Theme : Romance – Taking A Back Seat

Once the back seat seemed a place of Romance. Now it isn’t.

Mercedes-Maybach S 600 (X 222) 2014

Most car journalists concentrate on the front seat. They might want a bit of comfort, but they’re more likely to seek side support so they can enjoy exploring the limits. Give them a set of contoured Recaros and they’re in petrolhead heaven. What they don’t give the same consideration to, as we’ve discussed on these pages so often, is the rear accommodation. Hence, an upmarket four door might get a glowing review based on performance, handling, looks and the view from the driver’s seat, with a small mention that the rear seat is a bit cramped, even uncomfortable, with a letterbox view of the outside country.

We’ve mourned the decline of the front bench seat elsewhere, but there are reasonably sound reasons why it is no more. However, the neglect of the back seat is more inexcusable. Of course there are sybaritic individual recliners available for hard working CEO’s to snooze in as they are rushed from meeting to meeting in a high spec S Class but, on a more mundane level, the back seat seems to have a low priority.

Before World War 2, in a very different society, it wasn’t uncommon for the middle class family in the UK to have both a maid and a chauffeur. As such, the owner might spend more time in the back of their Wolseley, than in the driver’s seat; even if they could actually drive. So the back seats of such mid-market vehicles were usually quite grand.

The back seat of a car has a particular significance to ‘gens d’un certain âge’, which I guess includes me who, although they might have grown up during the so-called ‘permissive sixties’, found the environment of a private car more congenial than the middle of a field in the Isle of Wight. But the pleasures of the back seat go far beyond that. As a kid I have various memories of sitting on this big moving sofa, as an only child my sole domain, looking over my parents shoulders.

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Of course, the concept of the rear seat as a moving sofa has disappeared for two reasons. First, safety – there’s no more sprawling around the width of the rear bench like a Sultan on a divan, popping lokum into your mouth as you contemplate the changing scenery (or was that just the teenage me?).  The seat now needs to allow for two or three people to be strapped securely in place. Second, the need for a folding rear seat in a hatchback or estate restricts the design and thickness of the cushions, and provision of a split folding design compromises things further.

Nevertheless, I still think that the design of rear accommodation in anything that isn’t an executive or plutocrat barge is unfairly neglected. And, if you want to do something about it there isn’t a great aftermarket for fancy rear seats. Either the drivers of the sort of cars that need these seats don’t have many friends, or don’t like them that much.

Recaros 2

Today I’m usually only a rear seat passenger in taxis and I quite enjoy those times – or I would if the environment was a bit grander.  I sometimes wonder if I might buy a suitable car and park it outside my workplace and make it my office. An old Cadillac, or possibly a Citroen CX Prestige would do the job. It wouldn’t need to be roadworthy, as long as the upholstery was good.

Citroen CX - planetecitroen,com

25 thoughts on “Theme : Romance – Taking A Back Seat”

  1. Thanks for reminding me of the series 1 Lancia Beta HPE, I turned down an opportunity to buy one last year that had the same seats, but in orange (or faded red that had aged gracefully). The style wasn’t enough to outweigh the challenges (unsurprisingly the r word among other things) even at a tempting sale price but I still miss the possibility of owning a car with those seats.

    1. I’ve mentioned before that a friend had a secondhand blue HPE in the 80s. I’ve also mentioned that I didn’t enjoy driving it at all, but concede that it was probably an ill-maintained, high mileage example, so unrepresentative. But I had completely forgotten about the fine looking rear seats until I found the above image. Possibly his was a later version. And the Beta Coupe seats are equally stylish.

    2. These are a late version Volumex seats, which are more as I remember. Nice headrests, and maybe more practical, but otherwise not so smart.

    3. Yes, those seats must be from a latter car. The car I looked at (a metallic mid-blue with iron oxide accents on the outside) was the sort of car you could imagine driving home from the Rollerball stadium and pointing out to your friends that you chose the interior colours because you’re the Energy Corporation’s number 1 fan. The latter car’s seats are probably in better taste but have banished science fiction from the equation almost completely.

