James May

James on urban cars

James on urban cars

Let's imagine, for a moment, you were charged with designing a deadly serious car; let's say a new V8 mid-engined Ferrari.

Would you sculpt its flanks, taper its nose, allow its body to undulate so that it appeared to be hanging from its wheels rather than sitting on them, and put a transparent cover over the engine bay? Probably. And would you then give it an idiotic, gormless face? Thought not.

Proper cars are never oochy-coochy-coo, and that's a fact. Name me one. You can't, see? Rolls does not make a cute Phantom and when BMW launches a new sports car it does not tell its draughtsmen that they can do anything they want as long as it's a real sweetie.

This brings me to the Riversimple Urban Car. Stupid name, but I quite like the look of it. You may not have come across it, so here's a picture.

There's a lot I like about this. It's a fuel-cell car for a start, and I think fuel cells are, in effect, the future batteries of electric cars. It has a motor in each wheel, regenerative braking to save pad wear, capacitors to store excess electricity for rapid acceleration and so on.

So the top speed is only 50mph, but hang on a minute. Clever people know that, in the real world, small cars are more fun more of the time, and this is especially true around town. The Riversimple weighs just 350kg, so it should be very chuckable. It's short, too, and the Lancia Stratos showed that shortness is good for handling. The cockpit looks very cosy, I bet the view out is good, and when you run out of hydrogen you can at least exit your stranded sustainable energy statement with dignity, through the scissor doors. I would almost go as far as to say it looks great, but not quite. At the last minute they buggered it up by giving it a nice-but-dim physog.

Now there are certain restraints imposed upon the designers of very small cars by, ironically enough, their owners. The car might be one quarter scale, but the driver will still be full size. People don't shrink just because they're driving an eco car to the shops.

"Proper cars are never oochy-coochy-coo. When BMW launches a new car it does not tell its draughtsmen to design anything they want as long as it's a real sweetie"

So a truly small car always tends to end up being disproportionately tall compared with a real car. This makes them appear a bit dumpy, and dumpiness, if we're not careful, can quickly lend an air of bless its little cotton socks. This is to be avoided. It certainly shouldn't be encouraged, as it has been here, with Thomas the Tank Engine's gob.

This sort of thing - styling a small car so it looks like an apology for being one - really annoys me, as it did on the Smart Forpetessake and the Citroen C1. It's as if the designers lost their bottle at the last minute and cracked a crap joke in the hope of being more popular. The Riversimple seems to be saying, ‘Hey, look, I know I'm not like a grown-up car but I'm only trying to be environmental, honest. And look at my cheeky little face. I'm dead happy me. How could you not love me? That would be like kicking a spaniel.'

And the tragedy is that sorting it out is a job I could do. In fact I will do it, now. At present, the Riversimple's mouth is turned up and chirpy, and 'tis the portrait of a blinking idiot.* Intelligent people don't go around grinning all the time, because it makes them look stupid and will eventually earn them a punch in the face. People who smile constantly are not afforded respect in society, and the same is surely true for cars.

But simply turn that innocuous slot up the other way and this irritating prankster of a small city runabout instantly becomes rather menacing. The same basic shape is this way up on the front of an Aston Martin for the same reason: because an Aston does not want to look like a cheesy-faced berk. And that really is all it takes to transform this comedic fashion accessory into a genuinely great-looking car.

Put it this way. As it stands, with the doors open, it looks like Mickey Mouse's head. But turn the grille up the other way and it will look like a demented fruit bat, and that's better.

Sort it out.

James May, Column

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