Sunday, March 15, 2009

All the same

From Autocar Magazine, week ending 17th December 1970.

All the same 1 (by retromotoring)All the same 2 (by retromotoring)

All the same 3 (by retromotoring)All the same 4 (by retromotoring)


That's the trouble with our cars

By J. R. Daniels, BSc.

What has led Britain's car makers to try to outdo one another in utterly conventional engineering and styling? There has to be a way out, but there are risks involved.

I was driving a Triumph Toledo earlier this year. The car was not to be announced for another month, yet nobody spared it a glance on the road. An isolated experience? Far from it; nobody looked at the HC Viva either, and only two people realized the Hillman Avenger was something they hadn't seen before. In fact, it was obvious that as far as the great mass of the population was concerned, all three cars looked pretty much the same as most other cars.

lf the firms producing them are to be believed, each of those cars represented a unique set of virtues, suiting it best to the needs of many—if not most—family motorists. So why on earth is it necessary for them to look like four peas out of the same design pod?

One is driven to wonder how these cars are to be sold. Since they all look the same to the untutored eye, it can be said that none of them appeals more than the others—none of them will sell itself in the face of the opposition, so to speak. The selling must be done for the car—but how? By undercutting the market? Ridiculous; the economic pressures don't permit it. By dint of superior reputation? l’m sorry, but don't make me laugh.

All that is left are conventional advertising and promotion techniques. For the rest, there's a massive reliance on brand loyalty, still one of the most potent sales factors in this country. Of course, it helps to have the cars available when people want to buy them. Failure in this respect explains some, but by no means all, of the drift towards foreign cars in 1970.

Origins and explanations

There are five British entries in the supposedly hotly contested 1100-1300 family saloon class. The newest Viva is a straight replacement for the old one, continuing the line started in 1963 with the angular HA model. ln many ways, the Viva has been the styling leader for cars in this class throughout most of the past decade.

When Ford's Escort emerged to replace the Anglia, it looked like a slightly crude, bulbous copy of the HB Viva; a pity, because the Anglia had been a distinctive design. What went on under the skin was another matter, but then there are thousands of motorists who are far more concerned with what their car looks like than anything else.

Even though the Hillman Avenger was not a replacement for anything, but intended to give the Rootes—Chrysler faithful a chance to buy something bigger than an lmp and smaller than a Hunter, it emerged looking far too much like a Viva or an Escort. Why? Apparently because somebody had decided that to compete with a car, you have to look like it.

When the Triumph Toledo was introduced, we had our fourth virtually identical car. This body shell had a slightly odd lineage; basically a squashed version of the Triumph 2000, it was treated to a new nose with the near—obligatory little rectangular headlamps. Thus endowed, it looked a good deal more like the other three than had its predecessor, the front—drive 1300. And in so far as the Toledo can be regarded as a Herald replacement, we have yet another case of the "Standard British Small Car" supplanting a highly individual design.

Has nobody the courage to build a car which looks different? Are the customers so regimented that they would refuse to buy something which stood out from the common herd? Well, consider the one car in this class which is different, the Austin-Morris 1100/1300. You can't mistake it for anything else. It was originally introduced as a rival for the Cortina, only the Cortina has grown up so fast that comparisons are no longer apt. Hard—headed fleet managers refuse to consider the Austin-Morris car for presumably good reasons of their own, and yet it still sells in Britain in larger numbers than any other car.

One would like to think that there was a lesson here for all car—builders. Yet the most open of motoring secrets is that the Austin—Morris ADO 28, due to emerge in the first half of 1971, will be a thoroughly conventional car aimed at the fleet market and the conservative user. Engineering aside, would anybody like to bet that the average Briton will be able to tell the ADO 28 from an Avenger or a Viva at 100 yards?

Continental variety

This horrid uniformity seems not to afflict our cousins in the Common Market. The three biggest producers. Fiat, Renault and VW, pursue different lines. Fiat's 128 (and the earlier 124) are stark. clean three-box designs. So was the Renault 8: but the newest Renault, the 12, is a highly individual and a very sensible shape. Volkswagen still depend on the Beetle which is equally individual if not as sensible.

The smaller ECM producers do not slavishly follow one of their big three. Simca's 1100 is a five-door fastback; Peugeot's 204 leans more to the conventional, but only on the surface. NSU and DAF have their own views, and the Citroen GS is the most way-out of all. Only Opel and Ford Germany remain faithful to convention, and they are a special case in several ways. Not only are they American-controlled, but the German market has never much cared for cars as small as this anyway. Opel have done nothing to update the Kadett for several years, while Ford Germany build the Escort to take care of the demand.

