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