Case For The Conventional

Whenever an unusual vehicle is reviewed by the staff of your excellent paper I have been interested in your comments that the design is “refreshing,” “interesting,” a “breakaway from the conventional,” etc. This is undoubtedly true but does it naturally follow that it is better than the normal design ?

In the development of any piece of equipment there comes a time when all practicable variations have been tried and discarded and the general design becomes standardised.

Examples of this are legion.

The magnificently impressive locomotives that head the expresses of today are merely enlargements of an engine named “The Planet,” which weighed some six tons and hauled a train at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. There are steam marine engines still being built that only an expert can recognise from those built 70 years ago, and even with diesel marine power there has been very little change for well over 30 years.

On a smaller scale the design of cash registers, typewriters, lathes and drilling machines has remained standard for generations.

Consider the newest machines of all. Are not the “SuperConnies” and Strato-Cruisers enlargements of the DC 3 which appeared a quarter of a century ago ?

It is submitted then, that until some completely revolutionary invention arrives on the scene, a design, after some years of test and development, settles down with minor improvements and variations due to the whim of the individual designer, and so we get a conventional design.

The present design of a motor car settled down about 40 years ago, after most possible arrangements of the position and type of the essential components had been tried. The front wheels were steered for obvious reasons, and the rear wheels were driven to avoid difficulties with universal joints in the steering arrangements. The engine was placed in front, in order to get the length of propeller-shaft necessary to avoid too acute an angle in the drive caused by the movement of the rear axle and to avoid interference with the seating. Four or more cylinders in line were employed for smoothness and cheapness (excluding the lightest vehicles) and water cooling was found necessary for reliability and sound-damping.

These fundamental requirements are the same today as they were 45 years ago. Engines can be placed in the rear, or even under the driver’s seat as in the Trojan. Drive can be taken to the front wheels, or all four wheels for that matter, at the risk of inaccessibility and complication. Air cooling can be used if silence is to be sacrificed. If cost is of little interest engines can be made with cylinders horizontally opposed or as a “V” (although the length of a large “in line” engine influences design here), but is there any real advantage in any of these “abnormalities” ? Was the Javelin engine better than the 1 1/2 litre Riley or Rover ? Does the Frenchman who buys his Citroen care whether his engine drives the front or rear wheels provided his car tows his trailer to market ? Won’t the owner of a D.K.W. get as tired of mixing oil and petrol as the writer used to when filling up his Levis some 30 years ago ? It is suggested that the huge sales of the VW are due, not to the fact that its engine is at the rear or is air-cooled, but to the meticulous attention that has been paid to detail design (such as door handles, instruments, hinges, seats, heating and windows) backed by an extremely efficient sales organisation.

It is pertinent to the argument that with the colossal resources for development and “experimentation,” to use Americanese, in the U.S.A., manufacturers there, after dabbling with air cooling (Franklin) and front drive (Cord), now produce millions of “conventionally-designed” vehicles per year and nothing else.

There remains the 2 c.v. Citroen. Here under the stress of supreme economy the unusual design is justified (a water-cooled four-cylinder 350 c.c. engine is hardly a commercial proposition). However its low performance surely puts it out of the range of “normal” motoring and it must be considered with ultra light vehicles of the “minicar” class.

It seems then that until some completely new form of power is produced, it may be the turbine, it may be a reversion to steam, it may be electricity supplied by a lightweight battery or some force as yet unknown, that the general design of the motor car has become standardised and, despite changes in appearance, detail improvements and the individual fads of the designers, it will be with us for many years to come.

I am, Yours, etc.,

M.E.L.F.11. R.E. Vinning (Major)

[Water-cooling surely necessitated a forward location of early power units and if air-cooling does not deaden noise, by locating such an engine at the back of the car its sound is “blown away”; and angularity of the propeller-shaft is then no problem at all !—Ed.]