Are car designers losing the plot?

Posted on February 27th, 2005 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Many trends in car design are often obvious: the move to EFI and then engine management; the increasing relevance of aerodynamics; and the use of lower and lower tyre profiles. But there are other long-term changes which are more subtle, more insidious. Often it takes the comments of an informed outsider to highlight them.

Recently I was reading a two year old interview with Alex Moulton, a British industrial engineer and designer who was responsible for – amongst other things – the liquid Hydrolastic suspension fitted to many Austin and Morris cars, and the rubber suspension used in the Mini. He worked closely with Sir Alec Issigonis, the famed designer of the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Morris 1100 and Austin 1800.

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The pair formed arguably one of the most innovative automotive design teams the world has ever seen.

The Mini was a masterpiece of packaging: the front-wheel drive car used an engine mounted transversely. The gearbox was in the sump and the suspension was extraordinarily compact. Even the 10-inch wheels were a world-first. The result was a car that packed a huge amount of room into its approx 10-foot length. It also happened to handle very well, and in go-fast Cooper S versions, won motorsport events as diverse as world rallies and the Bathurst touring car race.

The Austin 1800 has cabin space that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s simply huge (for our Australian readers, with front and rear legroom not dissimilar to a VT Commodore!) and has an airy, spacious feel. (I’ve just bought a 1969 Austin 1800 Mark II; when driving it, you feel as if you’re in standing in the middle of an oval, not jammed in a phonebox!) For the era it was a very wide car – and in fact, contemporary critics regarded it as too wide – but its length was quite short. The room came mostly from using compact Hydrolastic suspension, a long wheelbase, and a very short transversely mounted engine with, yes, the gearbox again in the sump.

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None of these cars had very advanced engines – even for the time. These days, the powerplants look even worse with their pushrods, coarse sound and excessive vibration, and mediocre power outputs. However, the suspension control of the cars is exemplary, with the ride uncannily good while still providing competent handling.

In fact, it’s worth exploring the suspension design in a little more detail. Fundamentally, each wheel is sprung by a rubber cone in compression. To give adequate wheel travel, a lever connects the wheel movement to the compression of the cone. Damping is via a water/alcohol mixture that is forced through small valves. The suspension units on each side of the car are interconnected front to rear by this fluid. This means that as the front wheel hits a rising bump, the rear wheel on that side is immediately forced downwards, resulting in a lack of pitch. It’s a durable and effective system which is also extremely compact.

OK, so Moulton’s work closely involved the development of cars with fantastic interior room for their exterior sizes and a ride comfort which even today stands up well to critical scrutiny. So in the areas of ride and interior space, what does he say about current car design?

In the interview, run in the October 2003 edition of the UK magazine, Classic & Sports Car, he says: “We’re going through this period of not wanting suspension. In suspension, madness is ruling.”

Of current suspension designers, he suggests that they’re thinking of ride and handling: “We don’t want calm, we want violence!”

The magazine goes on to comment of Moulton’s latest suspension designs: “… the fashion for clamped-down suspension and the move away from space-efficient packaging have marginalised the cheekily effective Hydragas units…”

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And they’re right – how many designers now overly care about space and ride? So many new cars that I drive have Godawful packaging. The Mitsubishi Grandis – a people-mover where surely space utilisation is critical to its function – has fundamentally poor design. Firstly, the upright engine is pushed well back into the cabin, resulting in the necessity for an extremely sloping windscreen to help cover it. This then leads to a rearwards positioning of the three seat rows, squeezing legroom. The dashboard has also needed to grow enormously (something has to fill the space beneath the front glass!) and as a result, dominates the cabin. And even with what appears to be several cubic metres of volume hidden inside the dash, there’s a complete lack of large compartments and pockets within it. The lidded compartment on top of the dash is just farcical – maybe you could store a few pancakes in it…

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And then there’s the Peugeot 407. In short it’s another car where style has vastly over-ruled commonsense – let alone good design. Interior space? In the back it’s just woeful. The huge Audi A8? Look in the rear and wonder where all the legroom went. The pictured Volvo V50 wagon has less practical load space than a (smaller) 20 year old Camira wagon.

Of course, there are also some current designs that are very well packaged. In small cars, many of the ‘tall school’ designs like the Honda Jazz; in medium cars, the Toyota Prius; and in large cars, the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. But designers are more often than not using suspension systems sized with an apparent disregard for packaging, dashboards are growing so huge it’s bizarre, and tiny boot openings make it impossible to get even a medium-sized box into the load space.

With some notable exceptions, the advances being made in interior space utilisation are clearly minimal.

And ride? Well, I think Moulton is right there as well. Try to think of a new car that has a really good ride. It’s hard, isn’t it? Now some of you will be saying, “I don’t care about ride: give me handling!” But surely it’s now technically possible to have both good handling and a good ride? The Hydrolastic suspension system of 40 years ago did better in that compromise than many of today’s cars; Citroen’s hydraulic system does likewise.

When automotive designers are studying their craft, surely along with criteria like safety and performance, ‘ride comfort’ and ‘interior space’ should be near the top of the list? Look around you and you could be forgiven for thinking they never even made the whiteboard…

2 Responses to 'Are car designers losing the plot?'

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  1. Paul said,

    on September 18th, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Design and interior space of a Volvo V50 wagon vs a (smaller) 20 year old Camira wagon??? True enough observation but your conclusion is flawed. Cars have grown (esp weight, side crumple zones and pillar girth) at the expense of interior space with the increased focus on side impact protection. Lets face it, there was little in any direction with the Camira (nor may of the other design classics mentioned). You do generally need a bigger car to get the same interior space than you did 20 years ago for a good design. Progress?? I think yes.

    The Volvo design is not perfect, but ended up going this way. In this size class, if you really want to see cramped, try a BMW 330i!!! A C Series has more interior space than the V50 but is underpowered for the $.

    No need for CD’s floating around in the car with a factory MP3 6 disk CD player and Aux input for the ipod!!! And as you know, theres never enough storage pockets for kids. Now if only it came with a speed alarm…..

    PS Volvo seats seem also to move rearward much more than the norm (nordic heritage??), the carseat test should be done with a typical driver to be valid. No worse than others in normal use.

  2. Ben said,

    on September 18th, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Speaking of suspension taking up room… What happened to torsion bars? Combined with a pushrod operated damper, suspension height could be as low as the height of the upper control arm. The suspension unit would then be longer, but it is easy enough to hide a straight bar an inch across.