(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 11.)
I walked past a big 1970s-era Chrysler Valiant in town the other day – an orange one (still the original paint job, I’d guess) with a tan vinyl roof.
I’ve driven such cars. They handled like a wheelbarrow half-filled with water. But I’ll tell you what: they had character. They had personality. When you drove a Chrysler Valiant, you knew you were driving a Chrysler Valiant.
I contrast this with the occasions when I hire a modern rental car. I couldn’t tell you what I’m driving without looking at the logo in the centre of the steering wheel.
They all feel and look the same. They’re safe, well-equipped, economical, reliable … and boring.
I thought of that Chrysler Valiant a couple of days later when I was reading the motoring section of my paper. It included a story about the new Holden Commodore due to be released next year – the first Commodore not to be built in Australia.
Holden had released advanced publicity shots of the new model from different angles. To me it looked virtually indistinguishable from the equivalent model Mazda, Hyundai or Kia.
Say what you like about the Chrysler Valiant, but it was unmistakeably a Chrysler Valiant. There was no way you’d mistake it for its competitors, the Ford Falcon and the Holden Kingswood (each of which, in turn, looked completely different from the other).
And before you say anything, yes, I know your chance of getting killed was far greater if you crashed in a 1975 Valiant or Holden Kingswood than if you have a prang in a modern Honda or Subaru.
In that respect, I concede we’ve made enormous advances. But did safety improvements have to come at the expense of the styling quirks that gave the cars of earlier eras their individuality?
Allow me to illustrate my point. On Facebook recently, my friend Phil O'Brien, co-host of Radio New Zealand's popular Matinee Idle, posted a 1957 magazine advertisement for a car identical to the first one he owned – an eggshell-blue Austin A50 Cambridge.
Phil invited other people to contribute reminiscences about their own first cars. There were 113 responses, many of them very witty.
They covered a weird and wonderful assortment of makes and models that people of a certain age would remember well, from the everyday (Austin A30s, Vanguards, Vauxhall Veloxes, Triumph Heralds, Holden Specials, Morris Minors and Ford Prefects) to the slightly more exotic and racy (a Renault 750, a Jowett Javelin and an Auto Union – precursor of the Audi).
There were some that few people with any self-esteem would admit to having owned (namely, a 1970s Morris Marina and a Skoda Octavia wagon from the 1960s). But the point was that for a couple of days, people indulged in an entertaining nostalgia-fest about old cars.
Now ask yourself: can you imagine anyone getting similarly excited in 50 years’ time about peas-in-a-pod Ford, Mazdas and Toyotas? I can’t.
Good cars, all of them, but dull. With globalisation, the “world car” that motor companies started talking about in the 1970s became a reality. Lookalike models roll off assembly lines on every continent.
Old cars were quirky. That’s why people gather wherever classic or vintage cars are on display. Small wonder that Nelson publishers Potton and Burton recently brought out We Had One of Those!, a wallow in automotive nostalgia written by Stephen Barnett.
Would any relentlessly profit-driven car multinational today allow its engineers and designers to create something as eccentric as the lowlight Morris Minor, the Morgan three-wheeler or the Hillman Imp? It just wouldn’t happen.
And here’s another thing about modern car design. In some ways it has regressed, in both practical and aesthetic terms.
Design orthodoxy demands a rising waistline and a passenger compartment that tapers sharply towards the rear. As a result, window space is greatly reduced for back-seat passengers and the rear view is so restricted that drivers become almost wholly dependent on the reversing camera to see what’s going on behind them. And they call this progress?
Few cars demonstrate the regression better than the royal family’s vehicle of choice, the Range Rover.
Like its humble older sibling the Land Rover, the Range Rover was revolutionary when it was launched in 1970. It was the world’s first luxury four-wheel-drive and a masterpiece of design.
It had clean, simple lines. The driver sat high, surrounded by acres of glass. Reliability may have occasionally been an issue, but visibility certainly wasn’t.
Now look at one of its descendants, the Range Rover Evoque. It looks as if something very large has sat on it. It has a squashed look, with a rear window that resembles one of those narrow slits that soldiers shove their rifles through.
The big-selling Toyota Corolla, too, has morphed into something that resembles a particularly nasty insect. It’s not even quirky-ugly in the way that, say, the 1970s Leyland P76 was.
Now there was a car that was so ugly it was strangely desirable. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, and more’s the pity.