The One-Sided Argument

DTW might wonder if symmetry is overrated. Sean is sure it isn’t.

Dab (Limanda limanda)

There’s a lot to be said for a well-balanced world. At least I think so though, never having experienced one, I can’t be sure. Nature has a liking for symmetry and does its best. Sure, one side of our face is never a complete mirror image of the other, and there’s always the odd flatfish, but that’s splitting hairs and, generally, it seems that nature abhors asymmetry.

And so to motoring. Based on the ‘if it looks right, it is right’ principle, to my way of thinking a car that is supposed to go round both left and right corners should be symmetrical through its longitudinal centre. And, at first glance, most cars do seem symmetrical when viewed from the front, back or top. That suits me, since I have always had a liking for symmetry that, in the past at least, has bordered on the obsessive.

With modern production techniques it is less of a likelihood but, in past times, when die forming was produced by less accurate means, it was inevitably true that no car was really symmetrical. Even more so in the coachbuilding industry where ‘replacement panels’ for your Ferrari Daytona would demand hours of manipulation before they fitted. But here I am being nit-picking, and my gripe is where the lack of balance between left and right is blatant, and is there at the designer’s behest..

Of course, even when everything else is right from the outside, inside the car it’s wrong. The driver sits on one side and, even if balanced by a passenger of similar weight, it’s not perfect. Bold designs such as the Panhard Panoramique and McLaren F1 placed the driver in the centre, but the marketplace has shown its wretched conservatism with small-minded drivers objecting to climbing over their passengers in order to take their positions.

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Can we find a nearly perfect, symmetrical car that hasn’t been designed by Gordon Murray? Off the public road it’s easier, though they might have ancillaries that throw the balance, many single seater racers look the part. Not all though. I mentioned going round left and right corners above, and what car doesn’t do that? US Indy oval racers for a start, which can be understandably (yet unsatisfactorily to my eyes) off-centre, with far wider wishbones on the outside than inside. This was taken even further with the STP-Paxton Turbine car, where the driver sat alongside the engine.

You might not mind what goes on beneath the skin, but it irked me that the original Mini had a side mounted radiator, the Fiat 128 had uneven length driveshafts and the Lancia Fulvia had a V4 engine that was canted to one side. All three of the above were fine cars, that helped lay the basis for the cars we drive today, but they still niggle at me. The Systeme Panhard might have been archaic, especially when allied to cart springs, but it was balanced.

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You’re not even safe if the designer has done their best to balance the car. Some fool might come along and willfully unbalance it with stripes. Take the twin stripes of the Renault Gordini, always it seems on the left side, even when the driver is sitting on the right. Actually, France has always been a hotbed on asymmetrical anarchy.

Citroen went though a very bad patch. It might have all started when the 2CV’s TPV prototype was proposed with just a single headlamp. We were fortunately saved from this. Maybe we can blame Berliet, taken over by Citroen just a couple of years after launching the advanced Stradair light truck with its offset radiator in 1965, but it seemed to give Citroen new ideas.

First an offset bonnet vent on the SM, then an offset bulge on the CX, then offset chevrons on the BX. They even passed these ideas onto Maserati, then under their control, with the Khamsin’s bonnet vents. Fiat too espoused the offset, with Giugiaro’s original Panda and the Ritmo, both with grilles on one side of the front.

Even secondary badges can disturb things for me. A heavy bit of chrome decreeing “543 dti” on one side of the bootlid ruins the rear view for me. I far prefer badge delete, though can tolerate a central logo if they must. Unless the logo isn’t balanced – the leaping motif introducing a diagonal across the back of today’s Jaguars always spoils them for me. And an ignominious mention should be made of Alfa Romeo’s side mounted front number plates, which they had to get a special dispensation to implement in some markets.

