trace back decades? In the sixties, I remember seeing a group of sketches by a German designer, proposing a gradual series of changes to the Beetle as it morphed into his proposed 1970s incarnation, a car that was still, recognisably, the poorly packaged, slow, quirky handling car beloved of millions, but a bit more modern.

I’d make two points about this. The first is that such a scheme would have been the end of VW – what it needed was what it finally faced up to doing, a complete break with a completely different vehicle, the Golf. The second point is that, taking a related car whose practical considerations were less essential, that very scheme worked marvelously for Porsche. It also, of course, currently works for other brands within VW group, but should they begin to ask whether they should look to their past more for a warning, rather than inspiration for New Beetle 3.

What was once a virtue became a liability.
Nature’s learning process is invisible to us. The motor industry’s learning process is often invisible too. It does something that works, then dumps it. It introduces something that doesn’t work that well, and others copy it. Much ‘evolution’ in the motor industry is led by people who want to sell new cars to people who have perfectly adequate old ones. In our market society this is seen as healthy; it keeps people busy, both working to produce the items and working to afford to buy them.

In more idealistic times when, like many, I was too ignorant or too willfully blind to see the terminally clunky awfulness of its structure, I looked at Eastern Bloc communism and wondered why, Tatra excluded, they didn’t produce a fine car or two. My feeling was that, being in a situation where they had no competition, they could concentrate on making a car that was properly tailored to its purpose, using the best technical solutions to give something that would serve its users well and last for years.

This is hardly an unrealistic thought. Even people who aren’t really into cars waste a stupid amount of time deciding whether an Audi is a more sensible purchase than a Ford or whether a Kia is a better choice than either. The answer of course is any one of them. They are all fine. It doesn’t really matter.

Nearly 40 years ago I was driving Ford Cortina Mark IVs around for a living. They were cheap and did their job OK. Had Ford just tinkered with this design sensibly over the years and had all the other manufacturers just faded away, would I look at my 2015 Cortina, still recognisably the shape of the cars I’d driven in the 70s, but with excellent rustproofing, better tyres, a fully sorted and bulletproof drivetrain, improved crash resistance and a couple of useful improvements like ABS, all available for £8,000 and expected to last me at least 10 years, and feel my life was diminished?

Sure there were better options around in 1976 to base this notional universal vehicle on, but that isn’t the point. That you don’t miss what you don’t know is a truism but, although my own attitude is that in many aspects of life we should aspire to the very best we can achieve, the automotive business has blundered along in its inbred and overpriced genetic backwater for too long. I’m greatly in favour of worthwhile progress, but there really isn’t enough interest and diversity out there to justify the huge amount of energy that has been put into the industry since 1976.

The Evolution of The Golf. Image
The Evolution of The Golf. Image

Our ability to design and manufacture means that we can tailor objects to fit us rather than waiting several thousand years for us to fit them. However our vanity often makes us rather poor at doing this; we’d often prefer an artefact that looks good, to one that fits us. Additionally, our natural conservatism, our need to link ourselves to the past, informs so much automotive design where evolution is a reversible process that sees yesterday’s cutting edge becoming tomorrow’s retro.

So, with each new model we have the question, evolution or revolution? With the former, this gives us the chance to refine and to iron out errors – or does it give us the chance to repeat mistakes and magnify them?  The latter gives us a clean sheet, an opportunity to rethink entirely – or does it just give us the chance to produce a raft of new mistakes?  I’d quite like to see a more open-minded and flexible industry, controlled more often by crude, common-sense maxims like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and, at the other end, “don’t follow the herd” to one that puffs itself up with quasi-scientific metaphors such as DNA and evolution. In the matter of cars, does that make me a Creationist?

5 thoughts on “Theme : Evolution – It’s Just A Bloody Lump Of Metal!”

  1. Thank you, Sean, for a really intelligent and thought provoking piece of writing, quite superb. This is what makes this blog so more-ish. Being the reflective type, I’m going to take a bit of time to chew over it a little more, because there’s an awful lot of elements touched on here …

  2. My reflections haven’t got me very far in terms of original thinking, I am afraid. I suspect we are in the midst of a marketing-driven evolutionary doom loop – an automotive case of “better be careful what you wish for” (terrible grammer!). Judging from the higly conservative approach that the vast majority of manufacturers have adopted to design, and indeed most elements of the engineering, over the last decade or so, we are getting what we deserve as a marketplace. The most successful brands, particularly those now known to be “premium”, seem the most stuck in the past. I saw pictures of the new 7 Series for the first time yesterday, and it’s astonishing how little of note has changed from the last/ current version. Porsche seems incapable of inventing a distinctive look for itself beyond the incorporation of design features from the 911, so nervous it seems of a public that might not “get it” that its saloon or SUV is anything else but a Porsche.

