James May

Etch a Volvo illustration

Game on

This article was first published in Top Gear magazine in November 2005.

For several weeks now, I’ve been beavering away at my desk working on a project completely unrelated to Top Gear. I’ve been asked by the BBC to make a one-hour Christmas special about toys, and I have to admit that I’m enjoying myself immensely.

Toys are nostalgic, evocative and, above all, still great fun. Scalextric, for example, is really nothing more than an elaborate way of connecting the terminals of a 12-volt transformer to an electric motor. If sir had pointed out that this phenomenon was the basis of all domestic motor racing, the physics lab would have been a happier place.

Likewise the train set, which works in exactly the same way. I love a good train set, and a collection of Dinkies, a Mamod steam engine and a really big box of Meccano or Lego. These things are magical and offer an immediate and welcome respite from the tedium of adulthood.

The downside of all this, however, is that I’m reminded of some truly tedious toys that I’d rightly forgotten. Action Man, for example, who may have had realistic hair and gripping hands but always wore the same grim-faced expression even after his parachute had failed to open and he’d lost a limb among the rockery. Subbuteo – a stupid game played on a football pitch with a big crease running down the middle. And does anyone remember something called Tin Can Alley? It was an early electronic toy, featuring a Winchester rifle that fired a beam of light. When you pointed it at plastic ‘tin’ cans on a plastic wall, they fell off through some electromechanical trickery. It was rubbish. The gun had no effect on your brother or domestic animals, and it was attached to the wall by a long wire. So if you wanted to take it over the woods to play hunting you had to take the wall and the cans with you.

And then there was Etch A Sketch. I’d completely forgotten about Etch A Sketch, the drawing device with two knurled wheels and a grey screen. But then a neighbour lent me his old one, so I sat down with a glass of scotch and prepared to design a Volvo.

I know what you’re thinking: Volvo’s aren’t like that any more. They’re cool and curvaceous. And you’d be right; they’ve been that way ever since a bloke called Peter Horbury strode into the Volvo HQ in Gothenburg, slapped a set of French curves on the table and pronounced them the future of design. It was a bold move that paid off. Look at the V70 estate – full of subtle curves.

But I would still contend that the most important Volvo ever made, the definitive model locked in the minds of cartoonists, was the 244 of the Seventies. You don’t remember the 244? It was the car that established Etch A Sketch as the automotive design tool of pre-digital Sweden. This is a joke Volvo is rather bored with, I suspect.

“You don’t remember the 244? The car that established Etch A Sketch as THE automotive design tool of pre-digital Sweden” 

Undeterred, however, I got down to work. Because it struck me that, of all Europe’s car makers, Volvo is one of only a few that hasn’t been openly raiding its design archive for inspiration. Everyone else is at it – they dig out a load of old blueprints, find a wheelarch shape, a grille or a headlight treatment that looked good, then slap it on the latest design.

And after a while I realised why Volvo designers aren’t doing this. It’s because they can’t find the Etch A Sketch. They can’t find it because it’s in the loft. It was put in the loft because it’s crap.

It all came back to me pretty quickly. If I remember rightly, the box lid showed the Etch’s screen replete with a joyous Arcadian scene comprising a house, trees, grass, fluffy clouds and a bird flying through the sky. These days, they would be sued for it. You can’t draw that with one of those. You can only draw a box.

So you might just manage the house after days of painstaking wheel-work. But then, as you tackled the first cloud, you would merely leave a hideous spidery scrawl across the screen. This is when you discovered a serious shortcoming of the system. You couldn’t just rub out that bit. You had to turn the thing over, give it a shake and erase the lot. One wrong turn of a wheel was the equivalent of that over-confident hammer blow that had the Venus de Milo’s arm off.

Another problem was that I never discovered any means of removing the pointer from the back of the screen. There was some rumour going around the teenage grapevine in 1970 that you could press on the back while turning the wheel, or something like that, and move the tool to a new position. But this never worked for me. If you wanted to be somewhere else on the screen, you had to draw your way there.

Every component of an Etch A Sketch sketch was thus joined to every other one, like the parts on the moulding sprue of an Airfix model. So even if you did draw a bird flying in the sky, it would be attached to the ground by a long pole.

Later that night I took one to bed with me and continued my tireless work. Eventually, of course, I nodded off. At about five in the morning I awoke, the bedside light still blazing, the radio still blaring, and the forgotten plaything face-down on the duvet. I lifted it up to survey the night’s work, and through bleary eyes noticed that I’d drawn a load of boxes.

Any artist will tell you that there are no straight lines in nature. There aren’t many in car design either, to be honest. Meanwhile, there are no curves on Etch A Sketch. This is the crux of the issue. You can only draw a series of boxes which, curiously, was what the Volvo 244 amounted to.

I said that the Volvo 244 established Etch A Sketch as a design tool, but actually I got that wrong. The Volvo 244 was the only artefact on the planet that justified the existence of the otherwise useless toy; the only thing that could be rendered convincingly on its screen.

Whatever you tried to draw, you got a Volvo 244 anyway. And even then it didn’t have any wheels.


James May, Column, Volvo

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