The upshot of all this is that the ECM car buyer has a choice of shapes from which to choose. It is not so much a good thing in itself; but it underlines the fact that the cars really are different, encouraging him to shop around intelligently to find the one which suits him best. This in turn must encourage the car builders to look for fundamentally new solutions, instead of fiddling round trying to improve the ride a bit here, keep out a bit more noise there, save a few pounds weight and always—but always—cheeseparing pence off everything.

The styling is no more than the outward sign of a whole attitude of mind. ln many ways, though, styling is the easiest thing to change. lf the designers were willing, they could at least try to make their cars lock different, even if fundamental differences were longer in coming. Somehow we have to break out of the stalemate caused by market research feeding on the results of its own findings.

Not just the styling

It isn't just a matter of finding a pretty shape. People have to sit in those cars for hours at a time, and the Standard British Car just doesn't fit them, especially if they are ill-advised enough to sit in the back. A couple of minutes' sketching should convince anybody that, if they are to sit properly, the back passengers must sit at least as high and preferably higher than the driver. Yet our car roof slopes downwards towards the rear from its highest point over the driver's head (Fig. 1). This is no good from any point of view except that of the conventional stylist. It makes for poor aerodynamics (boundary layer separation can take place at almost any point on the roof), and causes a dreadful headroom problem for the back passenger. In an endeavour to restore some room, several firms seat the rear passenger too low (Fig 1A), so that he ends up in an unstable and uncomfortable knees-under-chin position.

The sensible approach is to have a roof line which rises gently towards the rear, as far as the point where it is aft of the rear passengers' heads. After that, there is much to be said for dropping the line sharply. By doing this, you pin down the boundary layer separation point and stop it shuffling noisily backwards and forwards along the roof. One car which employs just this approach is the Renault 12.

There are various ways of finishing off the back end aft of this sort of roof (Fig 2). One possibility is the reverse-rake window of the old Anglia, which again was a highly sensible design in many ways. Other possibilities are the 'notchback' in the manner of the Simca 1100; the true straight-line fastback; or the more humpy approach seen in the Renault 16.

There seems also to be a universal determination to build cars lower and lower. Taking the Fiat 500 and the Chevrolet Impala as being the smallest and largest practical cars, the Chevrolet is nearly twice as long as the Fiat, and almost 50 per cent wider; yet it is only an inch higher! Every so often we lay hands on something higher—built than average, like the Range Rover. When we do, we are apt to revel in the superb view which makes traffic driving easy, and in the decorum with which the vehicle can be entered. lt is surprising, too, how iittle seems to be lost from the handling, at least where normal, sane driving is concerned.

The same might well be said of performance and fuel consumption penalties caused by the increased frontal area. This may well matter for those few genuine GT cars which are actually
used as such, but is that a good reason for trying to turn honest family saloons into styling imitations of them?

One thing we are all short of is road space. Fig 3 shows (admittedly by using two extreme cases) that the lower the car, the longer it must be to carry the same people in comfort. The first designer to add rather that subtract height will be performing a social service, as well as gaining some useful sales points.

Engineering, too

The Avenger, Toledo and Viva all have four-cylinder, in-line, ohv engines, front-mounted and driving the back wheels. All have live back axles, located by four trailing links. The Toledo and the Viva have similar front suspensions as well—although the Avenger uses MacPherson struts. The Escort lines up pretty well with the other three. Again, it is the Austin—Morris 1100 which offers the alternative of transverse engine, front wheel drive and hydrolastic suspension. The example set by Issigonis with this car has been followed with enthusiasm on the continent. The Fiat 128, Simca 1100 and Feugeot 204 all follow its broad principles, while the Renault 12, Citroen GS, Volkswagen K70 all use front wheel drive, with rumours of Alfa Romeo preparing to follow suit. Back in Britain, we often ask about front wheel drive. The typical answer goes like this: "Ah, but you would see all the front wheel drive development cars we have run! But the cost engineers can never get within £20 of the equivalent conventional car . .

We have heard this from many engineers, (not that we have ever actually been shown the development cars!). What we are still disposed to argue is their definition of equivalent. Front wheel drive cars have inherent advantages in terms of providing decent passenger space. Since they leave the back end free for a good but simple independent suspension, they should ride better as well. lt is also relatively easy to get them to handle and hold the road well, although not as easy as some people thought when the Mini was the only example they had to work from.

True, a conventional equivalent can be produced—but it takes a good deal of engineering, unless your definition of equivalent stops at square inches of car and cubic centimetres of engine. If we are not careful, we alone will remain convinced that front wheel drive is uneconomic. Even the Japanese are getting in on the act, and up to now they have been the epitome of conservatism in small car design. There is, surely, still room for the slightly better car at the slightly higher price?

