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

(Injured Beetle by extranoise)

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


(Pimp my Ride by StrudelMonkey)

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


(4L pour L by Kat…)

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.

11 comments on “The People’s Car?”

  1. “It’s safe to say that the Smart’s haven’t exactly changed the world.”

    kei-class cars are massive in Japan though!

    the tension you note in the city car-people’s car definition is important. in an australian context a car would have to be designed for the people. we have not had a creative engagement with what people actually need out of a car for a long time. manufacturers insist on producing cars that reproduce market segments, rather than addressing how the market demographics have shifted.

    to put it another way, why isn’t there a car for the ‘suburbs’? we’ve had the WRX on the domestic front and the rest of the grey import boom. Why can’t someone make (or sell from another market) a simple atmo rear-drive sedan with the proportions of a WRX? Why load up cars with superfluous bullshit like permanent 4wd and turbo motors? Why isn’t there a new torana or cortina? i get so annoyed at the lack of choice. basically only BMWs fit the bill.

  2. kei-class cars are massive in Japan though!

    Sure, but (a) a Smart isn’t Kei and (b) they’re a Japanese exception (c) they’re aren’t, for the most part, awesome in the same way as the cars I mentioned above are. They’re just little cars with teeny engines.

    why isn’t there a car for the ’suburbs’?

    Depends on what you mean by “suburbs” don’t it😉 If you mean something like a Torana or Cortina, the problem is that they cost just as much to develop as a new Falcadore but would have to be sold for $5-8k less. There goes the profit. Then, since they’d be a reduced size but RWD, they’ve have the problems that the BMWs have — no rear seat room and a small-ish boot (or less room than the same wheelbase FWD car anyway).

    If you look around the burbs, the cars that people choose for themselves out of what is available on the market should show what the “car for the suburbs” is. What it is, is a small 4wd wagon like a Forrester or X-Trail, or something bigger that doesn’t suck like a Territory or Kluger. Now, obviously most people don’t actually use these SUVs for off-roading and for most people most of the time, they wouldn’t do anything to activate the 4wd system (should it be “part time” style) — which is why Ford and Toyota sell so many two-wheel drive Territories and Klugers and why Honda persists with the CR-V’s weird part-time 4wd system that is more FWD than 4WD.

    So, either people seem to want smallish 4wd wagon things, probably not because of their 4WDness but because of their wagonness, I’d say. And also their relative masculinity, compared to equally, if not more, practical things like Honda’s Odyssey (sp?), Renault’s Scenci, and the now departed Mazda Premacy that seem to be perceived as emasculating. (Doesn’t stop me wanting a Premacy though.)

    The car for the suburbs exists, it’s just not what you want it to be.

  3. Hi Ben, as I understand it, the Nano was conceived to allow families to get off motorbikes and into something a bit safer for the occupants, at a price that the average Indian can afford.
    This is one of the most common sight you’ll see on India’s roads:

    ….but usually the mother is perched precariously, sidesaddle, holding a tiny baby, while the bike weaves around enormous trucks.
    In that regard I think the Nano has fulfilled its brief. It may be slightly specious to compare 1930s Germany or France with their degree of modernisation at the time and their population densities, to modern-day India, which the car is intended for. Tata was designing for affordability first and foremost.

  4. the Nano was conceived to allow families to get off motorbikes and into something a bit safer for the occupants

    Ok, I left that bit out. And, yeah, it probably fulfills the “cheap” bit, but it’s still not good in the sense that the trio above are. All it is is a small car. It’s not adaptable to other uses and it’ll be crap off of paved roads coz of the small wheels and, I’m guessing, wooden suspension.

    So, it’s great that the plan is to get people into something safer. But when most anything on four wheel is safer than a motorbike going beyond the brief to make something than can be adapted to other uses and adopted by many people would be even better.

  5. Oh they’ll adapt it, don’t you worry about that….
    Going beyond the design brief would have almost certainly taken them beyond the 1 lakh price tag, hence nullifying the whole concept.
    You’re comparing it with other cars that were designed to carry a family at 100kmh, or a crate of eggs without breaking it, or whatever the overriding concern happened to be. In this sense the Tata nano is exactly what it was intended to be, a 1 lakh modern car. Leave it to the Indian people to work out how to make it do all the other things it wasn’t specifically designed to do. They’re amazingly good at that.

    Also, it’s not even on the market yet. How is it that you’re so certain it’s NOT good? How do you know that suspension is wooden? How do you know it won’t manage to go off paved roads? Tata have been producing cars for local conditions for a while now. The cars you’ve mentioned are design icons in hindsight. The nano might join them, it might not. I think it’s way premature to judge before it’s even on the road.

  6. Your reasonable outlook and calm manner have no place here has given me much to think about.😉

    Leave it to the Indian people to work out how to make it do all the other things it wasn’t specifically designed to do. They’re amazingly good at that.

    I’m not saying it should be all things to all Indians when it comes out of the box. I just think that the way it is designed makes it harder for that adaptation to take place.

  7. “Your reasonable outlook and calm manner”

    Oh I’m sorry, you wanted an _argument_? That’s down the hall*. This is Reasoned Debate and Open-ended Rumination.

    The car definitely leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in the luggage space department. I just think that handing it a big fat FAIL before it has even been fired in anger, so to speak, might be getting a bit carried away.
    Besides which, now that they’re tooled up for it they can probably produce longer versions, or more spongy versions without hurting the price tag too badly. That will all come once the “One Lakh Car” marketability of it has made the Nano brand name a raging success (which, arguably it has done before any of the cars have even been sold)

    * Or, failing that, you’ll find what you’re after on the entire rest of the internet.

  8. Here’s another, rather different, shot at the “people’s car”, apparently:

  9. Poor old Pininfarina, trying to stay relevant.

  10. i dont quite see how the r4 can be compared to the 2cv, the 2cv came out in 1948, and was still in production in 1990! well untill july… but the r4 was just renaults answer to the 2cv, they even tried to give it a flat twin! and it has a dashboard mounted gear stick! which has always been the 2cvs original feature since the start, the 2cv had been around for over 20 years before renault came up with the r4, and the 2cv will always be classed as much better looking car, with a less complicated engine:) and a full length roof:)

    the 2cv will always be the better car! french competition, ill go with citroen, probably the reason why im a 17yr old with 2 2cvs!

  11. I’d totally agree with the comment above – you can’t compare the r4 in any way to the 2cv. Without the full length roof? …. no comparison.

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