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How to design a car (part 11): size

As big cars get bigger and small cars become increasingly overlooked, Stevens asks: is this really what we want?

In the early 1900s, when the practical long-distance automobile had become a reality, cars were big, heavy and expensive. There were a few smaller vehicles but they were underpowered, crude and minimalist, needing constant attention. Between 1910 and 1920 the appearance of the ‘cyclecar’ gave less well-off enthusiasts for the ‘new motoring’ a chance to become car owners, but you would have had to be a pretty hardy kind of person to endure the rough ride, slow speed and exposed driving experience; a bit like a very patient Lotus Seven owner.

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The arrival of the Austin 7 in 1923 hastened the demise of the cyclecar. Instead of the compromised single- or twin-cylinder engine, often with what was called a ‘total loss oiling system’, which splattered the occupants with oil droplets, the little Austin was almost a big car scaled down. It had a 750cc four-cylinder engine, a proper ‘sliding gear’ transmission, brakes that did a bit more than just slowing the car down and even a folding roof. And they were not expensive to buy. In America the Model T Ford did the same kind of job but was actually quite a big car.

> How to design a car (part two): front grilles

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In Europe in the late 1930s, the little front-engined Fiat 500 A and B were also small, light and inexpensive ‘proper cars’. Fiat’s chief engineer, Dante Giacosa, who was responsible for all the 500 models, had a philosophical understanding of what the less well-off customer deserved. His list included: a door handle that felt and operated the same as that of a big car, similarly a window winder, inner door handle, steering wheel and gearlever with the same qualities as a big car’s, plus comfortable seats with a degree of adjustability. 

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It was not until the introduction of the BMC Mini in 1959 that the European class structure, which positioned the social status of a customer by their choice of car, was turned on its head by the acceptance of the Mini as being ‘classless’. Quite how this happened is open to debate; it was never the intention of either Austin or Morris to have this description applied to the car. Had the cantankerous engineer Alec Issigonis not had the drive and arrogance to ignore the ultra-conservative board of the British Motor Corporation, the Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor would most likely have been lightly updated versions of the Morris Minor. Instead, when the light and lively little Mini appeared and turned out to be spacious, practical and at the same time a great rally and race car, at just the moment when young people finally had spare cash and a desire to be part of the explosion of ‘British popular culture’, it broke every class barrier.

Driving long distances in a Mini could be an exhausting experience, but the image was so powerful that most people put up with that. When the Volkswagen Golf arrived in 1974 it was clearly a superior product: better built, bettering performing, safer and much better value for money. But whilst it was worthy, and in the case of the GTI much faster, it did not do that extraordinary job of being classless. Golf customers were positioned relative to Audi, BMW and Mercedes owners.

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In the 1960s and ’70s, with the exception of in America, where a strong V8 motor was available to almost anyone, thus making stoplight racing success similarly available to anyone, the financial divide was still there. The difference between the cost of a small car and a big car was often a ratio of as much as 1:10, and it still is. Of course, the difference between a Dacia and a hypercar is more like 1:30, but the Dacia is not classless, and (with reluctance I would say) neither is the hypercar.

What impact, if any, will electrification have on this situation? Electric equivalents of internal combustion cars are inevitably heavier and more expensive (it’s not surprising that manufacturers are going to great lengths to avoid customers making direct comparisons). The prices of ordinary family electric cars will never be part of a price reduction policy like that which eventually brought customers the ‘One hundred pound Ford’: batteries, electronics coming from distant Far Eastern suppliers, and the complex, inefficient supply chains are not going to be suddenly brought back ‘on-shore’ and prices reduced. Can we therefore expect a divide between the less well-off and those who can afford a new, electric car, whereby the pre-2030 fossil-fuel cars will continue to be driven by those whose incomes won’t stretch to an EV but who will have to pay all the penalties that an ICE engine will almost certainly attract? 

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Whilst I firmly believe that petrol is far too precious to be wasted on driving to work and should be used as a costly element of motorsport or vintage and classic motoring, the present electric blueprint for future cars is something of a dead-end road. There will be a more sensible, more transportable way of storing energy in the future. Somewhere in a brightly lit room with no windows clever people are seriously thinking about this.

In the meantime, the big cars get bigger. Both the new Range Rover and the proposed Lotus Eletre SUV both exceed 2 metres in width. Yet it is possible to go the other way. When I was a young designer at Ford, based in Dunton, we had amusing small-series projects that were modifications of the regular production cars. One was for a Caribbean island where there was a sensible overall vehicle length limit on all new cars that caused us to cut a sizable amount of length out of the new Cortina. A bit of a strange-looking mongrel was the outcome! And there was a project for Rolls-Royce for cars for Hong Kong that required a special shortened composite rear bumper for one of its cars.

But instead we have this absurdly extravagant and blinkered view of ever bigger future cars that ignores customer needs whilst pandering to marketing-induced ‘customer wants’. Who needs a 6-metre-long car? No one, at least no one that I have ever met. And where do evo readers see themselves in the future? When you look at evo favourites like the Impreza Turbos and Mitsubishi Evos, 1000kg Golf GTIs and the hottest versions of the Mégane and Clio from Renault, it’s impossible not to also notice that there are new specialist cars that are faster, but also heavier, much more expensive and less entertaining than the originals. A Mk1 Golf weighed less than a ton. When Richard Lloyd and I first went racing with a GTI it weighed just 840kg; a 2022 Formula 1 car weighs one hundred kilograms more!

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Putting on weight seems to be an inevitable result of our obsession with ‘features’ and interlinked technologies and improvements. It has to be said that just about every car that you can buy is a decent piece of work; the automotive industry is one of the very best at cost-effective and efficient design and build methods, and every product that it makes is pretty good. But improvements are rarely based on weight, cost and energy saving; instead they almost always add size, weight and complexity. There are exceptions, like VW’s Up cars, which weigh just a little more than an early Golf and in GTI form are about as fast but are safer, more economical and have a lower production carbon footprint. Ford’s original Ka in both StreetKa and SportKa forms had near to 100bhp in a car weighing just over 900kg and they were great fun. The Alpine A110 enchants every motoring journalist but customers are in short supply. It is almost as if the car lacks a certain ‘presence’ that more extreme sports cars have.

With the almost certain reduction in city speed limits in Germany and probably many other European countries in order to save fuel, particularly Russian fuel, large cars in inner cities could soon be as socially unacceptable as public smoking and mink fur coats, and the same could apply to the more extravagant supercars. What we need at the moment are cars to go on holiday in, cars to go to work in and cars to remind us of the pleasure that comes from driving. No single car will fulfil these three disparate needs and neither will public transport. What we don’t need are cars that take two spaces in a parking lot, cars that shout at other road users ‘Get out of my way!’ and cars that consume vast amounts of energy. evo readers, it’s in your hands!

This story was first featured in evo issue 300.

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