    I can only assume that the combination of previous experience and market research has created this triumph of evolution over revolution. Indeed, such premium makers themselves, once burnt, revert to the conservative – hence the non-replacement of the A2, and the dumbing-down of the A-Class.

    Conservastism seems to have spread to people’s perceptions of what a brand is capable. So, I recently bought a Mazda. I have had a slow procession of people at work approach me, tentatively – no, actually, almost incredulously – asking me ” .. is that YOUR Mazda in the car park?” The question is laden with implied bemusement and the unasked question … “why did you choose one of those when you could have had the equivalent BMW/ Audi/ Mercedes/ VW …?”. I am not going to try to argue that Mazda should be considered a premium brand – and indeed there are elements of the car that positively discourage that – but I can see the thought in people’s minds: “why didn’t you choose a premium brand when you could have (afforded it)! Not a problem in itself, but it is worrying how narrowly people are beginning to think.

  3. Despite living in the time of ISIS, in so many ways the World is a more open-minded and informed place than it was 50 years ago. But, probably because we’re surrounded by information and our friends and family are just a text away, people seldom now develop their thoughts in vacuo and there is often a dispiriting homogeneity of opinions. We’re given the impression of choice but much of it is predestined. That’s one reason why advising people on their choice of cars is such an unrewarding activity. You know that they are going to choose a MINI anyway, they just want to know if they should have the orange contrasting door mirrors.

    SV, as for the Mazda, you must be the despair of your work colleagues. First the odd French car, now he’s got a funny Japanese car too. They might get up a petition and ask you to park them down the road.

    I get a similar problem in reverse with my old Audi. Several people have given me the ‘ah, you’re an Audi driver too’ and I’ve politely changed the subject. They probably think my desire would be to be able to afford a new Audi rather than the one I have and I have to bite my tongue to avoid something along the lines of ‘yeah, and I bet we both have the same make of toilet cistern too’.

    1. Sean, you are right, although I kind of got them to understand the attraction (to me) of the big French curio (my boss, however, never got it at all …), but choosing a Mazda3 over an A3, or 120, or even a Golf GTD … Someone did try to make it OK by saying that, viewed from a cetain angle, it does ressemble a 1 Series BMW (great, thanks for that). Someone else actually said “I thought you were into cars?”!!! As you say, I have long learned to bite my lip/ tongue, but the implication is clear … being “into cars” these days has a rather 1-dimensional meaning to it for most people. I’m not anti any of the abovementioned other cars (although I don’t like the way the 1 Series looks) for being premium, I’m just a bit disappointed that fashion and trends so limit people’s outlook these days – I’m sure it’s getting worse, and I don’t feel we don’t have a motoring press that helps promote diversity either.

  4. When I read this month’s theme, I was hoping that a piece would come up which touches many of the points contained herein. So thank you for this, Sean, I thought a lot about it in the last few days and was not able to respond yet. Still, today, I haven’t sorted my thoughts out very clearly. But I’d like to take on the most recent discussions which circle more on the social aspects.

    SV, I share many of your thoughts, especially what you say about conservatism or diversity and your experiences when driving anything else than from the German Big Three. (I always tend to reply: why do you drive a Golf? As if it was the most far-fetched idea on earth. Not everyone gets the point…)

    It’s not only the brands that are subject to this conservatism, but also the colours, for example. We once had a first generation Mercedes SLK on our company car park which had a really nice, bright petrol green metallic colour. Many of my colleagues stared at it in disbelief, and “lady’s car” was actually one of the nicer things that was said about it.

    Now Sean, I agree with you that we have a lot of information available and see a lot of open-mindedness in our globalised world. But information and globalisation have their downside: in many people’s perception, the world has become a fast-changing and insecure place. Jobs can be transferred to Eastern Europe or Asia at any time. Once small and cosy economic entities are suddenly subject to harsh international competition.

    I see this situation as one that makes many go on the safe side, the conservative one. Just don’t stick out too much. Rather choose a silver, grey or black car (it’s also easier to resell). On the other hand, there is this whole premium obsession with which we assert our First World status against upcoming regions outside Europe or North America.

    So much for the society, I’d like to come back to evolution / revolution (/ creationism?) at a later stage.

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