  2. “Before World War 2, in a very different society, it wasn’t uncommon for the middle class family in the UK to have both a maid and a chauffeur”

    Really? Maybe that’s the missing piece of the jigsaw in my understanding of the British class system…

    1. It was a way of life inherited from the Victorian era. Both the First World War and the Depression eroded it significantly (although those who still retained money in the 1930s probably found it easier to find servants for a while) but really the Second World War put an end to it. My grandfather was a stockbroker. I think he had a big Austin, but he didn’t drive and had a chauffeur, who was also probably a handyman and gardener. In his case, the Depression put paid to all that.

      But surely it wasn’t all égalité in pre-War France?

    2. Certainly not. However I’m pretty sure no one ever called a stockbroker or anyone with maid and/or chauffeur “middle-class” either…

    3. As I said, the First War and Depression made a difference but, until the Second Word War, English social values were still broadly those inherited from the Victorians. The Victorian comic novel The Diary Of A Nobody is a nice lightweight satire of that way of thinking. Certainly, by the definition of the times, my grandparents were firmly middle-class. They had a period where they prospered, but that didn’t alter their perceived position. They lived in a detached house in a street in Purley, surrounded by other similar houses, surrounded by other similar streets. The garage was on one side of the house and had accommodation above it for servants (as in a married couple).

      When I was a teenager, I stayed with a French bourgeois family in Brittany, and I do remember they had a maid – from the village. Having a mother who did all the housework herself, I was rather shocked.

    4. That would explain the number people I’ve met who claim they’re “working class” but clearly aren’t…

    5. The British concept of ‘working class’ has become a very flexible and largely meaningless label in a far more complex society, but a class/caste system still remains – just look at our government.

    6. It’s probably the same everywhere, to varying extents. But thinking of it, seeing how hellbent the current government here is on rolling back the years all the way to the Victorian era, maybe now is not the time to try changing people’s perception of their position on the social ladder…

  3. As will many things in the UK, cars and class are firmly intertwined. I am from working class roots, albeit upwardly mobile. My parents are and were hard working, literate and intelligent, starting out in blue collar roles but ending up white collar. Money was often a struggle and car ownership was a practical aspiration: it meant that my mother could do the shopping and get around her various jobs with greater ease than she could achieve on the bus. I suspect that for many people of that background, car ownership is akin to buying a fridge freezer. Against this background, the romance of the car as an abstract cultural or aspirational concept is almost entirely moot.

    1. Chris. Is that ‘tank’ as in steel rimmed receptacle for liquids or ‘tank’ as in Centurion and Challenger? I only ask because, if the latter, I’m sure our esteemed editor would love to read any insights you have into the world of military vehicles.

    2. “Tank” as in brum-brum, bang-bang. I should clarify that the factory made light and heavy guns for tanks, not the actual tanks, although I believe they also fabricated special vehicles such as diggers and mine removers.

  4. A Marxist deconstruction of car magazines would be an interesting exercise, if only to show how complicit they are in legitimising the capitalist industrial complex and entrenching the bourgeois socio-consumerist hegemony. Hey: never let it be said that Marxists don’t know how to laugh! (They don’t.)

  5. RE: drivers and servants, I think the middle class still have servants, they just aren’t expected to house them or provide the tools of trade any more. Even in proudly ‘do it yerself’ NZ there are plenty of people earning money doing other people’s gardening work, home repairs & maintenance, domestic cleaning and (if you consider the rise of services like Lyft and Uber) driving people about.

    1. I think most of us who work in any commercial field are fooling ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that in may ways we are just the hired help, and to an extent are just servants of some kind or another. It’s all a matter of degree. Where you can draw the line is when choice disappears and your employer effectively becomes your owner, you live in their time and you rely on them for everything, including a good reference when they don’t need you anymore. To a point that was the case with old-school British servants, and it’s certainly still the case with many people, say a builder from Pakistan working on a 5 year contract in Dubai.

  6. I remember the first car show in Larissa – I think it was 1992; one of the things that really thrilled me was the Citroën XM. The whole car was breathtaking, but those rear quarters, with the immense black leather bench and what seemed to be acres of legroom, were beyond imagination for me.

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