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