One-Way Towns Of England

Remembering William Towns, master of the linear.

Image: ja.autodata.org

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.

Aston Martin Bulldog. Image: classicdriver.com

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.

William Towns’ Hustler 6. Image: aronline.co.uk

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.

Guyson E12. Image: below-the-radar.com

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

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

29 thoughts on “One-Way Towns Of England”

  1. Morning Andrew. Another great and enlightening article, thank you. I was lucky enough to see one of the first Lagondas when I served my apprenticeship. One of the designers lived in Formby where I worked. He’d bring it home at weekends and brought it down to show us one day. Sadly, he wouldn’t let a spotty yoof drive it 😥. I thought and still do, think they look fabulous.

  2. For me a designer´s job is to find out what shape the product should have in order to match the customer´s expectations and needs with the product´s function. While the designer might have some tendencies regarding what shapes are acceptable, a distinct style is a disadavantage. Ideally one should not know who designed the object. Design is like method acting: find the right character and channel it into a thing. People like Towns, Colani and Starck have distinct style and that is a handicap when it comes to shaping a product for other people. Sometimes their style is suitable and often it is not. Gandini is a case a designer who got stuck with his tropes, applying them even when they were not appropriate. I suppose what happens is that a car designer has a success and decides the success is due to the features of the design; it is really more in the process of matching particular shapes to a particular customer´s wishes and not the shapes themselves.
    Towns use of straight or nearly straight lines is rather peculiar. One of the most prevalent characteristics of product design is the use of gentle curves (especially important in pressed and moulded parts). Straight lines are the language of architecture where cutting wood and stone or the stacking of bricks determine the form along with the static nature of the product.

  3. Good morning Andrew, and thank you for profiling the career of William Towns, a designer about whom I new little beyond the Lagonda . Many would, I’m sure, regard him as something of a ‘one-trick pony’ and there was little sign of evolution in his work. When he did fiinally embrace curves with the Railton Claremont, the result was not entirely satisfactory:


    Giugiaro went through his own straight-line phase, but handled them in a much more subtle and nuanced manner.

    1. The only formal problem I can find with the Railton concerns the panel gaps around the headlamp and bumper. The line separating the bumper from the rest meets the headlamp and there are two different radii. It would have been best to make the line flow up and continue into the headlamp and make T-junction and not the sideways M -shape it actually forms. The way the rear lamps and bumper meet is much better. It´s the same principle as would have worked on the front.

    2. I think the Claremont is a remarkably beautiful design. And wheel spats are severly underrated in this day and age. What isn’t “entirely satisfactory”? Considering he had to work with an XJS as a base and retain all the body hardpoints I see no Jaguar in the lines. It is one of my absolute dream cars…

    3. Good morning Richard and Ingvar. I don’t hate the Claremont, but the front end is a bit of a mess and the spats look a little ‘forced’ to my eyes. Here’s an image of, presumably, a styling prototype with a somewhat better resolved frontal treatment:

      Given the fashion at the time for organic curvaceous shapes, I’m surprised that Towns couldn’t find more suitable headlamps from a mass-production model, although perhaps not those from the Opel Corsa B that were used on the Banham XJSS:

      Ingvar, we may have to agree to disagree on the Claremont!

    4. @Daniel; there were two examples of the Railton. The blue Claremont with wheel spats and “slit” headlamps, and the red Fairmile sans wheel spats and slits. So one could have a choice. I prefer the Claremont of course because it’s more outré.

    5. I may be alone in having had the fortune to see the Railton Fairmile twice – once at Motorfair ‘89 as a seven year old, and then in Dartford in 2001 where it drove past me and a group of friends. I was in the rare position to be able to answer “what the hell is that?!”.

    6. If nothing else, I would consider that both Railton and Banham illustrate quite markedly that it was beyond most people’s capability (and that includes Jaguar themselves) to improve upon the (undoubtedly flawed) XJ-S’ aesthetics. At least the Railton (so to speak) breathes its own air, whereas the Banham simply comes across (to this unrepentant Jaguariste) as caricature.

  4. What an interesting article Andrew and thank you for posting it. I am thinking that Mr Towns might have enjoyed working with Elon Musk on the Tesla van I have seen images of. There seems to be a lot of straight edges on it which he would certainly have agreed with.

