Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

Looking back to the future

Annual RCA/RAC design awards bring car designers present and future together to consider the past

What does a futuristic veteran car look like? I saw some ideas at the RAC’s London clubhouse recently (what a wonderful building –
if you’re not a member, find one and ask them to show you through the oval porticoed hall, always with a car on display, and down to the most lavish pillared and gilded swimming pool you’ll ever see). Here the Club and the Royal College of Art (RCA) announced the winners of their joint Continental Connection design competition, one of 29 events in the RAC’s London Motor Week that culminates in the Brighton Run. Hence the veteran car link.

What do the RCA’s transportation students, the guys who will be designing your 2030 transport, have to learn from veteran cars? The brief, Clive Birch of the RCA tells me, was to “Deconstruct a European veteran car and recreate it as a modern sustainable, connected and autonomous future car for 2026.” 

Going this far back reminds us there are features we’ve chosen not to carry on from pioneer days – face-to-face seating or shareable steering, for example. Yet here were devices based on a Peugeot vis-à-vis, seating four people on two companionable facing sofas, one inspired by a Mercedes Simplex boasting a long bonnet with two rear-facing seats that also make a travel bed, and another with a raisable cabin to recapture a veteran’s high viewpoint. One even carried on the Benz Velo’s huge spoked wheels – and its leisurely top speed.

The ‘connected’ element isn’t about Bluetoothing your music but integrating the vehicle into traffic systems. Birch says that today’s RCA courses are “not so much about the vehicle as the user and the journey”. In fact, in future you may not have ‘a’ vehicle so much as access to a variety of transport options – such as Yang Liu’s winning urban transport concept, an electric ‘rickshaw’ for two suspended between large spindly wheels. Either occupant can steer with a flat wheel. I can see the connection to the Benz Velo, the world’s first series-production car, but what, I asked Yang, about accident protection? His passengers are practically waving their feet in fresh air. He is clearly an optimist: collision avoidance systems improve all the time, he pointed out. Perhaps by 2026 there won’t be any crashes…

Of the 27 RCA students entering, three of the four winners were Chinese and one South Korean; the world’s industrial powerbase has shifted, but the RCA remains a world-class school. This was a first-year project for these post-grads so not highly developed, yet the audience included design bods from Ford, Lotus, Jaguar, McLaren and more, keeping an eye on future talent. “These are the first steps of some clever, skilled people,” says Birch, “who one way or another are going to change your world.”

Poster perfect

As period pieces soar in price, this firm is fulfilling a yen for the glamour of the past

Blink and you’ll miss it. It’s a tiny shopfront, yet among the quirky antique shops in Pimlico Road, Pullman Editions stands out for its strong graphic wares. Skiers in blue against stark white mountains, a red Alfa by a topaz lake – that’s the language of this small company whose output is travel and motoring posters with all the style of the 1930s. I stopped off there to hear about it from la patronne, Georgina Khachadourian.

It’s easy to buy modern reprints of period posters, as Georgina agrees, “But they’re mass-produced on cheap paper. Ours are original artworks, printed on quality cotton
paper and all limited editions.” 

The idea sparked in 2010 when Georgina was working with husband Simon in Pullman Galleries, his automobilia business. “Prices for original 1920s and ‘30s posters were soaring, yet many people simply admired the style so we decided to produce original work in the same vein.” 

That meant choosing the right artist. Their principal ‘house artist’ is commercial illustrator Charles Avalon. “That’s what works best,” she tells me. “Illustrators work to a brief. He understands the Art Deco feel we’re aiming for. Most people buy these as decorative pieces, so style and colour are important.” Looking around the gallery with its soaring ceiling I can see that whatever the subject, the feel and the palette is consistent throughout the three collections, which cover great cars, resorts and winter sports.

The creative process is two-way: Georgina shows me roughs and first draughts as she and Avalon work up the finished image – in this case cyclists in the Alps. First she identifies a new subject, makes a rough layout sketch and suggests some period imagery from posters, magazines or photos which conveys the impression she wants. Avalon produces a draught (above) and, after revising, paints the chosen final image in acrylic before it goes for traditional litho printing, always in a single edition of 280, all the same size, all the same price. “Although we sometimes do small digital versions to fit the cabin walls on someone’s boat,” Georgina adds.

Because they are not copying anything, Pullman could choose any subject. As Georgina points out there were never marque posters at the time, yet these are a top seller now. 

“Also there are ski resorts now that didn’t exist in the Thirties, and we get individual commissions too.” She shows me tempting posters for a sun-washed Bermuda hotel and the odd event such as the Villa d’Este concours. With 110 posters in the current range they only produce a few new designs a year. 

What’s next? “Apart from a film poster I can’t tell you about [she did, but I can’t tell you] we plan more recent Ferraris and other supercars, but still in the same style.” It’s about recapturing the glamour of a past time, of open cars, sunshine, palm trees. And of course imagining having enormous wealth to enjoy it all.

Remembering Len

Memorial unveiled to winning designer Len Terry

Good to hear that engineer and designer Len Terry, who died in 2014, is being commemorated at Goodwood circuit. Most famously the designer of the Indianapolis-winning Lotus 38 and the beautiful Eagle Grand Prix car, as well as a squad of Lotuses, Gilby, BRM and others, Terry also developed his own successful Terrier cars. Now thanks to Lawrence Sufryn, who has owned and raced five Terriers and is curating Len’s drawings, a bench has been dedicated to his memory opposite the Stewart pavilion. Lord March joined Sufryn and Len Terry’s fiancée Pat Seeger (they got engaged at the age of 90!) to install the bench with its memorial plaque. A keen cyclist well into his 80s, Len was always good value to talk to and cheerfully considered being sacked twice by Colin Chapman something of an accolade.

Print plaudits

It wasn’t easy to choose a ‘best book’, but we had an audience awaiting a result…

Another prime event in the RAC’s London Motor Week was the award for the RAC Motoring Book of the Year, for which I am one of the judges. This was another busy evening, including a conversation between two prolific motoring authors – Graham Robson and Karl Ludvigsen – about Karl’s busy career. Amazing to remember that, as well as producing a large stack of car books, he was also a Ford vice-president overseeing European motor sport. After that a panel of book writers and sellers debated the book business – including that struggle between the niche subject and the big-selling Christmas pot-boiler. The conclusion was that despite the lure of quick-hit website material, print books will continue to thrive – the ethos at the core of the RAC’s award. An e-book can’t be treasured like a hefty volume – and as technology marches on you may not be able to view your DVD book in a few years.

Choosing a single winner is always hard, and this time we eased our task by deciding to award two prizes: the overall winner would have to be ‘affordable’ – which we decided would be up to £70 – but we would also reward an equally worthy work regardless of price. 

Porter’s ever impressive Great Cars series featured again on the short list with Ian Wagstaff’s Maserati 250F: Autobiography of 2528, we had a novel for the first time – Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker, Clare Hay’s Bentley: The Vintage Years continued her unceasing research, and I really enjoyed Colin Crabbe’s Thrill of the Chase memoir of car-hunting. But we all agreed that Brian Redman’s superb Daring Drivers, Deadly Tracks took racer memoirs to a new level, and we awarded him the overall accolade. And for a feat of research, Jonathan Woods’ Squire: The Man, the Car, the Heritage bowled us over. Luckily, at £100 it fitted our new ‘price no object’ award. Pleasingly, Roy Palmer had parked his Squire, one of only seven built, outside the Club, in a bay like any Mondeo…

Though Redman was in the USA, during the post-event dinner he texted to say he was “amazed and elated”. A nice chap to boot.