The joke in my office is that… come to think of it, it’s not that funny. Anyway, so all of us with a passport have to go abroad on work at some time or the other. Which mean visas. Which mean submitting salary slips, income tax papers, bank statements. And we reckon the corporate communication teams, or PR agencies, of car companies who handle our paperwork roll on the floor laughing when they see our monthly income. It’s why I continue making a living out of borrowed cars rather than owning one. It’s why, after my driving test, the first car I ever drove wasn’t a personal Maruti 800 or a Hyundai Santro. It was an A8 from Audi’s press fleet.
Ironic. Because when I was a child, my family never owned a car. Thanks to which my first experience of personal transport was not an Ambassador or a Padmini. It was a Volkswagen Microbus belonging to our neighbour. It was the second-generation T2, bay window model. Its engine was at the rear, it was rear-wheel drive, its air-cooled engine was a pain in the Bombay heat, and it’s the first and last cool, desirable van I have ever seen.
Now, my problem is not my salary or the fact that I have never owned a car. My problem is that this planet has an utter dearth of desirable vans. And stuff like the Nissan Evalia or Toyota Innova don’t really help the case. There are parts of the world where estates are cool. Hatches are cool. Sports cars are universally cool. And if it has a big engine at the centre of it, it cracks thermometers. Even ugly SUVs are much sought after.
When it comes to vans though, the only research and development car companies are doing is over what to call them. They still haven’t settled between multi-purpose vehicle, multi-utility vehicle and people carrier. And from being beautiful, curvy things, vans are evolving into nothing more than boxes with windows and wheels. Just compare the first VW Microbus to the latest VW Multivan.
While the Microbus seems like it was sketched by a masterly hand, the Multivan – like every other van these days – looks like it was drawn by a child who is brilliant with geometry and is aching to try out his new set of rulers. Even the Matador had more curves than modern vans do.
Forget the utility or practicality. Forget the clichés about travelling on a great holiday with family and neighbours. A van is the only vehicle that can share the same layout as a Lamborghini and carry four times as many people. It’s the only car that will allow you to have an engine between the two axles and have power going to the rear wheels.
Toyota, of all people, did that with the Previa, a well-proportioned, front-mid-engine van with a flat-four engine lying rather close to the floor. A van is tall. But a lot of heavy SUVs with complicated four-wheel drive systems corner, brake and handle like cars these days. So it should be easier and cheaper to make a two-wheel drive, mid-engine vehicle that can carry a lot of people. In fact, a van could be the best handling piece of fairly mass transport if manufacturers could just take more care in making one.
My hunch is they don’t because a good van needs proper ground-up engineering. Something they can’t really do when everything shares platforms. It’s the reason why all vans are front-engine, front-wheel drive, rectangular cubes. If they make one of those close to the floor, low centre of gravity, mid-engine eight-seaters, they won’t be able to make a sedan or a hatch out of that platform.
So we can now get to Mars, have phones with quad-core processors, make 500bhp cars that offer 8-10kpl, but we can’t make a good-looking car that can transport eight people and have fun while doing it.