Imagine a car from the first decade of the 20th Century, with a big windscreen made out of the same sort of glass used in house windows in front of the driver. Some cars could get up to a respectable speed and if, by chance, you hit something, going through the front windscreen would be like skydiving into a greenhouse.
Safety glass improved matters, although its fitting to car windscreens wasn’t made law in the UK until 1930. There are two types of safety glass, toughened and laminated. Toughened was once standard fitment all round a vehicle, including the windscreen which, if you ever experienced a stone shattering a toughened windscreen into 100,000 tiny pieces, could be a pain. Even more of a pain was hitting a laminated windscreen if you weren’t wearing a seat belt, since it was very hard, and if your head did go through it, made an extremely inelegant necklace.
As glass technology improved, it became more design friendly, allowing compound curves and large spans. To showcase these improvements, Triplex sponsored the Ogle Reliant GTS estate, a vehicle whose generous screens and side windows were complemented by a glass roof covering the entire load area, allowing the propagation of plants at 3 figure speeds. Bertone’s Lamborghini Marzal had fully glazed gullwing doors to allow people to view you scratching your crotch in traffic. Quasar Khanh took exposure to the extreme with his design built by Unipower, a glass box on wheels.
None of these was a significant production vehicle but they helped to make glass area popular as the Sixties progressed. The Volvo 145 Estate had a huge side glass in the loading bay, with an equally deep view through the rear tailgate. Its saloon brother and the far more adventurously styled NSU Ro80 saw the firm re-establishment of the third side window behind the C pillar, once common on many 40s cars, but now far larger and with thinner pillars. Things were getting panoramic. This continued through the Seventies and the Eighties. We could see for miles. Then we couldn’t.
The last cars with unashamedly big windows were the people carriers of the late nineties, early noughties, in particular the Fiat Multipla. With cars like the Audi TT and Chrysler 300 leading the way, shallow glass became fashionable and stylists have been encouraged to play on this. I suspect that many car engineers have always hated glass. It was heavier than the equivalent surface of sheet metal and didn’t contribute enough to the structure. As such they must be some of the main culprits responsible for today’s mean glasshouses.
Not that they’d get much flack from many of today’s drivers who either assume that good visibility is an optional extra they can’t afford, or that watching the world through a letterbox fits the modern zeitgeist.
And it does. Despite being willing to lay our lives bare on Social Media sites, in the physical world people seem less inclined to relate openly to one another. The car is seen not as a window onto a passing world, but as a cocoon where your pleasures are catered for through a multi-touch interface. There are exceptions. Incorrectly termed ‘panoramic’ roofs are popular, allowing you to view the clouds from your cocoon, if not the pedestrians. Vauxhall and Citroen produced the windscreen that stretched up into the roof but, generally, in today’s world, big glass isn’t popular any more. No-one wants transparency and, for the industry, it’s easier and cheaper to increase the sheet metal and decrease the glass.
But why do we accept it? I’m loath to single out individual cars, but I’d feel bad about taking my hypothetical kids off for a long touring holiday in the back of a Honda Civic or Nissan Juke. There’s so much they’d miss seeing through those little windows. But we maybe feel more threatened now than 50 years ago and, in response, we’d like to hint that we might be a bit streetwise and mean. Shallow glass is mean. From a chopped ‘49 Mercury onwards, shallow glass has always said that you don’t take shit from anyone.
And even disregarding my desire to allow more social interaction, there is my desire to feel safe. I am an involved driver of reasonable ability and I find the view from modern cars restricting. I can adjust the mirrors, I can move my head but, sooner or later, I fear I am going to miss something, by which I really mean I am going to hit something. The worry that I share the road with drivers who regard conducting a car as an unfortunate chore, to be made as pleasant as possible by any distractions to hand, is made even more worse by the knowledge that their view of their surroundings is greatly restricted – out of sight, out of mind.
To my eyes, the rear views from the driver’s seat of a BMW X6 or a Range Rover Evoque are irresponsibly poor. I actually feel safer with a nice expanse of glass around me. My secondary safety might be diminished a bit, I might not feel snug and cosseted, but my primary safety is enhanced, as is that of the people in my vicinity. I am out there in the road, aware of what is happening and, actually, out there is no place to build a cosy nest.
Let’s look further at that Mini based Quasar from the Sixties. Imagine roads full of them. It sounds like a bad sci-fi movie but one thing you can be sure of, the drivers would be making sure they didn’t hit each other, and they’d be behaving themselves – no sneaky looks at YouTube on the smartphone on their laps. So, if that’s the situation in extremis, then it’s certain that a bit more glass and a bit more perceived, if not necessarily actual, vulnerability would be a good thing.
And then there’s ‘privacy glass’, a term that has always concerned me. Do you have a right to privacy when you are on the public road? My secondhand Nissan came with tinted rear side and back windows. I had no choice, they all come like that. I find this format odd, it breaks up the side window line and it’s not as if I have to give, say, Kanye West a lift in the back seat that often. Since the Cube has a load cover that I threw in a corner in anger on my first day of ownership, the darkened windows do make it more difficult for felonious passers-by to see things in the boot area but, apart from that fortunate side-result, what are they actually for?
As for tinted front glass, legality aside, to me it reeks of insecurity on the part of the occupant. Despite my not always restrained driving style, I get on pretty well with my fellow road users. The reason is that I acknowledge my errors and praise other people’s politeness. I do that by waving and smiling at other drivers in an outgoing, sometimes almost manic, way. Other people do this to me, and it’s just a simple acknowledgment that we both share the road and that one of us has taken what the other has been graceful enough to give. It’s a simple courtesy that can be used throughout life, and the lack of which is responsible for a great deal of strife. If you can’t manage eye contact with your fellow drivers, you really shouldn’t be sharing the road with them. This is where expanses of smooth clear glass come in and why, cool though you think you must seem, you can’t bond from behind deep tinted windows.
The other aspect of a nice expanse of clear glass is that, although the driver following might be focussed half a metre in front of his bonnet, I like to look through the car ahead of me and see what’s coming. I can’t do that through black glass or a tiny slit.
But then, somewhere, car makers do still think glass is important. They can’t remember why, but they seem to know that it needs to be there. This fact can be the only explanation of the costly but useless sections of glass that appear on various of today’s cars. The most futile in a probable usefulness-to-cost ratio is surely the section behind the C pillar of the Renault Clio 5 door. This is so tiny that it can be no good to anyone yet, instead of putting just a cheap black plastic moulding there, they go to the expense of fitting glass. Is this just silly, or does it mean there is still hope that. manufacturer’s might really see the light one day?
In the spirit of conservation, certain parts of this piece are similar to those in another one from 18 months ago. Many other parts aren’t.