Are automobiles tools or toys? by Peter Stevens

12 October 2015 | by Peter Stevens

About three years ago a Chinese student said to me that it was all very well for Western design schools to encourage students to design desirable ‘emotion led’ vehicles, but for the majority of the world cars were just tools that made life easier or more productive. Comparing this attitude with that which has given us the ultimate ‘track-day’ car – now no-longer useable on the road – makes for a difficult discussion among designers.

Although both the Ferrari FXX and the McLaren P1 GTR are remarkable feats of engineering they are not racecars, they are expensive toys for the very wealthy. I don’t disapprove of that in any political sense but I do feel that the marketing philosophy that says ‘more is always better and more desirable, so buy me!’ cannot go on for ever.

Peter Stevens Track Toys 02

The little Honda Project 2&4 that was shown at the Frankfurt autoshow three weeks ago took all the attention away from the supposed new Honda NSX; a car that has been previewed at Detroit in 2013, Geneva in 2014 and now Frankfurt in 2015. There could be a message here for Honda and other makers of high performance sports car – yet another over-detailed and over-complex, but unresolved form that follows a design path now well trodden by companies worldwide might not be the future!

Peter Stevens Track Toys 03

If there are going to be cars that are toys then there is an opportunity to be more clever than regular production car designs – lighter weight, more efficient power units, a more engaging driving experience and a closer relationship with the vehicle. Colin Chapman’s Lotus 7 first did this almost 60 years ago. That particular vehicle is still in production as the Caterham 7 and is as uncompromising and entertaining as when it first appeared in 1957!

There have been many copies of the original ‘7’, some slightly better, most not as good as the real thing. In the past Caterham who bought the design rights from Lotus would take those who copied the design to court but the company realised that instead of making lawyers rich they should spend their money on making the product better than the copiers. There is a fascinating range of ‘fun vehicles’ now available that can trace their heritage back to that first ‘7’. Low-volume manufacturers around the world have found satisfaction, and occasional profit, it designing cars that are more entertaining than practical and are a source of inspiration for vehicle design students on most college BA courses.

Peter Stevens Track Toys 05

I never quite understood Lotus’s 2-eleven track-day car and the latest 3-eleven is even more of mystery to me; seems to me that it doesn’t quite know what it is supposed to be, other than very expensive. That is even more the case with the short-lived Caterham Aero-7 concept that came from the Tony Fernandes period during his Caterham Cars ownership. The Dax Rush is certainly a Lotus 7 derivative but thanks to its good proportions and aggressive stance it looks like a step beyond the classic ‘7’. However Swedish designer Ulf Bolumlid just used the Rush as a starting point for a very well resolved re-body of the basic chassis, producing a very good looking, simple car.

Peter Stevens Track Toys 10

Two senior guys who were in charge of Caterham prior to its acquisition by Fernandes left the company with the intention of designing and producing a car that they felt should have been the next Caterham; the car is the Zenos E10. Will it succeed – I hope so because it’s very much in the spirit of the original Lotus ‘7’ but it depends on there being sufficient customers to make money for Ansar and Mark to live on.

Peter Stevens Track Toys 11

Similar to the 2-Eleven, I never did understand the KTM X-Bow, it always looked like someone threw a hand grenade into a garage full of car parts. An unattractive proportion was not helped by such a mixture of surface treatments, finishes and discordant details; the result may have been thrilling on the road but it was never a special moment when seen on the street.

A very different approach was taken by successful race driver Chris Craft in the UK, assisted by veteran Formula One designer Gordon Murray, Chris produced a remarkably light weight, tandem two-seat road car called the Light Car Company ‘Rocket’. This was one of the first four-wheeled machines to use a motor cycle engine installed in the rear. We have looked at various ways of developing a Rocket ‘2’ for the future, but it is possible that cars like the BAC Mono single seater, and Mexican VUHL have moved the whole game on!

Peter Stevens Track Toys 12

Simon Saunders very successful Ariel Company started with the uncompromisingly stark little Atom, its purpose and structure is open for all to see, it looks tough and well detailed and Ariel has followed the same design philosophy with its new ‘Nomad’ on-road/off-road car that gains some inspiration from American off-ooad buggies.

Student design shows often feature these types of track day, fun cars and they allow young designers to explore form without the inhibitions of more formal vehicle typologies. Examples from Phil Candy, Russian designer Zamkovenko, Iman Maghsoudi from Iran and others. Demonstrate two things, first, young people are not afraid to push beyond accepted form and, second, THE IMPORTANCE OF PUTTING YOUR NAME ON YOUR DRAWINGS!

Peter Stevens Track Toys 22

We are in a period when the global auto industry is desperately chasing sales rather than re-imagining personal transport. The laws requiring cars to meet many safety, emission and recyclability rules should be giving us better cars but it is clear that money is at the route of every corporate decision; how brave of Honda then to show the 2&4 concept. I hope they find a way to produce it because any demonstration that ‘small, simple and light’ is the future, would benefit us all. And since cars can also be ‘toys’ for privileged customers in the West, let’s make those just a little more responsible too.