Hard as it might be to imagine but there was a time in the evolution of the motor car when quirky wasn’t quirky at all. Nowadays cars are homogenous and standard, generally universally competent and mostly finding the same solutions to the age old problem of getting from A to B. Since we now know what works anything that takes a slightly different approach must be odd. Ergo, quirky.
In the 1960s, the heyday of quirky, it wasn’t like that at all. Despite 60 years of perfecting car design, the world’s motor makers couldn’t decide on the best approach. So some countries decided that the engine should go at the back. Others insisted on putting it under what traditionalists would describe as the bonnet. At the front. You could have rear wheel drive or, if you were truly daring, front wheel drive. Suspension could be springs, hydropneumatics or some sort of combination of rubber and cones.
Today we recycle quirky cars like the Fiat 500 and Mini by creating distinctly mainstream, unquirky cars. And lots of people buy them, happy in the knowledge that they’re different rather than quirky, which after all is a close relative of crazy.
But the Fiat 500 and the Mini, of course, weren’t crazy. They were clever. Unlike their modern cousins they didn’t favour form over function: for these city cars function dictated form. And that’s not quirky.
We’ve just added a 1966 Fiat 500 to our fleet and it’s been interesting to compare and contrast it with the Mini. Both cars tore up the rule books, creating different but equally innovative answers to old problems. Fiat and Austin set out to create cheap city cars to mobilise urban families and grow the ‘second car’ market. The Mini went front wheel drive and front engine, a marvel of packaging that is still marvellous today.
Fiat put the engine and drive at the back, opting for just 500ccs to power its lighter, smaller car. Despite its compact dimensions the Fiat can still seat four and has space for about the same luggage as the Mini. If you put it on the roof, or your lap, of course.
Put them side by side and the fundamental differences seem less important. The Mini is more comfortable, less utilitarian, but they’re both extremely simple cars with the bare minimum of equipment. Both cars were designed with roughly the same aim in mind, but they take radically different paths to achieving it.
This is quite different from the world we live in now. Back in the 50s when the Fiat and Mini were conceived, design could innovate in fundamental ways: in packaging, in mechanical layout and utilisation of space. Designers had to work within tighter limits of technology and knowledge but this enabled them to push boundaries.
Modern cars have bucketloads of innovative technology to keep their occupants safe and comfortable. But the fundamental nature of car design is no longer really changing. The arguments around how a car should be designed have been won – fwd or rwd, front engine or rear engine, clever space packaging and so on are no longer fundamental decisions. The Fiat and Mini were clean sheet designs. We rarely create clean sheet designs today. They also weren’t quirky, they were clever. But if a modern manufacturer proposed a rear engined micro car it would be labelled quirky, rather than simply new or clever. We’ve become too shackled to the mainstream.
Modern cars aren’t rubbish or boring. But they don’t move the game on like the Fiat 500 or Mini or, in fact, a whole swathe of 60s cars. The last big leap forward was the MPV which, lets be honest, is not much more than a van with extra windows. Modern developmenta in cars are innovative rather than quirky, they’re safe and evolutionary rather than Out There. Sure, we have Tesla, but a Tesla doesn’t rethink what The Car is like the Mini or Fiat 500. It polishes the boundary, it doesn’t really move it.
You can experience the Great Leap Forward in small car design by hiring Great Escape Cars’ Fiat 500 or Mini Cooper replica from £129 per day. To find out more visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733.