MOTORING / WHEELS OF FASHION: Slaves to the Cd factor: 3 TECHNOLOGY - Does streamlining really matter? Are four turbos under the bonnet better than one? Jonathan Glancey argues that, beneath its cultish hi-tech wizardry, a car is a car is a car

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JUST OVER 10 years ago, the word 'Turbo' began to appear on the boots and tailgates of even the most commonplace cars. And this was just the tip of the turbo iceberg. 'Turbo' was the name plastered across Eighties sports bags, toasters, bottles of men's scent, word processors and even packets of washing powder.

Almost every hi-tech consumer goodie imported from South-east Asia and advertised in junk mail catalogues was, or so it was claimed, 'turbo'-powered. Yet it seemed unlikely that those electric toasters really were, given that a turbocharger is defined in the Collins dictionary as 'a supercharger consisting of a turbine driven by the exhaust gases of an engine'; hot stuff for the Sunday breakfast table.

The turbocharger existed a long time before it became fashionable. Like much automotive technology, it was invented in the days of wire wheels and wind-in-the-hair motoring, but was little used until Porsche decided to pump iron with the introduction of its legendary 911 sports car in 1974. Saab looked at this German wunderwagen and decided that the turbocharger could be used to inject adrenalin into its staid, sensible and mass-produced family saloons. The result - the Saab 99 Turbo of 1976 - spawned countless imitators.

Early turbochargers were anything but smooth in action, but this was a relatively cheap way of boosting the power of a 2.0-litre family saloon by as much as 50 per cent. Because car tax in Europe rises sharply on cars with engines of more than 2.0-litre capacity, the turbocharger brought a financial bonus.

The car industry's lust for turbochargers seemed insatiable; the Porsche and Saab were great successes, so why stop at one turbocharger? Why not bolt twin turbochargers under the bonnet, as Maserati did six years after the Saab Turbo's launch? Twin turbos have since become the essential stuff of a new wave of hi- tech sports cars, such as the rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 and the Jaguar XJ220 - at 217mph, the fastest road car ever built. The new Bugatti E110 boasts four turbochargers but, at 212mph, is a slug compared to the mercurial Jaguar.

Turbochargers are just one example of an old technology that suddenly finds its moment, is taken up by car-makers, advertisers and their public and rides the crest of a cultish commercial wave. Streamlining was another. In the mid-Eighties, every manufacturer felt the need to advertise the 'Cd' factor of its latest car - from Alfa-Romeo to Volkswagen.

'Cd' stands for 'co-efficient of drag'. If the figure is under 0.3, your car can be considered streamlined; if over 0.4, it can't. But streamlining only really matters when a car is travelling very fast - and there is nowhere in the world save the outer lane of German autobahns and the Isle of Man road races where you can drive as fast as you dare, or your car will go. A streamlined car should save fuel at speed, but in most circumstances the Cd factor is about as important to the wellbeing of the planet as Max Factor.

The 1980s saw the start of real techno-fads in the world of motoring. The decade opened on a note of technological extravagance with the launch of the phenomenal Audi Quattro - a five-cylinder, 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four- wheel-drive rally car for the road. With all those hi-tech adjectives it lived up magnificently to Audi's famous Eighties advertising slogan, Vorsprung durch Technik.

Technological innovations came thick and fast after the Audi Quattro; four-wheel drive was offered on cars as diverse as the Range Rover and the Fiat Panda. There followed four-wheel steering, polycarbonate bodies, double-glazing, and self-closing doors and boot lids. There was also a horrible craze in the mid- Eighties for digital instruments and fibre-optic displays on the dashboards of boring executive saloons - the kind designed for boring salesmen laden with samples who drive around boring orbital motorways to boring meetings.

The hi-tech Eighties also offered fantastically complex stereo systems ('in-car entertainment' it was called), magnificently useless car alarms and electronic controls of every possible kind. There have also been fashionable gizmos of a genuinely useful and even lifesaving kind, such as ABS braking and impact-activated airbags housed in steering wheels; both appeared in the mid-Seventies and have been taken up in earnest in recent years.

