The People’s Car?
At the beginning of the year, the Tata Nano was launched with much fanfare. It’s a small, one-box, rear engined “people’s car”.
The basic design has more than a passing resembalance to the Smart/Mercedes forTwo which is also rear-engined. It’s safe to say that the Smart’s haven’t exactly changed the world. And let’s not forget the (in)famous Smart forTwo “moose test” rollover. Of course a rollover is almost inevitable if you have a high, narrow car and fling it about.
Some people have compared the Nano to other great city cars (as opposed to people’s cars) of the past, particular the Mini and the Fiat 500 or, more accurately, to the new Mini and new 500 — modern incarnations which are sad parodies of city cars. The modern “Mini” is too big to be a proper city car and is really a sort of upright sporty hatchback. The 500, at least, is quite small (apparently, as they’re not on-sale in Oz) but so are non-retro things like Toyota’s Yaris.
A better comparison of the Nano to other cars would be to great people’s cars of the past, which are simpler than the Mini and 500, and intended for a population making the transition to cars. Even more particularly cars designed for sub-optimal roads should be sought out. To find small, affordable, cars designed for poor roads you need to look to Europe just after WWII. I’m thinking of three cars, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Citroen 2CV and the Renault 4.
The Beetle (nb: it was never officially the Beetle, until the “New Beetle” came along, a poor parody of the original) was not really intended for use of poor roads. Hitler commissioned it before the War for use on the new Autobahn system with the brief that it be able to carry a family of four at 100km/h. Pre-1940, that was ambitious. Ferry Porsche decided that the most efficient means of packaging four people and an engine was with a horizontally-opposed rear-engined two-and-a-half box sort of arrangement. The Beetle is a whimsical shell to wrap that particular style of mechanics in, given that the much more conventional, though less successful, Type 3 had the same basic mechanical layout under conventional three-box sedan, notchback and wagon designs. That the same basic layout is still used in the more expensive Porsches is triumph of nostalgia over sense and of engineering over physics.
The Beetle, though, isn’t really designed for poor roads, rally use and dune-buggies notwithstanding. A Beetle doesn’t have a great deal of ground clearance, and with the engine hanging out behind the back axle, it’s vulnerable to damage. And don’t forget the early Beetle’s swing-axle rear suspension which has a tendency to tuck under the car during forward weight transfer, resulting in always unwelcome, occaisionally disasterous, nigh-unrecoverable lift-off oversteer.
Engineering “people’s cars” which are inherrently dangerous should be sternly frowned upon.The plus points for the Beetle are that it was pretty simple, it was cheap and it had great marketing.
The Citroen 2CV
The finest poor-road people’s car is the Citroen 2CV. A possibly apocryphal story is that the design brief was for a car that could carry a carton of eggs over an freshly ploughed field and not break any. I’m not sure if anyone’s ever tested to see if the goal was met, but the 2CV sure does have soft suspension, ideal for traversing Frech rural roads and inner-city cobblestones alike.
The 2CV has a twin-cylinder engine, like the Nano. Unlike the Nano, the 2CV’s lump is a horizontally-opposed design of radical symplicity — among other things it has no head gaskets.
The 2CV was produced for many years but was also made over into other models, none of which lasted as long as the 2CV or are as loved. The most notable are the Dyanne and Ami which are agressively modernist especially when to the 2CVs charming art-deco lines. Other variations included various delivery-type vans and the plastic-bodied Méhari.
Unlike the Nano, the 2CV is appealing and solves more than one problem.
The Renault 4
The Renault 4 is, in many ways, a better 2CV. It’s more powerful (as in, it has adequate power, rather than nowhere near enough in the 2CV), arguably more practical and given the number still seeing daily duty in north Africa and the middle east, more robust.
Like the 2CV the R4 has long-travel soft suspension, all the better for dealing with country potholes and city curbs. And, like the 2CV, the R4 was designed with consideration of carrying loads. Like the 2CV the R4 also came in a variety of configurations, the oft-seen 4-door wagon and 2-door van being most common.
Back to the Nano
The Nano, on the other hand, appears to have no load carrying ability at all. Poor form.
Yes, it’s cleverly engineered. The fuel-injected engine is quite sophisticated. But I don’t think a tiny-wheeled high-and-narrow city car will be looked upon with the affection of the Beetle, the 2CV or the R4. Or even the Hindoostan Ambassador.
Perhaps that’s the problem. The Beetle, the 2CV and, to a lesser extent, the R4, are all design icons. They look good, but they also solve the problems that the designers decided to tackle. What’s more, by virtue of solving some very specific problems, the trio become more than their brief and are able to be thought of in new ways, to have those specific uses extended and transformed in use. The Nano, on the other hand, is sort of weird looking, and has space to seat four people. And that’s not enough.