Is There Still a Place for the Small Car?

In the early days of the 20th Century, when the motorcar was a comparatively new invention, cars were bought by wealthy people who liked the idea of ‘modernity’ that the car embodied. The very first automobiles were small, noisy and smelly and they frightened horses, but development was so rapid that, with large engines and luxurious bodywork, they became a refined and comfortable means of transport.

People with less money still had to use slow and crowded public transport, the bicycle or their feet to get from one place to another. The motorcycle, and particularly the motorcycle and sidecar, was a cheap alternative but it was hardly luxurious.

The economics of building a low cost car, at a time when the motorcar was hand built, meant that there was no chance for ordinary folk to own a car – until Henry Ford developed the concept of mass production. But the Ford Model T was a big car, particularly in a European context with narrow streets and few parking places. Companies like Morgan instead offered the chance for customers to experience the thrill of fast driving with their very sporty three-wheeled, motorcycle-engined cars.

It wasn’t until the early 1920s that Austin, previously makers of rather slow and dull family cars, revolutionized car ownership by introducing the little Austin Seven. The ‘Seven’ was a proper car in miniature, it took its design cues from much larger cars and had a lot of charm; it was a four seat (rather cramped in the back!) family car and was enormously popular. In Germany, BMW bought a license to build Austin Sevens under the brand Dixi; the little sporting version was the first BMW to introduce the twin ‘kidney’ front grille.

As the economics of building small cars improved it was possible to offer little, light commercial vehicles for sale at prices that even the smaller businesses could afford. The earliest Reliant vans used Austin Seven engines, gearboxes and rear axles, the front suspension was taken from a motorcycle.

Gabriel Voisin, who, in the 1930s built some of the most spectacular and stylish luxury cars, realized that after the devastating Second World War there would be a demand for small, light and simple cars. His Voisin Biscuter was probably the first automobile that was more a piece of product design than a styling statement. Many European manufacturers quickly came to the same conclusion about the potential market but thought that the customers deserved a stylish vehicle.

Many of these cars were cute looking, comparatively cheap to buy and were actually fun to own. The same engineers who had worked in the aircraft divisions of companies like Heinkel and Messerschmitt designed the companies’ small cars – very clever pieces of design. BMW built both the little Isetta 300 and the fascinating four-wheel 600, still a very good piece of design; it is clear that the BMW 600 influenced Fiat when they designed the Multipla, which was based on the rear-engined Fiat 600.

Italy has always been one of those countries where the small car was never looked upon as an indication of personal failure; everyone deserved the opportunity to experience the pleasure and practicality of personal transportation.

Fiat was always at the forefront of developing the concept of small cars. Their revered Chief Engineer Dante Giacosa always enjoyed the challenge of minimalist engineering but he thought that customers with limited funds deserved good quality components just as much as those with plenty of money. Giacosa believed that the feeling of the car that an owner first got from touching the door handle, grasping the steering wheel, gear lever and parking brake told you about the integrity and engineering expertise of the manufacturer.

The development of the Fiat 500, from the front-engined 500 A (Topolino) through the 500 B and 500 C to the rear engine 500 D and its successors was always based on clever engineering; his sketches of the method for pressing the body and door panels show how Giacosa considered every aspect of cost conscious production back in the early 1950s. The early 500 A bodies were so light and minimal that they made great drag race cars when built onto a Chevrolet (or Chrysler/Dodge) V8-engined race chassis.

When the mainstream automobile manufacturers moved away from small cars, (Henry Ford often said “small cars, small profits”), the market was mostly left to companies with little or no design culture. Small cars became seen as wretched little things that stigmatized the poor owner, a thing that continued through to the electric Reva G-Wiz and the Gordon Murray T.27.

Ryuichiro Kuze, my great friend and mentor, used a similar philosophy to that of Fiat when designing the little Subaru 360 back in the 1960s. He eventually ended up running Subaru’s STi motorsport division until his sad death in 2005, but always liked his minimalist cars; the last of which was the Subaru R2 of 2003.

This neat little car was designed for the Japanese ‘Kei’ car regulations. In the 1950s, the regulations allowed for maximum dimensions of 3.0m in length, a 1.3m width and a 2.0m height. The engine size was a tiny 360cc. In 1976 these dimensions became 3.2m long, 1.4m wide and 550cc for the engine. The dimensions are now 3.4m long, 1.48m wide and 660cc for the engine. In a way this gradual growth of the Kei cars footprint is a shame but it has to comply with modern safety regulations. This category is sufficiently fascinating that it deserves a separate story of its own.

There continue to be many small car concept models shown at motor shows all over the world. Back in the 1990s Plymouth produced some clever little ideas, but these were normally met with deathly silence from journalists (not fast, not powerful and not aggressive enough). We continue to see proposals from many companies and students still generate some fine ideas, again to muted responses. But there is one country where the small car is both a good subject for show cars and also for production vehicles, and that is India.

There is a growing market for small simple machines that was stimulated by the brave idea that Ratan Tata had to help get Indian families off dangerous scooters and motorcycles and into cars that offered a less vulnerable and more comfortable means of transport for the less wealthy members of the population. The Nano was not the major success that Tata hoped, but it has given impetus to the small car market.

The Smart car is a familiar little machine in Europe, though again not as much of a success as was initially hoped, but Smart has persevered with the concept. Hopefully they will continue to keep faith with their philosophy.

This idea that unless you are among the more wealthy potential car owners you cannot have a great looking and fun to own car is both undemocratic and philosophically wrong; these days almost anyone who can afford a mobile phone has access to good design at reasonable cost. It is always pleasing to see how many student designers believe this; one can see more stylish and thoughtful design within minimalist projects now than ever before. And of course the Renault Twizy proves that some major motor companies think like this too.

What emerges from this examination of the relevance of the small car is that YES, there is still a place for the small car but it has to be cool and entertaining – dull and ugly just will not do!


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