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Opinion: despite the pace of change in the car world, some things stay the same

Yes, times are a-changing, but not so fast as we might all imagine

Published: 27 Mar 2023

There’s an old Mini parked on the street in front of my house. Mid-Seventies vintage, in a shade of yellow I believe British Leyland called ‘Citron’, and the rest of us would call ‘Berocca Alarm’. Hasn’t moved for the last week or so, quite possibly because it’s suffered terminal mechanical decline. 

Spotting the Mini for the first time, tucked surreptitiously into a lineup of Qashqais and Kugas and X3s, I wish I could say my first thought was, “My goodness, what a stellar example of British engineering genius”. But it wasn’t. My first thought was, “Wow grandad, you look proper old”.

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Unsurprising, I guess. The Mini’s wearing an old N-plate, which means it was registered in 1974, which means it’s nearly half a century old. In car years, that’s basically prehistoric. 

And conceptually it’s older still. The Mini launched in 1959, and barely changed in its first 15 years. It’s a 64-year-old design. No wonder it’s looking a bit please-just-let-me-die-in-peace.

But, as the days wore on and the Mini sat there – small, stoic, yellowing, increasing patina of pigeon crap – more thoughts occurred. First: yup, definite terminal breakdown, only way that thing’s moving is on the back of a truck. But also: in the grand sweep of history, maybe it’s actually shaping up pretty well?

Because go backwards 64 years from 1959, and you end up in 1895. The big automotive launch of 1895 was something called the De La Vergne, a six-seat, 8bhp “motor drag”. If you can’t picture the De La Verge, fear not, nor can literally any other human alive. Suffice to say it didn’t look like anything recognisable today as a car. It looked like a horse-drawn cart that had lost its horse. 

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Point is, the leap from De La Vergne to Mini is far, far greater than the leap from Mini to, say, Qashqai. The Nissan might be eight times the volume, but in terms of layout, mechanical configuration, even general silhouette, Mini and Qash are basically twins. (Schwarzenegger and DeVito twins, admittedly.)

I guess you wouldn’t necessarily hold up a Qashqai as the epitome of cutting edge motoring circa 2023. So let’s take something a bit more avant-garde. Hyundai Ioniq 5? OK, different fuelstuff, powertrain at the opposite end of the car, but beyond that, fundamentally still Mini-esque, no? Two-box shape, couple of rows of seats, pedals, steering wheel, all present and correct. Show an alien an old Mini, then show her the De La Vergne, and the Ioniq 5, and ask which is also a car, she’ll go for the Hyundai. 

It can feel, in these strange days, that the car landscape is shifting at impossible speed, old certainties sinking beneath the waves, strange new realities rising in their place. But cut through the noise, and the fundamentals remain unchanged. We’re not tooling around in autonomous hover-pods. Cars are still car-shaped, they’re still operated by arms and legs. Below the frantic surface, the tectonic plates shift slowly.

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