Owen Edwards | Essays

Not the Same Old Same Old

Photo by Ben Dobson

In an article in the Financial Times a while back, a business writer, in the course of condemning the government bailout of automotive manufacturers here and abroad, took car advertising to task for its unrealistic image of modern driving. Decrying the insistent romantic vision of automobiles — wind in the hair, open road, and all that — he described the reality of most car journeys as “mandatory flogs rather than Kerouac-style Odysseys,” consisting of “commutes, school runs and business trips.”

It’s hard not to agree that cars, though better designed and engineered than ever, are often pressed into plebian duty. I’ve seen a Ferrari F50 — essentially a racing wolf in chic clothing — in the parking lot of a shopping mall. And how many formidable four-wheel-drive Land Rovers ever rove off the asphalt? And it’s true enough that more than a few commercials for cars look like outtakes from The Fast and the Furious, with cars going at light speed through city streets miraculously free of traffic. 

But all is not quite as grinding and grim as this article. Few of us get to drive cars at much more than fifty percent of their potential, unless we get ourselves and our machines to a racetrack for a non-race track day (which a considerable number of car enthusiasts do). If, however, you have a car that handles well and are willing to scout out the nearest challenging back roads, the automobile that mostly serves as a pack animal can become a spirited quarter horse again.

Finding those twisties may be easy if, like me, you live in Northern California, or nearly impossible, if you live in grid-intensive Florida. But real fun on the road is not an unattainable dream. The revelation that there’s still sport driving available on public roads came to me with the recent purchase of a Mini Cooper S, the most enjoyable car I’ve owned since a race-prepped MGA in the early sixties — and the first car that has been able to compete for seat time with my stable of sport motorcycles. Supercharged and fast, with a tight suspension for amazingly flat cornering, this British revival via BMW has me remembering my early years in sports cars, when all you had to do was drive to a race, tape the headlights, slap a number on the doors, and dream Stirling Moss dreams.

That the long ago dreams of a teenage club racer (with an enthusiastic and indulgent father) could be revived by a modern car with ABS, airbags front and side, computers and sensors all over the place, may be in part due to the fact that the Mini itself revives a legendary car of this boy’s youth. The original Mini was designed in the fifties by Sir Alec Issigonis, a Greek born in Smyrna whose family had British citizenship. Like the Volkswagen, which had re-emerged after World War II, and the Fiat Cinquecento, the car was a petrol-stingy answer to post war shortages. With its front-wheel drive and four-corner wheel placement, the car was almost weirdly roomy. Once, when I was living in London in the early seventies, I was given a ride in a Mini Cooper by a friend of a friend, a woman I hadn’t met before. When we arrived at our destination I was stunned to see the driver get out and unfold a pair of the longest legs I’d ever see. By comparison, Twiggy was a mere sapling. The Mini that BMW has revived, though almost two feet longer than the original, is a design that does just what retro ought to do: Improve on the past while still evoking it. In other words, make the machine modern and the mood nostalgic.

Despite the tendency of the fashion business to succeed by recycling earlier styles with slight changes, the retro road can be tricky for car makers. On the list of successes, besides the Mini, are the new Fiat Cinquecento, the Ford Mustang “Bullit” model, and, of course, the classic Morgan — which, though produced in miniscule numbers, never went away. Jaguar had a good run with its encore version of the famous E Type, the XK series, but Tata motors, the Indian company that bought Jag from Ford, is going with the decidedly not-retro variation. A rarer bird, but nicely done, is the Caterham 7, a re-born Lotus 7 built in England with more power than the original, but still true to its open-wheel, birdcage frame ancestry. (Another success, of the two-wheel variety, is the new Triumph Bonneville, a near carbon-copy replica of the sixties classic, with the notable exception that the new bike always starts.) The jury is still out on the new Chevy Camaro (at least I, the jury, who hasn’t driven one yet). It’s been a surprise to me that Chevrolet never tried to recall to duty one of the most popular collector cars GM ever produced, the mid- to late fifties Bel Air two tones created by the legendary Harley Earl and his design team. This would surely have been as welcome as the Thunderbird redux from Ford.

