Archive : A Car Designer Looks at Some Problems

From Our Motoring Correspondent

Car ownership-or perhaps more accurately, the use of a car-is now regarded as almost essential by an increasing section of the community. Among the many problems in the wake of this widening of the motoring public are two of the most irksome aspects of urban life today-,traffic congestion and the lack of parking space. The size and design of cars bear directly on these, of course, and it is therefore of interest to record some of the opinions on motoring today which were expressed recently by Mr Alec Issigonis, who is one of the leading car designers in Britain.

Mr Issigonis is in charge of the design department of the British Motor Corporation. and has been responsible for some of the most successful post-war cars, including the Morris Minor of which more than a million have now been made. His Mini Minor and Austin 7 (the same car, except for minor variations in trim) have caused a great deal of controversy and probably more interest than any other car in recent years. The design of these remarkable little vehicles broke away completely from the established conception of what a car should look like and how it should be laid out mechanically.

Mr Issigonis thinks that conditions today must lead to smaller cars, and that the criterion of a car’s size is how much park space it requires. People, he said, were still indoctrinated by conventional ideas with regard to cars and attached too much importance to styling. This resulted in cars being made which were unnecessarily long and wasteful of space. In the United States the styling divisions of motor manufacturers ruled the roost and engineers were subservient. The result of this was that cars had become more and more fantastic in shape and size until some effort was made to arrest this trend by the introduction of the so-called “compact car”.

By this was meant a reduction in length of from perhaps 18ft. to about 16ft. In the case of the Mini-Minor the reduction had been from about 12ft. to 10ft. and this, Mr Issigonis felt, was what was really meant by compactness. He was, however, careful to add that the Americans were now concerning themselves with the problem of producing small cars, and whereas a few years ago he would not have expected them to be successful today it was different.

Asked about the trend towards increasing performance and higher speeds, Mr Issigonis said that these were the logical outcome of technical progress and were inevitable. He thought that now we were beginning to build roads which were designed to meet the requirements of motorists we should make cars which would cruise at high speeds with little effort. This raised the question of engine noise, to which Mr Issigonis thought much attention would have to be given.

One could tackle the problem at source by insulation (this was expensive) and by the reduction of engine speed. This was desirable, anyway, when driving for long periods on fast roads like motorways. As this form of motoring became more general, five-speed gearboxes might well be required. With regard to springing and suspension systems, Mr Issigonis said he was in favour of keeping the design as simple as possible. He agreed that remarkable results had been obtained on some continental cars, with complex designs using air and pressurized hydraulic systems, but he did not feel happy about the complication involved, and in any case for an inexpensive car the cost was much too high.

With the Mini-Minor the rubber suspension gave a rather firm ride, which he thought was preferable, because of the good roadholding it achieved, to a mere feeling of physical comfort which could be obtained with softer springing but which soon gave way to nervousness on the part of passengers if the car swayed about and lacked directional stability.

On the subject of rear-engined cars, Mr Issigonis said that they presented very difficult problems with regard to handling. These arose because the changes in load caused by the variation in the number of people in the car had a much greater effect on the handling characteristics when the engine was at the rear. He thought that the success of the Volkswagen- was due, to a considerable extent, to the fact that it was the only car produced by the firm which made it and this made it possible to give intense attention to detail.

Getting back to what sort of cars the public wanted, Mr Issigonis said people would always be willing to buy good looking, fashionable cars but, like smart clothes, these needed to be changed quite frequently. It was not very difficult to sell attractive styling, but to sell engineering was not easy. If this could be done, however, the reward was high.

Many motorists think that by putting the highest grade of petrol in their tanks they will, perforce, get more power from the engines of their cars. There is a popular misconception that the higher the octane figure the more “powerful ” the fuel. The compression ratio of the engine is the most important factor in deciding which grade of petrol an engine requires for optimum performance. Most British cars made in recent years have engines with a compression ratio of between 7 and 8 to 1 and these, in general, will run most satisfactorily on the ” premium” grade” of petrol.

This usually has an octane rating of about 95 or 97 The ” super” grades, which have an octane figure of 100 or more, are only really required by higher compression engines. The octane figure has little significance unless related to the compression ratio. In general, if an engine is running on any given grade of petrol without “pinking “, then there is little to be gained by using a fuel with a higher octane rating.

Keith Adams

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