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Icons or bygones, what is the case for new old cars? by Peter Stevens

22 June 2015 | by Peter Stevens

There is an on going project being undertaken by a number of companies for 'The new London Taxi'; this project is as much about politics and tourism as it is about design. The current classic London taxi is considered an 'icon'; it originates from a vintage Austin design first seen in the early 1930s, and earlier still from the London Hansom Cab named after the man who invented the particular layout of driver and passengers.

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Perceived as always being painted black, it is now known as the 'the black cab' even though it is often seen in other colours or covered in advertising stickers. It is easily spotted in London traffic and is considered to be part of the tourist experience but it is also considered to be technologically out of date. In just a few years it has to be replaced with a hybrid vehicle that must run on electric energy in the city centre. This is no government funded project or a competition, as there was in New York, any company can develop and build a taxi at its own expense that complies with the regulations, so there will be no 'winner' except in the commercial sense of which sells the most.

Is the London taxi an icon or a bygone? Politicians, assuming they are actually interested in the project rather than in self publicity, want something that looks very similar to the current design, but drivers want a vehicle that helps them to earn a living, something economical, reliable, easily and quickly fixed if it goes wrong and with room for five passengers and their luggage.

What are the visual design cues that make a taxi a 'London Taxi'? The black colour, the orange light on the roof, the upright windscreen or the size and three box form? I think that it is none of these; it needs to look different from other vehicles, to look friendly and non-threatening and suggest a clear division between the front section where the driver works, and the rear section where the passengers have their own private lounge.

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But does a new taxi have to be retro? The London Taxi Company, owned by Chinese company Geely, and Metrocab clearly think so. Mercedes and Nissan believe a delivery van with windows will do, their 'one box' designs are clearly not purpose built and are therefore compromised in terms of practicality. Turkish company Karsan has yet to publish images of its proposal but with design input from the RCA's Helen Hamlyn Research Center we can expect something original. The new London bus is a modern piece of design but is immediately recognisable as 'the new bus for London', why shouldn't the new taxi be the same.

The New Mini, Fiat 500 and VW Beetle are 'retro pastiche' and a result of marketing pressures rather than clear design statements that reference the past without copying it. The Nissan S-Cargo and Chrysler CCV had design cues derived from the Citroën 2CV but, with some success, tried hard to avoid being derivative.

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Volkswagen has had a couple of attempts at presenting concepts for a new VW Microbus with stylistic reference to the original, but what they actually build is one of the most nondescript and dull vehicles that you can buy! In a very evocative advertising campaign featuring a '60s Beach Boys' song, VW, a few years ago, attempted to recapture that period magic epitomised by the original Microbus, something that the current vehicle lacks. Not surprisingly they failed miserably. So why does retro design not really work? Is it because it contains a desperate search for an idea, any idea, when marketing creativity has dried up, or is it part of a yearning for the simpler life that we imagine the past to have been?

My problem is that I do like some retro design vehicles and have occasionally been asked to work in that style, but it is best to avoid the sad look of a Nissan Figaro and go instead for the confident style of Larry Erikson's Cadzilla designed for ZZ Top's Billy Gibbon, or Terry Cook's Lincoln 'Scrape'.

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And whilst I still very much like the drawing style of BMW's Mille Miglia concept from a few years ago, I think that the latest CSL, shown at Villa d'Este totally misunderstands what the classic CSL was about. It was a serious race version of the 6 Series coupé, designed to win the European Touring Car Championship in the late 1960s, not to catch the eye at a concours event. And when I read the word ‘Hommage’ I always get a creepy feeling that someone is hiding the true purpose of something. If you are designing in a retro style it is essential that you are aware of why you are doing it.

When my friend Chris Craft asked me to consider an up to date version of Frank Kurtis’s wonderful Kurtis Roadster of the 1950s I knew that it had to combine modern technology and performance with an evolution of the 'Kurtis' look, there was no point in just drawing a more modern TVR looking car and calling it a Kurtis. But, would I have rather been asked to design a new Cobra? Yes, because the Cobra is an interesting project but no, because the Cobra is a bit too obvious and styling cues are easily found, whilst the Kurtis was challengingly obscure.

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