Remembering William Towns, master of the linear.
When designing with straight lines, in essence we have but three angles to play with. Those less than ninety degrees are acute. Above ninety but below one hundred and eighty become obtuse, whilst those exceeding what aficionados of darts call a ton-eighty are deemed reflex. Car designers being flesh and blood (even human, sometimes) curve such values at their will – or not. Human traits often blend those named angles but not in today’s case. This is the story of William Towns (1936-1993) the straight-laced, French curve-avoiding, oft overlooked automotive designer.
Beginning his automotive design career aged eighteen with Rootes Motors, Towns’ early efforts were centred on the less glamorous and more mundane aspects of design work, on items such as seats and door handles. Through time and perseverance, Towns contributed to the Rootes Arrow project, a.k.a. the Hillman Hunter, before an opportunity in 1963 led him to the Viking longship of Rover. Working closely with the flamboyant David Bache, Towns assisted on the Rover-BRM jet turbine car that raced at Le Mans. This car contained straight lines but also curves in the right places, something for which Towns apparently developed, if not outright antipathy, then at least a degree of ambivalence. His spell at Rover was short.
Towns moved on in 1966 to Newport Pagnell, to work for David Brown, the Huddersfield born empire builder and owner of fiscal hydra, Aston Martin. Tasked once more as a seat designer, Towns settled into the Buckinghamshire factory, where the work he produced garnered him deserved recognition alongside a reputation for those chiselled edges.
Brown had commissioned Touring of Milan to style the DB6’s successor(1), the DBS, the Italian carrozzeria generating two prototypes before itself succumbing to the irresistible gravity of indebtedness. Plans to install the Tadek Marek designed V8, itself a troubled manifest, into the DBS were scrapped as the recalcitrant engine simply wouldn’t fit. Brown handed Towns the baton dropped by Touring and the resulting curvaceous affair was quite the hit with Aston aficionados.
Launched in 1967, The four seater DBS was broadly similar to the DB6, if now expressing a distinctly American mien. Towns altered practically the whole of the Touring effort, leaving just the signature air vents and front wings. At the very front however, Towns would exhibit his penchant for the straighter definition. The grille, whilst traditional in aspect, became under Towns’ hand shallow and with edging square. Adding four equally sized headlamps proffered the desired brutish countenance. Available for only four and a half years, including two with the overdue V8 engine, around 800 DBS cars were hand-built during that period. The DBS was also to be David Brown’s swansong: financial troubles at the eponymous David Brown Corporation forced him to offload Aston Martin in 1972(2).
Remaining with Aston Martin, Towns’ momentum took on the distinctive straight-edged fervour for which he would be remembered by the majority. Brushing gently on his Newport Pagnell output, the two wedge shaped bolides he created being the electrically incontinent Lagonda alongside a solitary example of the even more elongated wedge, the Bulldog. Rumours of Towns being offered a Lagonda in lieu of payment appear true: Aston’s cash register was hardly awash, even if 645 Lagondas eventually found buyers over its fourteen-year lifespan. His example, by then in poor condition car would fail to sell at auction in 2008.
The rationale behind the Bulldog is the subject of some speculation. One slant is that it was an attempt to shrug off Aston’s traditional, stuffy image. Another is that it was intended to showcase the all-new Aston Martin engineering prowess in manufacturing the world’s most powerful supercar. A third suggests that an oil-moneyed Arabian customer found the Lagonda ‘too boring’, allowing Towns to sharpen those chisels once more. The unknown customer allegedly pulled out of the deal, saddling Aston Martin with yet another expensive folly. That sole Bulldog is now being restored by Richard Gauntlett, son of the late Aston Martin Executive Chairman, Victor.
Restless souls that designers are, Towns set up a consultancy named Interstyl(3) with a studio at his Gloucestershire home, allowing him indulge his passion for those aforementioned angles. Directly selling to paying customers from home, Towns developed a modular car idea, the Towns Hustler of 1978. Originally consisting of a low-slung steel steel floorpan, Mini front and rear subframes and canteen chairs clothed by razor-sharp(4) fibreglass bodywork, with Issigonis’ mechanicals providing motive effort. The roof was marine ply wood with a vinyl veneer. Accessing Hustler was via the Windoors, as Towns described the sliding flat glass panels. Inside, one found a rudimentary dashboard with a glovebox in the form of a satchel.
Talks with nearby Jensen producing pre-fab kits for the Hustler came to naught, so Towns financed the project himself. Hustler 4 came in a variety of wedged tropes; standard top-hinged hatchback, camper van and a pickup creatively named Hobo. Increasing demand for larger capacities saw another Mini rear subframe incorporated to bear the Hustler 6, which was, as its name implies, a six-wheeler. Towns offered many customisation choices for the interior, the canteen chairs rarely chosen.
Striking up a sporting wedge, the Sprint sat eight inches lower, replete with flared wheel arches and lavish interior. William Towns most extravagant iteration being the six wheeled Highlander. Gone the Mini’s mechanicals, replaced by a 5.3 litre V12 unit which fitted remarkably easily(!)
Prior to Towns’ largesse with the Hustler, the early 1970’s bore witness to two similar visions of city cars; Minissima and the Microdot, both now residing within the British Car Museum in Gaydon and both shamelessly built on angles, presciently. Remarkable the ideas were, but costs were prohibitive so neither ever saw series production.
Towns also gave rise to a bodywork change to yet another famous car. When Jim Thomson(5) crashed his Series 3 E-Type one winter’s night, what remained of the structure was handed to Towns for redevelopment. With the engine away for significant upgrades, Towns dusted off his set squares. Using modelling clay and a series of plaster moulds, with the finished article in yellow-painted glass-fibre, the Guyson E12 caused quite the stir. Towns even changed his own E-Type to mirror the Guyson, but painted blue and keeping the stock engine.
Towns was later involved in another Jaguar reconfiguration, the XJS based Railton. Here, somewhat incongruously, Towns used a smattering of curves on the F29 blue Claremont with rear wheel spats, which now resides within the Studio 434 collection of Rodger Dudding. A red version, sans spats, was named Fairmile.
Before Towns untimely passing, his angular works could also be found in Jensen-Healeys, a proposed Aston Martin and MG tie up and a Metro based, mid-engined roadster entitled TXC Tracer. Notwithstanding his prodigious work rate(6), Towns’ designs were truncated by his straight-edged stipulations, which hampered his ability to generate serious financial backing for many of his before-their-time projects. His one-way-street legacy still causes traffic upset all these years on.
Author’s note: Here is a link to an interesting YouTube video of an interview with William Towns concerning the Bulldog.
(1) The DB6 and DBS ran concurrently for some three years.
(2) In true man from Yorkshire style, David Brown preferred to run a Series 1 Jaguar XJ because of the leaping cat’s more frugal drinking habits. He bounced back from the early 1970s financial difficulties and, already very wealthy, sold his shareholding in David Brown Corporation for £46M in 1990.
(3) Towns remained working for Aston whilst inaugurating Interstyl.
(4) Not literally, one would hope! (DJO)
(5) Managing Director of Guyson shotblasting.
(6) Towns also designed the European CoTY trophy for 1968, which was won by the Jaguar XJ.
Sources: aronline.co.uk and bonhams.com