  5. I’ve always loved Towns, and yes he has a remarkable style of his own. One of the few designers you can take one single glance at a sketch and say yes, that’s William Towns for you. I’ve never seen it as a disadvantage, as per Richards point of view. I’ve only regretted the market for such designs wasn’t bigger. And I wonder how much it has to do with the fact he had to work on his own most of his life, evolving his style in solitude. Could a talent like that ever have evolved in a larger setting, like that at Pininfarina or say Mercedes-Benz? How would that have changed his style? Towards conformity at the mainstream? Could he have done a Chris Bangle and taken the mainstream with him in another direction when bland wasn’t enough? Or would his talent have been wasted, like that of Paul Bracq who ended his career doing interiors for Peugeot? There’s also a difference between haute couture and pret a porter. If you special order a rebody by a renowned designer, you do that at a cost no object level because you like the designers work and want a distinctive style that you’re literally alone with in the world. Would that have been as interesting a proposition if the car had looked like everything else? I wouldn’t say a Frank Lloyd Wright design was derivative, just because you can distinguish his style. His clients wanted exactly that.

    1. My argument is that design is not about style but about process. The end result should be different every time. You could take a relativist position and say a designer has a process to support a style (per Towns). That seems to me to be like wanting every maths calculation to end up with the same answer: I like 4 so all my maths work produces derivatives of 4.

      A uniform design process to answer the question “what is the best design for this product” is for me a good design process, better than “how can I produce something that conforms to a pre-determined style?”. Of course the customer can ask for a distinct style as part of the product requirement, that´s valid. It is however a different kind of approach compared to finding out with just general product requirements (or constraints) what the best solution would be.

      I would not be surprised if designers with a fixed style don´t even see their in-built constraints as such much as a painter may not see their style as a constraint. Art differs from design though in that it is personal while design is for others and is end-directed. There´s room for Towns-type designers. I find “impersonal” design as demonstrated by Ford and Opel, for example, much more interesting.

  6. Good morning, Andrew and thanks for sharing this article here. I was only familiair with the Lagonda and Bulldog. One of my friends in the States owned a Lagonda, but sadly he sold it before I got to know him. According to him it was relatively reliable apart from all the electronics.

  7. La Lagonda mk2 est fascinante, il fallait oser faire ça avec des finances au plus bas. La carrosserie mais surtout l’intérieur avec son tableau de bord Sinclair ZX80 .
    J’ai fantasmé pendant longtemps étant jeune sur cette auto, et puis le hasard a fait qu’il y a 3 ans, j’en ai vu une en vrai .
    J’ai été terriblement deçu, tout est beaucoup trop rectiligne, Ya pas de relief, la voiture est trop haute sur ses roues, la petite calandre est ridicule et les proportions générales sont mauvaises.

    Mais rien que pour l’audace et le coté décalé, je lui met 5 etoiles

    Google translate:

    The Lagonda mk2 is fascinating, you had to dare to do that with the lowest finances. The body but especially the interior with its Sinclair ZX80 dashboard :
    I fantasized about this car for a long time when I was young, and then it happened that 3 years ago, I saw one in real life.
    I was terribly disappointed, everything is way too straight, there is no relief, the car is too high on its wheels, the small grille is ridiculous and the overall proportions are bad.

    But just for the audacity and the quirky side, I give it 5 stars

    1. Bonjour Alain. Your assessment of the Lagonda is, I think, spot-on:

      “everything is way too straight, there is no relief, the car is too high on its wheels, the small grille is ridiculous and the overall proportions are bad.”

      I couldn’t have put it better!

      Google translate:

      Bonjour Alain. Votre évaluation de la Lagonda est, je pense, juste :

      “tout est bien trop droit, il n’y a pas de relief, la voiture est trop haute sur ses roues, la petite calandre est ridicule et les proportions globales sont mauvaises.”

      Je n’aurais pas pu mieux dire !

    2. The front bumper junction to the lamp outline (outboard) is still wrong on the red example. I think a frame might have helped get around the problem.
      Alain is right about the Lagonda. And for years before the internet I had only a vague idea of its appearance, from one photo on a poster I had on my bedroom wall (a wierd car shot at a wierd angle).

    3. I’ve seen only one Lagonda from close distance (in the customer car park of our Aston Martin dealer). It was an early example in very light blueish green and it looked simply unreal.
      This car is truly large and very low even compared to the Jaguar XJs parked around it. It looks impressive through its sheer size and doesn’t look nearly as ‘folded paper’-like as an Audi 200 C2 Typ 43.

  8. Fascinating stuff, I love the Rootes Arrow, original DBS and the original Lagonda. The rest of Town’s output, um…

    I’d like to know how much input he had in the Arrow alongside Rex Fleming, as I find it a very finely wrought shape- much more so than the virtually identical Mkll Ford Cortina- not at all like the marmite designs he penned later on.

    The Lagonda has some very gentle arcs; and two really obvious ones, but the only curves I can see in the Bulldog are the tyres.

