Motoring: Motors in the melting pot
Saturday 21 May 1994
World cars will be bland, because they will have to cater for so many different people. Great cars of the past reflected national cultures and national prejudices. The upshot was machines of greatly varying appearances and abilities - and, sometimes, works of true genius. These instances of greatness spurred other car makers, and thus improved cars in general.
Without the national foibles of the Italians, the French, the English or the Germans, we never would have had the Fiat Topolino and 500, the Renault 4, the Mini or the Mercedes S-class.
Those little Fiats of the Thirties and Fifties were the world's most space-efficient and technically ingenious small cars, until the Mini came along in 1959. They were tiny for the wholly practical reason that old Italian towns tend to have narrow roads. Petrol in Italy has always been expensive, so they had fabulously fuel-efficient engines; and they were ingeniously light, saving materials and more fuel.
Equally, the rough roads and the peculiar needs of the strong agricultural sector led to the French car industry developing unique engineering skills: pave and peasantry equals comfortable suspension systems and hatchbacks.
Andre Citroen, arguably the most far-sighted car engineer of all, developed the 2CV so that it could drive across a ploughed field without breaking any eggs carried in a basket. It not only had wonderfully absorbent suspension, but was also versatile (seats could easily be removed to carry small livestock or tools), cheap to repair (simply unbolt a damaged wing and bolt on a new one), light (an air-cooled engine made partly from aluminium) and fuel-frugal. There is no small car today which is as cheap to own, as versatile, as tough or, around town, as comfortable.
The other great seminal French car of the time, the Renault 4, was equally practical and tough. It was a cross between a hatchback and a small estate car, and in many ways a harbinger of both.
Britain's class system gave the world its most regal car (the Rolls), a system of badging (L, GL, GLX, etc) which helped, at a glance, to determine the class of a driver even if the basic car were the same, and the leather-and- wood cabin which was the mark of a gentleman's conveyance but is now merely the mark of all Rovers.
The Suez crisis, and the subsequent threat to our petrol supply, helped give us the greatest small car of all, the Mini. Britain in the Swinging Sixties gave the world the Jaguar E-type - a thrusting, sexy, aggressive car, completely in tune with its rebellious times.
Once Germans started to earn enough money to buy something better than Beetles, they began building the world's best big saloons: Mercedes and BMWs that whisked along big businessmen and big families reliably, comfortably and quickly. The Germans were the first to build motorways without speed limits, so it is no wonder their cars were fast, streamlined, safe and well- engineered.
American cars were big because the country has the fuel and the space; and because the Americans have long associated size with status. The bigger the car, the greater the kudos. American cars were also the most extravagantly styled: big chrome mouths, big chrome fins, extraordinary colours. Americans have always liked to wear their wealth.
The world car will change this marvellous multiplicity of cultures, of course. Indeed, it is already happening. American cars are getting smaller; Italian cars are getting bigger; French cars are less practical and less comfortable; British cars have less class; Germans are starting to drive more slowly. Some national traits do survive, despite the increasing globalisation of the car business. The French (Peugeot and Citroen, in particular) still make the best suspensions in the world. The British design the best cabins. The Japanese make the best engines (a consequence of their skills in motorcycle engineering and mass production). The Italians come up with the most imaginative designs.
But slowly, surely, those differences are being ironed out. The big car companies continue to swallow the small ones (new Jaguars are being developed by Ford, new Saabs by GM). International engineering solutions are being applied to national problems (which makes about as much sense as individual countries being governed by the United Nations). Flair and individuality are being replaced by corporatism and commercial sense - hang any sense of culture, or national creeds.
Mainstream cars will get more boring, as Toyotas start to look more like Fords or Rovers or Renaults. And they will not just look more boring: their engineering will be less different, less innovative.
The recent planned merger between Renault and Volvo was symptomatic of these sad times. Are there two more disparate companies in the world? I ask you. Yet perhaps there is hope. Amid various remonstrations (particularly from the Swedes) against national characteristics and interests being neutered, the deal fell through.
The break-up was probably commercially damaging to both firms. Yet if it means we get another generation of Clios and Twingos and Espaces and Alpines, before Renault is finally neutered in the name of international business sense, it cannot have been altogether a bad thing.
arts + entsThere were towering ideas, some scintillating performances and revelatory grooves... our writers pick out their personal highlights
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
elephant appealPrince William signs up for our charity appeal
peoplePrepare to be entranced by worms as the molecular biologist gets ready to give the Royal Institution science lectures
elephant appealSo says man jailed for cutting off dead elephant's tusks
booksWe examine the best titles for teens
voicesPeople moan that Christmas is too commercial, the spirit lost. But it is a time to over-indulge, and always has been, says DJ Taylor
scienceResearchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words
booksA Christmas story in six parts
travelWill high-value tourism help the workshops of this Renaissance city?
food + drinkA trifle without custard? Surely not! Nonsense – and here’s three to finish your festive meal that prove it
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Life & Style blogs
Drunken assaults, drug abuse, spiked drinks – and a young couple in a pine tree: Not a very merry Christmas for the paramedics
The 10 Best Scotch Whiskies
America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
GTA 5: Rockstar bans gamers stealing in-game money worth millions
Winter Solstice 2013: Shortest day of the year marked with 'knitted' Google Doodle
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
David Cameron takes his biggest gamble yet as he gets tough on Europe over immigration
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 1 Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 2 French pub fined €9,000 after customers returned empties to bar - because it's 'undeclared labour'
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
- 5 Police seize possessions of rough sleepers in crackdown on homelessness
£40000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits : Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer (WPF...
£45000 - £65000 per annum + London: Harrington Starr: Senior Automation QA Eng...
Negotiable: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: Year 6 Teacher - Gilli...
Negotiable: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: Teacher of English - S...