The market was once full of firms looking for a slot in the market—an unfulfilled need. When it
worked, the formula could be a very successful one: the Cortina, the Rover 2000, the Ford Mustang are pre-eminent examples. Now, it appears, one goes bald-headed for a share in an existing market, hoping that a slight price advantage, a favourable press reception and (with luck) no teething troubles and no strikes will add up to a couple of percentage points gained on the sales front. What one does not do is take anything which might be construed as a risk.


Table 1 shows how closely matched are the five British cars in the 1100-1300 class. Wheelbase and track are the really significant dimensions, since they tend to govern the amount of interior space. Overall length is a much less reliable guide, since it can so easily be boosted by an unreasonable amount of boot or an empty stylist-special nose.

It is surprising how much difference to interior space can be made by increasing the wheelbase by a couple of inches. There is of course still scope for ingenuity within a given wheelbase; otherwise the Austin 1100 would be no more roomy than the Escort. Looking at the table, one can see how there is an element of slot-seeking with the Avenger, which is aimed between the Escort—Viva and Cortina-Victor markets. Even so, it comes perilously close to the Hillman Hunter, which appears to be under-sized for its class (Table 2).

ln this class, the Maxi offers an impressive space advantage, though the same cannot be said of the slightly bigger 1800 vis—a-vis the Vauxhall Cresta and particularly the Ford Zodiac. This big—car class, however, is becoming increasingly depopulated; the real Austin—Morris contender is the 3-litre, now on its way out. lt may well turn out that the 1800 is about as physically big as anybody will want a car within the foreseeable future. The really big cars lose a lot of their meaning if they take up more road space without being really commodious inside.

It seems that the tendency of cars to conglomerate into groups has left a hole or two to fill; one below the Escort—Viva group, and one above it: with the growth of the Cortina—the Victor was already quite big—the Avenger is not quite big enough to fall square in the gap. Above the Cortina-Victor, the Austin—Morris 1800 is very well established and not too far above; but it might be worth speculating on the form of a conventional—type car in the same bracket. At the same time, consider whether the Maxi was pitched too close to the 1800 in size, since its dimensions put it much closer to its big brother than to its smaller one, the 1300.

Table 3 shows the main foreign competition in the Escort-Viva class. One or two of the cars—Citroen GS, Peugeot 204 and Simca 1100—-are really large enough inside to qualify
as gap-fillers. It is really their limited engine size which leads to our thinking of them in this
class, but then the ECM attitude to engine size is rather different.

At the bottom of the table, note the three smaller Japanese cars, about the right size to fill the sub-Escort gap. There is a staggering similarity between the three from an engineering point of view, emphasising the extent to which their major firms have pursued a policy of matching development for development.

Table 4 shows some of the main foreign competition in the Cortina-Victor class. One point of interest is that it is in this class that technical innovations——overhead cam engines, independent rear suspensions and so on get a real run for their money: and again, five of the cars have front wheel drive.

Laying down a policy

I long for the day when a policy will be laid down for project engineers, designers and marketing men. It would go some way towards ensuring genuine technical and styling competition, to the benefit (I am sure) of the customer. lt would go something like this:

1) Look for gaps in the market, taking the physical size of the car as the yardstick—and the wheelbase as the main criterion of the car's size.

2) Ensure that the car is recognisable in its own right; try to give the sales people some real interior room to boast about.

3) Achieve comfortable seating by using height. Take the overall height of the preceding model as the absolute minimum for the new car.

4) Introduce sufficient technical innovation to give the sales people a real talking point. It doesn't have to be whole—hog stuff like a Wankel engine and hydrostatic four wheel drive. The trends are already being set, and the introduction of the right advanced feature will set people thinking even if they could never point to it under the bonnet.

My gap-filling projects in table 1 have this sort of approach in mind. I am convinced, for instance, that proper independent suspension has to come, with or without front wheel drive. I cannot really see that the current rash of four—link live axles is anything but a dying fling. Where engines are concerned, l have stuck my neck out and postulated a flat-four and a flat-six linked by a building-block arrangement so that the six is, in effect, one and a half of the four—cylinder unit.

Although Volkswagen and Porsche have carried the flat—four banner for many years, I am also encouraged by the brilliant little engine in the Citroen GS, and the fact that light aero-engines have used this layout almost universally for many years and in power outputs up to 200bhp. What l have not done is to go any further and add shapes to the ideas; although Geoff Howard's essay into the mid-engined sports car, published last week, serves notice that we are ready and willing to indulge in further prompting. It would be nice to think that somewhere, someone in the industry—preferably the British industry—is already thinking in terms of breaking out of his engineering straight-jacket. lf this tirade does anything to help him, it will have served its purpose.

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