Last year marked the 125th anniversary of the car and 125 remarkable years since Karl Benz introduced to the world the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Although a series of clumsy, self-propelled, cart-like ‘vehicles’ were created before this, Benz’s creation is generally accepted as the world’s first automobile.
So, on the 125th anniversary of the car (easily a candidate for man’s greatest invention), let’s honour the automobile by revisiting just a few of the real duds dotted throughout its history… wait, why the duds? Why not celebrate these 125 glorious years by looking back at the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the original Mini or the first Volkswagen Beetle?
As much as these and many other models progressed the art of automotive design and engineering, the biggest lessons are often learnt when going ahead and expertly executing a design disaster, or “epic fail” as the younger generation calls them these days… since 1886, some significant catastrophes have resulted in many a valuable lesson.
The process of automotive development through trial and error began with a historic road trip undertaken by Bertha Benz (the innovative, daring wife of Karl Benz). Brave Bertha undertook a 194 km trip in an effort to demonstrate the long distance capabilities of her husband’s Motorwagen. Along the way, the fading performance of the braking system (come on, Karl, give her a brake!) gave Brave Bertha an idea – she asked a shoemaker to nail some leather onto the braking blocks and by so doing, she inadvertently invented brake lining. Today, we know the entire structure simply as “brake pads”, or the stuff that disintegrates and soils our front pair of gleaming alloys…
But a design oversight can be forgiven in the late 1880s, especially considering that many of the components we enjoy today were being used in their most rudimentary form. And, well, it was the late eighteen eighties!
A far greater setback is in creating all-new problems where before, there were none. Take, for example, the 70s AMC Pacer. Although iconic for its rounded, futuristic design cues in an era that was obsessed with boxy forms and hard-edged lines, the Pacer’s glasshouse was so expansive (especially at the rear), that passengers were brutally exposed to the sun and heat. Automotive critic Dan Neil said, “In summer, it was like being an ant under a mean kid’s magnifying glass”. Today, you’re unlikely to come across as impractical a design, especially as the hole in the ozone layer has also seen fit to expand exponentially since then…
Significant design flaws were not restricted to aesthetics in those earlier years, and beneath the (admittedly attractive) skin of the 1960-’63 Chevrolet Corvair models lurked one of the most controversial and much publicized suspension set-ups on a mass produced vehicle. The rear swing axle design resulted in significant oversteer during fast cornering and was reported to have caused several crashes – crashes often involving only the Corvair and its likely wide-eyed driver.
The Corvair’s “spirited” handling characteristics spurred author Ralph Nader to publish the book Unsafe At Any Speed in 1965, whereby Nader highlighted the resistance by car manufacturers to introduce safety features into their vehicles. In the Corvair’s case, that resistance was the exclusion of a front anti-roll bar, a feature that eventually became standard equipment on the Chev in 1964, likely because of a somewhat frenzied media and consumer backlash. While the swing axle suspension design has long since been ditched in favour of safer, more stable independent arrangements, one must admit that the Corvair sounded as if it was an absolute hoot to drive…
Fast-forward to 2002 and BMW’s E65 7 Series distressingly confronted us. But that was only the front of the car… The convoluted arrangement of its rear-end would singularly have been enough to cement this as the most controversial car of the decade, but BMW guaranteed it would be perceived as such with the adoption of the iDrive control system.
Early after the car’s launch, iDrive had approximately one technical glitch for every sub-menu, and trust me, there were a veritable surplus of those. Still, the concept was sound (a central controller performing a variety of functions for a clutter-free dashboard area) and years later, iDrive has morphed into something ergonomically functional. Audi, Mercedes-Benz and others have successfully adopted similar systems.
If the rear of the E65 7 Series was an aesthetic blunder, then as upsetting was the nondescript appearance of all Korean cars up until, what, a few months ago? Suddenly, you hear people muttering “did you see the latest Kia?” or “wow, the new Elantra is so sexy”.
It has taken the Koreans decades to grasp that value for money and incredibly competent and well-engineered cars do not make for sustained brand interest and high sales volumes. Thank goodness, because trying to pick the most mind-numbing Korean vehicle was becoming a tricky little game.
Now, design chiefs with impressive track records (yes you, Peter Schreyer) are replacing staid Korean blobs of metal with cohesive, distinctive lines, allowing the prowess and technological advances within to better stand out.
On a more serious note, it is a delight to know that should the worst happen, most new cars are hell-bent on saving your life. Where current airbag designs work in tandem with a variety of systems to deploy appropriately, airbags in the early 1970s sometimes caused injury. Similarly, Mercedes’ A-Class had a rough start to life after falling over itself during the infamous elk test – an embarrassing recall took place and electronic stability control was fitted to all models. End result? We all benefitted from a safer, more controlled vehicle.
So, to 125 years of designers, engineers, technicians and marketing lads, thank you for repeatedly screwing things up to provide us, the consumer, with a truly tried and tested machine of superior ability – even if we had to do some of the trying and testing ourselves.