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I believe that it was German legislation that brought about the single reversing lamp and rear foglight, introduced so that you didn’t confuse them with brake lights. For a while, on some vehicles, this meant that a clear lens appeared on the nearside of the car, and a red lens in the same position on the offside. Again, am I the only person who found themselves visually short-changed? And although split folding rear seats make sense, and taking the logic further the 1:2 split seat makes sense, making sense doesn’t mean that I like it.

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That said, I might be persuaded to cut some slack if the end result is improved safety, so the Leyland Roadrunner truck, with a low kerbside viewing panel made sense, as did the dipping rear window on the Range Rover Discovery3, though we might ask ourselves why this very sensible piece of thinking should have come from a company that, a few years later, saw fit to launch the Evoque, a car that places so little emphasis on rear visibility? The new London Routemaster also affords more visibility by its offset glass, but takes it a bit too far with the diagonal flourish – somehow, I don’t think this will age as well as Douglas Scott’s original.

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Both MINI (Clubman) and Hyundai (Veloster) introduced cars with a rear passenger door on one side only, though they seemed to differ as to which side that should be. BMW played with the imbalance of the rear view of their fine 2006 Mille Miglia concept, but have yet to put that into practice.

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One company did however, and those reading this who know my own choice of cars will by now have asked how I can write all the above and still be the custodian of a Nissan Cube, a car with a distinctly deranged rear view. “Well …”, as Joe E Brown’s character says at the end of Some Like It Hot when he finds his bride-to-be is actually a man, “…. nobody’s perfect”.

31 thoughts on “The One-Sided Argument”

  1. Sean, frankly I’m shocked to read your view on (a)symmetry. Isn’t it asymmetry and imperfection that make things interesting in the first place? And isn’t it imbalance that is a prerequisite for any (physical, chemical, …) process to happen at all? Equilibrium and perfect symmetry for me speak of standstill. Also in graphics or typography, I think the “center” option should be banned. There is nothing more discomforting for me than centered titles or, even worse, text.

    Now, for cars, I really can find hardly any of your examples disturbing. Yes, sidewards leaping animals on car fronts and backs are not nice, and having only one reversing and one fog light looks cheap instead of interesting. But all the other pictures are cars I very much like – not only, but to a high degree because of their asymmetry.

    1. Simon. If I could, I’d change the justification of your comments to both margins, but the asymmetric tyranny of WordPress won’t allow me to.

    2. Justified to both margins is OK. I don’t perceive a rectangular block as a “symmetric” shape. It’s that mirrored irregularity that hurts my eye.

  2. I don’t think the Cube is very nice … however mt saab falls foul having it’s air intake on the right hand side. I should point out that it is functional – it enters the pollen filter – supplying fresh air for the cabin. Originally there were 2 vents in the bonnet – whether this was because SAAB considered having left and right hand cabin air intake housings I cannot tell.
    How many cars only have one exhaust pipe? I am nit picking – I know. LOL

    1. Stephen. To keep the article short, I didn’t even start on exhaust pipes (which irritate me so much I feel another article coming on) or wheels (the ones where the spokes are angled to suggest forward rotation, so that when you mount them on the other side, they are rotating backwards).

  3. You forgot to mention Renaults of old (5, 16) with their asymmetric wheelbase. I don’t think it was really visible to the naked eye, but it must have been disturbing to some, knowing that the right wheel would arrive to its destination before the left…

    1. Laurent. Actually, I had meant to put that in, then forgot, so thanks for reminding me. Yes indeed, as the one-time owner of a Renault 5, that knowledge did blight the driving experience for me.

    2. Speaking of Renault, some versions of the second generation 5, the 21 and the 25 also had their losange on the left side, quite like the BX. I found that very pleasant.
      And regarding the asymmetric wheelbase, it’s quite well visible on 5 door cars, as the rear wheelarch part has a perceptible difference between the two sides.

    3. You just reminded me that my Espace was like that. I knew there was a reason I never fully liked that car. An asymmetric distraction when your eyes are supposed to be in the straight-ahead position is irresponsibly dangerous.