    On the Lagonda the need to accommodate curved side glass has created a really exaggerated curve on the A pillars, yet the side glass doesn’t look any more curved than other cars of the era- or indeed now. I walked round our street this morning, looking at the parked cars and the most I could see was minute barely detectable A pillar arcs, curviest seemed to be the new electric Mini. Somehow the designers manage to integrate more curved side glass into less curved A pillars. Towns- and/ or AM’s engineering- couldn’t or wouldn’t. Is this the point where William Town’s design skills run out of steam? It’s not a criticism, I’d rather have an original Lagonda than an S class or anything currently made by Jaguar but it leaves me pondering.

    1. For me the most disturbing aspect of the Lagonda’s design is that from certain angles the windscreen looks as if it had a concave surface.

  9. Fascinating stuff, thank you Andrew. I find Towns’ output perplexing. He was clearly capable of subtlety yet seemed to suffer from a tendency towards absolutism.

    Like Alain, I loved the Lagonda in my youth. I still think the DBS is wonderful; better in the metal than in photos, interestingly.

  10. I had the pleasure of experiencing a Lagonda Mk2 up close some years ago (https://auto-didakt.com/cars_blog_leser/aston-martin-lagonda-william-towns-saloon-sedan-car-design-review-history.html).

    It’s certainly not the best or even most beautiful, but certainly the most otherworldly car I know. Not just its appearance, but the car in its entirety is as striking as it is absurd – ranging from the truly peculiar packaging & proportions to such details as the complete absence of visible panel joints. But about a third of the Lagonda’s weight seems to consist of lead, which seems preposterous for a car styled in a fashion originally devised to facilitate simple manufacturing.

    1. As I understand it, the Lagonda has a monocoque superstructure, but as Aston Martin were too poor to order large pressings for the entire car, the monocoque is built up from scratch using a very large amount of small pieces of flat metal welded together. Imagine a monocoque body in white, then imagine building it up by hand. And I would guess every single joint needing adjustments in one way or another. Usually the English motor industry perfected the use of tin solder for that use, but I imagine lead could be used as well. I would suspect though people mostly mistake the use of tin for lead.

    2. Looking at its licence plate this must be the car I referred to. A couple of years ago it could be seen quite regularly at Avalon cars in Kronberg near Frankfurt.

      Traditional coachbuilding relies on lead quite heavily. A BMW 501/502 ‘baroque angel’ had between fifty and sixty kilograms of lead in its bodywork, a Mercedes W111 was similarly built. For such small production numbers spring and creep rates of steel or aluminium can not be as tightly controlled as with mass production cars and lead is used for the last finishing. Even early air cooled 911s relied on lead for fine tuning of its panel gaps around the doors.

  11. Thanks for the article, Andrew – it’s nice to remember William Towns – he was a very clever and inventive chap.

    Here he is with his Microdot range extender / hybrid.

    I didn’t recognise the ‘Living Tomorrow’ TV series which the clip is from, but apparently it was a long-running science magazine series produced by the UK’s Central Office of Information for broadcast on overseas television.

  12. Towns must have been monumentally disappointed that he could not have made the wheels rectangular. (Terrence and Phillip’s car from South Park comes to mind..)

    Ive always detested his designs. I’ve seen better looking conveyances in Gerry Anderson’s productions.

  13. Towns intersected with Bill Mitchell, in that the Lagonda always made me think of an early concept sketch for the 1977 Chevy Caprice without the compromises made to ensure mass-production friendliness and the functionality customers expected in a Big Chevrolet. (for instance, the Lagonda’s small trunk wouldn’t fly; its’ owner might send purchases from a shopping spree home in a taxi, while the Chevy had to BE a taxi.)

  14. I met William Towns on two occasions, first to view his hustler six demo at his home and later to collect a Hustler kit which I completed using new mini sub frames and engine. Being weary of the glazing he assured me it was toughened and the only failure he had experienced was when parked in a layby and a passing vehicle threw up a stone which destroyed the rear hatch.
    I was mainly interested in his Minisama design but even “more so” the later Microdot.

    While scanning a motorsport mag I spotted a small ad for a Microdot prototype being developed by a Bentley restoration company in conjunction with Towns. They were pulling the plug on the project
    so I bought what consisted of two mini subframes ,four deep dish spun alloy wheels/tyres, engine and auto box (all items factory fresh) There was an upper and lower space frame and formed alloy floor pan incorporating semi-reclining seats.
    I learned subsequently from Towns the project was abandoned over disagreements on using a mini pack up front, he also said the glass would be very expensive since the upper space frame had slight curves to it probably the only departure from his normal straight edges.
    Maybe it was his sales pitch or common sense kicking in but I ordered a Hustler six and utilised these new components to complete the build.
    I recently learned from my mature daughters how embarassed they were to be collected from school in this glass house on wheels.

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