Motoring: The shaping of things to come: Royden Axe, Rover's former design chief, talks cars with Phil Llewellin, and explains how his huge taxi could revitalise city transport

Forty years in the motor industry has not blunted the sharp edge of Roy Axe's love affair with the automobile. The former design chief at Rootes, Chrysler and Rover radiates enthusiasm as he talks in an office full of car books, car photographs, car magazines and a fleet of classic car models: Ferrari, Jaguar, Bentley, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Austin-Healey, Cadillac, Mercedes and Citroen.

Mr Axe's departure from Rover was not acrimonious. Retirement at 55 was written into his contract, because he wanted to work on boats, executive jets and other forms of transport. His company, Design Research Associates, has to be secretive about its clients, but they include big names in Europe, Japan and the United States.

One project he can talk about is the Hermes taxi, a large model of which greets visitors to the company's office in Warwick. This futuristic but feasible vision of the familiar black cab was evolved by Mr Axe and his colleagues after an approach by Professor Jim Randle, Jaguar's former chief engineer, now at Birmingham University. A key feature is its compact gas-turbine engine that drives electric motors and recharges their batteries.

'Hermes grew out of Jim's belief that there is a demand for large cars, for reasons which include the fact that big people feel more comfortable in them,' Mr Axe explains. 'Jim was convinced that his formula would enable a large car to be economical to operate. I thought it was a heck of a good idea. The concept developed into a 'people carrier' idea, then into a taxi. We've been working with London Taxis International, and are very hopeful about the future.'

I expected such an experienced designer to be enthusiastic about the urban runabouts unveiled at countless motor shows, but he shook his head. 'I think the 'city car' is a dead loss. I can't see what it's trying to do. Something like Hermes is a much better way to go. It would be excellent if cities were given over to highly efficient forms of public transport, such as underground railways and thoroughly modern taxis. London would be so much nicer if private cars were replaced by a really sophisticated taxi- bus-train system.'

Mr Axe's interest in cars may have been inherited, he says. His mother, a farmer's daughter, learnt to drive when she was eight, and became a self-taught mechanic who could fix just about anything. 'My paternal grandfather had great mechanical skills,' he says. 'He bought one of the first cars in his part of the country, drove it home, dismantled it, went to bed, had a think and rebuilt it next day.'

Royden 'Roy' Axe was born in 1937. His formative years were spent in Scarborough when the resort was a focal point for rallies. 'Those events attracted a wonderful mixture of pre-war and post-war cars. What really fired me up was the Jaguar XK120. It was, and is, such a stunning shape.'

Styling cars was young Roy's ambition, but his school dismissed the idea, and the Rootes Group - Sunbeam, Singer, Humber, Hillman - was not very encouraging. At 16, he became an apprentice car-body engineer, and joined the styling team when his sketches impressed a far- sighted foreman.

'There were six people in the department,' he recalls. 'I went there for a three-week trial and didn't leave until 1976 - by which time Rootes had become Chrysler, and they offered me a good job in the US. The problems I had as a youngster, trying to get started, made me very supportive when the Royal College of Art launched its automotive design course.'

His first task was to design the small front grilles for the original Sunbeam Alpine. Today, he is modest enough to emphasise that cars from the main manufacturers are designed by teams, not individuals. His favourites, not all of which made it into production, include the second-generation Sunbeam Alpine, the Sunbeam Rapier of 1967 ('The first design for which I had overall responsibility'), the Chrysler Minivan and the sleek, mid- engined MG EX-E concept car.

Personal transport? He sold his Ferrari Testarossa a few weeks ago, but still has a 1931 Chrysler in the US and a 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 in Britain. But his day-to-day transport is a Mercedes 300SL. 'It is very, very good - just about the best all-round car on the market, unless four seats are essential.'

Mr Axe hesitates for only a second or two when asked what makes a good car designer. 'I've known some very good ones who weren't terribly interested in cars as such. They didn't collect them or know anything about their history. But the very best have been very interested in the subject. You have to be enthusiastic, almost fanatical. You have to be a car nut.'

There is a limit, however, to what the public will accept. 'Mass-produced cars have to satisfy a huge market,' he says. 'There is no doubt that the average customer has very narrow 'taste tolerance' limits. That's why manufacturers who invest billions in new models almost invariably play it very safe: cars have become uninteresting. But I'm sure there is scope to be more adventurous without taking risks.

'I think the typical customer does want a car to have character, but the difference between 'ordinary' and 'different' in his or her view is not the big thing you or I might have in mind.

'For instance, a new grille and a few other features have lifted the current Rovers away from the rest of the herd (a justifiable commercial for his own work). The image has been moved a slot up the market, but not enough to frighten people off by making them think the car is too expensive. A deft touch is often all that's needed.'

(Photograph omitted)

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