Many technological advances are as much aesthetic as functional. In 1948, Jaguar's boffins came up with a sturdy and traditional six- cylinder engine for the sensational XK120 sports car. But Sir William Lyons, Jaguar's style-conscious boss, took one look at the design and turned it down. It would have done the job, taken the XK120 up to 120mph, so what was wrong? It was ugly, that was what.

Lyons insisted on a more complicated but infinitely more elegant twin overhead-cam engine; what mattered was the fact that it looked quite superb (it was also to work reliably and well in new Jaguars for the next 40 years). Clearly, an engine's visual appeal mattered in an age when bonnets were raised daily as proud owners checked oil and coolant levels.

Car engines, for the most part, began to look a mess as the need to open the bonnet declined. They became entangled with electric wires and buried under alarms, air-conditioning hoses and power-steering ducts. Oddly, in the 1990s, German manufacturers have taken a lead in styling their engines to the standards of Fifties Jaguars and pre-war Bentleys and Bugattis. Lift the bonnet of any recent BMW - or the new two-ton, double-glazed S-class Mercedes-Benz - and you are faced with sculpture worthy of winning the Turner Prize.

The greatest cars have not always been the most technologically advanced or fashionable, although the Audi Quattro was one such car. The Bugatti Type-35 of 1924, for example - one of the all-time greats - was gimmick-free and crafted around the best existing technology. And when Alec Issigonis designed the Mini (1959), the only really new thing about it was its tiny 10-inch wheels - since increased to 12 inches, as the originals were too small to soak up bumps with any degree of success.

Like all great engineers, Issigonis avoided innovations which were purely fashionable or irresponsibly wild; instead he made optimum use of tried and tested technology. But the sum total of his Mini was nevertheless revolutionary - a car that offered 80 per cent of its volume to driver, passengers and their luggage and just 20 per cent to the engine and technology.

It is fascinating to discover just how early most of the technologies we take for granted in modern cars were first invented and patented. Technological invention is often well ahead of market forces. As early as 1911, Marc Birkigt designed and built an engine for one of his peerless Hispano-Suizas featuring elements we now associate with the cars of the 1970s and 1980s: four valves per cylinder, dual ignition, hemispherical combustion chambers and twin overhead camshafts for maximum power and efficiency. But who needed such efficiency in 1911, beyond Marc Birkigt and Hispano-Suiza?

All-steel bodies appeared as early as 1916 (Dodge) and integral or chassis-less construction dates from the Lancia Lambada (1922). Yet, until as late as the mid-1960s, some large- scale manufacturers - notably Triumph - were still producing bodies on separate chassis. Synchromesh gearboxes (making it possible to change up and down without double-declutching or 'crashing' the gears) were first used by Cadillac in 1928, though British manufacturers were loathe to adopt them until the late 1960s. Front-wheel drive made its mass-production debut with the Citroen 7CV (the 'Traction Avant') in 1934, but did not become fashionable until the Mini set the trend in 1959.

In 1908 alone, 100 patents were registered for front-wheel-drive systems in the US, but until Errett Lobban Cord employed the idea on his Cord L-29 grand tourer in 1929, front- wheel drive was a technology held in trust for the future. Automatic transmission dates from 1937 (Oldsmobile), and power steering from 1926 (Pierce Arrow). Later production-car fashions included fibreglass bodies (Lotus Elite, 1957), flip-up headlamps (Cord 810/812, 1935), and spoilers to keep ultra-fast cars glued to the road at speed, popularised by the Porsche Turbo of 1974 and taken to extremes in the Ford RS Cosworth Escort (pictured).

Most essential car technologies were developed by the 1930s, and most cars today - despite a superficial gloss of electronic and computer wizardry - remain surprisingly basic underneath. This is because they are not designed for the long-term future, but for relatively short production lives. Significantly, the most technologically sophisticated cars of all - the Mini (1959), Citroen 7CV (1934-57) and Citroen DS (1955-75) among them - have all enjoyed exceptionally long production runs. These were cars that rode in and out of fashion, rather than short-lived products spawned from and for passing fads. What's more, there wasn't a Turbo badge on any of them.

(Photographs omitted)