    4. WHAT? Your eyes are on the steering wheel? You’re supposed to find this without looking and have your eyes on the road (do you drive in the middle?).

    5. It’s enough just to know it’s there without having to look at it. My preference would indeed be a network of one way streets, with the dotted white lines up the middle of lanes to be something you straddled. Alas, from the ridiculous comments here, it’s obvious that the world is not yet ready to embrace my vision.

  4. Taking a specific focus on exhausts. There is a very good reason they are offset. It´s based on the fact that humans are recognition-machines. When we look we ask “what does that look like” and this means one can see a face in a cloud, or maybe a rabbit who likes John McEnroe. We also tend to relate to shapes in terms of famiiar human shapes. Without spelling it out, the central exhaust has the tendency to resemble or remind people of the end of the allimentary canal. I have heard that said of cars with exhausts so placed anyway and once someone points it out it makes it impossible to unsee.
    Super essay by the way. I had no concrete idea of the number of asymmetries there were in cars. Thanks!

    1. A good point about exhausts. The Pagani Zonda’s exhaust should be my ideal, yet I can’t look at it without thinking of my cat.

    1. I’d really prefer a centre zip – though of course if you analyse a zip in detail, it’s not entirely symmetric. In fact, as I write, I’m wearing a pair of jeans with a button fly. I bought them cheap in a French supermarket and didn’t notice. They make me feel rather uncomfortable.

    1. There are cars that have the wipers fixed at the two outer corners – my C6 for example. A minor symmetry flaw of these is that one is slightly on top of the other as they overlap in the middle. Or even better: get a Mercedes or Citroën from the ’80s, they have one-arm wipers.

    2. I was going to point to clap-hands wipers … and their one flaw, but Simon beat me to it. I think I might be converting him.

      Single arm wipers are only any good if you can get them to park vertically in the middle of the screen.

    3. “Single arm wipers are only any good if you can get them to park vertically in the middle of the screen.”

      You can – I’ve seen “tuned” BXs with that feature.

      “I think I might be converting him.”

      You can’t.

  5. On an entirely different topic, one of the bases on which people — that’s us — are believed to assess potential spouses is facial symmetry. The more nearly symmetrical, the more attractive.

    If that’s the case, why car designers seem to like asymmetry? Not that they want us to make love with their creations, rather that they want us to find them attractive enough to buy.

    To go a little farther in that off-topic direction, how to explain the Infiniti J30/Nissan Leopard J Ferie, whose rump brings to mind a cringing dog, and the original Oldsmobile Aurora, whose front looks like a very unhappy person’s face?

    1. There is the theory that facial symmetry means perfection, means “good genes”. That’s why we tend to find that attractive. But I still think what makes a person interesting to look at are the little asymmetries and imperfections. That’s what makes them live and distinguishes them from computer renditions or industrially produced dolls.

      For cars it’s similar. While I’d probably not be at ease with an entirely asymmetric design (let’s say a rectangular headlight on one side and a round one on the other), the small detail like an offset badge or grille is what I find pleasing. It’s a bit different in print or architecture, where I tend to be more attracted by designs that are profoundly asymmetric.

    2. Simon. Although I adopted the position of Devil’s Advocate in this piece, and in truth it does reflect the attitude I had when younger and my teenage OCD still lingered, I have become aesthetically pragmatic and, in fact, I actually have a preference for the imperfect. Indeed I wish there was an English language equivalent of the French ‘jolie-laide’, so I didn’t feel pretentious when quoting it. If you analyse most people’s faces they are quite conspicuously wonky and, indeed, when you see incidences where one side of someone’s face had been mirrored on Photoshop to give a perfectly symmetrical visage, it looks a bit creepy.

    1. This one shows the slight offset better. But on the other one you can see the ashtray…

    1. As disappointing this setup is, you’ll certainly agree that it wouldn’t be a good idea to put both the steering wheel and the mirror in the centre. A workaround could be to provide two mirrors.

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