Wednesday, 16 May 2012

What Makes British Transport Design Unique?

The first and last Minis ever, separated by 41 years.
I wrote this for my final major project for college, and thought readers might be interested:

It's easy to spot a classic British car. As well as instantly-recognisable icons like the Mini, Jaguar E-Type, Aston Martin DB5 and the Land Rover Defender (not to mention the black taxi and Routemaster bus), our cars have always had a distinct look about them. But what is that look? What makes British transport design unique?

One word that springs to mind when looking at the iconic designs is "tradition". The Mini tried deviating from its 1959 styling in the 1970s with the square-nosed 'Clubman' and, like New Coke, it failed to strike a chord with fans and they reverted to the original, with a couple of mechanical modernisations (although "modernised" is a relative term in Mini world). The Morgan Roadster has been on sale with basically the same design for 57 years, and still finds buyers today, typically those who want an old-school British sports car, without so many frills and electronic complications - "infotainment" is not a word in Morgan's vocabulary. The same can be said for the more focused and even simpler Caterham 7 (originally a Lotus), which has also been around since the 1950s. All these cars, as well as the London taxi and Routemaster bus, have round headlights, a rounded bonnet and - in most cases - a fair share of chrome brightwork on the outside. We consider heritage very strongly in this country.

These designs have arguably become traditional simply because they've been around for so long. Because the designs and engineering are normally so good (even if build quality frequently didn't match up), that it's a case of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". The Mini was so far ahead of its time that it went on to live right through it's time until the year 2000, at which point it was Germanised. The same is true of the trusty Routemaster, which only went out of service in 2005 after 50 years of service. For the upcoming London Olympics, a design competition was held to update this particular icon to look modern in the 21st century. How do you modernise something like the classic Routemaster? In the end, the winner was Thomas Heatherwick, whose design isn't quite as retro a many entries, perhaps instead asking "what if the Routemaster was devised today?". Thus, the engine is at the back, not the front, and it's a diesel-electric hybrid for environmental reasons. Characteristics such as the round headlights, the arch in the back of the roof and the walk-on platform at the rear (including the rear staircase) have been retained, but a new asymmetrical style has been added "to reflect passenger circulation", with glass sloping down on the left side, where passengers get on and off. Black has been used where glass would be impractical to make the effect clear. This works better at the back, where the glass follows the path of the staircase.

I like it, particularly the way the windows around the back and on the right-hand side follow the path of the two staircases. The question is, does this less traditional Neo-Routemaster of sorts still look intrinsically British? Well let's go by the checklist above first. Round headlights? Check. Rounded bodywork? Well, it's round for a bus, so check. Chrome? Absent, but that's not strictly a requirement anyway. Rationally, then, it does look British. The fact that it's a red bus in London boosts its Britishness somewhat anyway, and the clever, modern, glassy design is in some ways akin to the Gherkin building, another recent piece of (increasingly) well-known British design (designed by Foster & Partners, who submitted a design for the "New Bus For London" competition, but didn't win). The environmental consciousness of its diesel-hybrid powertrain is more a sign of the times than some example of British thinking.

So we've been able to bring a traditional British design into the 21st century, but should we as a nation be sticking so rigidly to traditional ideas of "Britishness" in the first place? Jaguar did for a number of years, but it's only now they've eschewed traditional designs for a more modern interpretation of Jaguar's "Grace, Space and Pace" philosophy that their newer cars (like the new XF and somewhat controversial XJ) have, in my opinion at least, become particularly stylish and cool. It's fine to lust after the XK150s and E-Types and Mk.IIs of yesteryear, but to try and make a modern car look like one didn't really work, and the Jags of the '00s pandered to a very stereotypical image of Britain in order to please Americans, who [Ford] owned Jaguar at the time.

It does seem to be our thing though; we more than anyone else keep successful designs of the past in production for a very long time, such as the Land Rover Defender (aesthetically very similar to the 1948 original), Lotus/Caterham 7, Morgan 4/4 roadster (since 1955) and the London Taxi, which post-redesign still looks very much like the original, only with modern bumpers and a smoother bonnet. We don't always stick to tradition though, and that's where Concorde comes in.

BAC Concorde in formation with the Red Arrows display team
There are one or two historical references in the exterior of the Concorde - the triangular 'Delta Wing', er, wings also appeared on the Vulcan bomber, and they're mounted low-down on the fuselage like on the iconic Spitfire (partly to keep them out of the way of the windows and doors), but in reality, this collaboration between the British Aircraft Company (BAC), who devised the shape, and Sud Aviation of France was completely forward-thinking, and remains the only supersonic passenger plane ever made and used by airlines. Its one and only crash caused the cripplingly-expensive plane to be taken out of service in 2003 after 34 years of service as the pinnacle of air travel, reserved for those lucky few who could afford it. The signature pointed nose was designed for aerodynamic efficiency, penetrating the air as smoothly as possible and blending into the deliberately-narrow fuselage to minimise drag (air resistance), while being able to droop downwards when landing the plane to improve pilot visibility. While it suits its purpose, it also combines with the wing shape and equally pointed tail end to make probably the most elegant and streamlined-looking plane in the world. The end result looks every bit as fast as it is, and is instantly recognisable in the same way as an E-Type Jag or an Aston Martin DB5.

Powered by four Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojet engines (which also appeared on the Vulcan bomber, in a lesser form), this smooth body and the huge amounts of thrust allowed Concorde to achieve "Supercruise", or cruise at over Mach 1, which required incredible engineering to stop it tearing itself to shreds and killing everyone on board. In fact, the heat involved in breaking the sound barrier is such that the body actually gets about 6 feet longer! The fact that it can break the sound barrier regularly and safely while passengers relax quietly in luxury on board is really what seals it as one of the greatest aeroplanes ever made. Small wonder the Bugatti Veyron, which can exceed 250mph (~400km/h) without breaking a sweat, is compared to the Concorde so often.

So when we break away from tradition, we often make more of an impact. It's all very well making a building look like a Tudor abbey, and historic buildings like Big Ben are a great asset to us, but when you can make it like The Gherkin or the Olympic stadiums, why not be original? Otherwise, we'll be limiting ourselves forever. Jaguars, for example, would forever be designed to look like cars from the 1950s/60s, which wouldn't make sense in the future when they're powered by hydrogen or can fly. The counter argument is that our iconic designs are the enduring classics from decades ago that evolved very slowly over time, and to ignore them would be to do them a terrible disservice and ignore our heritage. Perhaps combining the two, like the "New Bus For London" mentioned above, is the best combination, reimagining a successful and/or iconic concept to suit the 21st century, combining much-prided tradition with progress and real innovation.


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  3. nice idea.. thanks for sharing..