Though successful in terms of sales, a retro car designed in California by J Mays and Freeman Thomas illustrates certain problems with looking forward and back simultaneously. The car that brought Mays to fame, and eventually to the top design job at Ford, was Volkswagen’s New Beetle. It’s been a success for VW, and at first sight back in the late nineties the car was hard not to like. I tested one of the first of these neo bugs to arrive in Northern California, and if I’d walked down the street with a baby panda I couldn’t have attracted more adoring attention. The car, essentially a Golf in vintage drag, drove just fine. But the shape, with its arched roof reminiscent of the Deco-influenced pre-and-post-war Volkswagens, no longer made sense on a front engine modern car. Like post-modern architecture, or most of GM’s cars in the fifties, the shape was an add-on, for stylistic purposes only. In San Francisco, where I live, I now see far more Minis than Bugs these days, and it doesn’t surprise me.

Then there are the faux retro cars (retraux?), those designs that evoke the past without referring directly to an actual car. The most popular of these is the PT Cruiser from Chrysler, designed by Bryan Nesbitt (the “PT” recalling, I’m told, a line of Plymouth trucks from the thirties). Meant, I suppose, to make us think about burly men in fedoras wielding tommy guns, this stodgy automotive pet rock has sold surprisingly well since its introduction in 2000, proving that funky design doesn’t turn everyone off. One particularly egregious version even re-introduced wood grained vinyl. (As we now know, however, the PT, like the faux hotrod Prowler, was not able to save Chrysler from itself; it may take Fiat to do that.)

In a way, one of the niftiest retro cars on the road these days isn’t a retro model at all. The mid-engine Porsche Cayman, smaller than the current 911 and truer to the marque’s traditional styling than the Boxster, is as modern as a sports car can get, yet is somehow reminiscent of the smaller Carreras from a sweeter, simpler, air-cooled age. To which one can only say: Sehr gut!

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [12]

So, you bought a Mini.
You're a tough motherfucker!

Can I ask what part of Northern California's roads you've been out on in the Mini S? I took one from San Francisco to Yosemite two weeks ago, forgoing my mid-sixties Porsche because I thought the weather would turn (it did), and I wasn't at all impressed at peak altitudes. Maybe it's that the fine folks at ZipCar don't keep their machines to a precision tuning standard, but funny enough, my first thought when I stepped on the accelerator at seven thousand feet and had to wait a few seconds before the engine responded was 'The commercials lied!'.

Thank you Click & Clack. Mid-life crisis much? I'd like to say that my (Y) Generation is trying to move beyond car culture, but every time a Boomer finances a Fast and Furious or Transformers or writes an article like this one, we digress. Can't you guys just keep that shit within the AARP circle? We're trying to build a new society over here and every time you pop your head in and say "remember this!?" the ADHD you've prescribed us kicks in and we just want to be Children of Marx and Coca-Cola again... But we don't, really. We're the neo-Multitude and we want our post-industrial society to FEEL like a post-industrial society. So save the auto-automasterbatory sessions for the nursing home, please.
Max Fischer

I've had my MINI for three years now and I couldn't be happier, congrats.
Bijan Berahimi

You do so many things well ... why would you start doing car reviews badly?

Such hostility over a well-thought article on design. That hostility could only come from those who have never experienced the joy of a truly well-designed and beautiful automobile.

And to Max, you're actually trying to speak on behalf of entire generation? Good luck with that. I have seen more of Generation Y driving Camaros and Mustangs than Generation X or the Baby Boomers. Just shows good taste and appreciation, not brainwashing.

A beautiful article. A fan of cars myself, I rarely get a chance to discuss the topic with fellow designers. Thank you.
I have always wondered what other colleagues drive, or just would like to... Mini Cooper is a very tasteful choice.
(AM V8/2008 RR/Volvo S80)

More energy- and capital-intensive extraction of diminishing resources for my amusement please! I rilly rilly want to go fast!
Mark Barnette

I agree with Max. The cats who get puffed chests from their cars have kids (and grandkids) who get puffed chests from their computers, iPhones, aluminum portfolios, etc. Seriously, let YOU define you, not your stuff!
John Mindiola III

My very old and frail neighbor lady drives a bright blue PT Cruiser, which she insists upon telling me about each time we cross paths. Maybe she's hoping to pick up burly men in fedoras wielding tommy guns in the Target parking lot.
Dan Patton

My human antenna always send me vibes to go where sport cars are.. Being in california make it worth the while to watch those porsche GT roar into action.. I appreciate your post, mate! capital WOW!

well this is a great one i want to get info about this article and maybe used as an example because im making a site about typhoons like typhoon dodong

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