This is the third essay in a collection of twelve written by Byron Ferris for the "Design Sense" feature of the Sunday Northwest Magazine insert of The Oregonian during 1984 and 1985. – Ed.
I like my car, and I like the design of it. I don't mean just the outside appearance – that's for others to see when I'm driving the car. All I see is the hood. That's nice – a nice color. But it's the inside that's so satisfying.
The wheel's in the right place, and the bucket seat is comfortable, perhaps the most comfortable chair I own. The floor has deep carpeting, and all the glittering dials in front of me give me a sense of control. The radio is excellent, and the stereo tape player, with its good speakers at either side of the dash bouncing sound off the hard surface of the windshield, gives me the best personal sound system I can think of.
Altogether, my car has an admirable design as a comfort and entertainment environment, all very soothing and relaxing as I speed along the highway driving the most dangerous piece of equipment most of us come in contact with in ordinary living.
Automobile design has traveled a good many road miles since Karl Benz drove the first benzine-powered car in 1885 Germany. His auto had some sensible design innovations – two drive wheels in back, but a single wheel in front linked to a steering lever. Though the single wheel for steering sounds sensible, the idea didn't last very long. The bad roads of the time caused the three-wheeler to waver, and Benz's competitor, Gottlieb Daimler, soon produced a four-wheel car.
Innovation is hard to come by in car design. Today's cars are still essentially boxes with wheels at the four corners, in the tradition of the horse-drawn wagon. In the lobby of the Boyd Coffee Co. out on Northeast Sandy Boulevard sits a fine example of the bare-bones American Model T Ford. It is a joy to examine simply because you can see how it works. The steering wheel linkage is apparent under the engine box, and the braking mechanism looks as though it just came out of the carriage works. Henry Ford designed the Model T in 1909 and sold over 15 million of them.
Just across the lobby is a 4/5ths model of Boyd's original horse-drawn red delivery wagon of 1900. Comparing the wagon and the Model T makes it rather obvious that Henry just left off the horse.
Now here's a thought: Benz, Daimler and Ford might better have used the sailboat as a model, rather than the wagon. The hay wagon was fine for horse speeds, but now that we're driving our four-cornered wagons at 55 miles per hour, the blunt fronts and backs don't make much sense.
Wouldn't you feel safer driving along at 55 in a boat-shaped car with those strangers in the oncoming lane also driving pointy- front cars? Having a head-on collision would be quite difficult. The cars would slide past each other, perhaps scuffing the door handles, but the traveling energy would be deflected rather than stopped in a pile of ugliness. And with a pointed-front car, a driver would need considerable steering skill to hit a tree or a lamp post.
Boat hulls are some of the most beautifully designed objects of the world, because they are shaped, naturally, to lessen water resistance. The shapes, of course, also can lessen air resistance on land. Translated to road talk, that means better gas mileage.
Can you imagine speeding along the freeway in your shipshape four-wheeled car, part of a beautiful flotilla – the trucks looking like glamorous ocean liners – perhaps joined by a few confused salmon swimming up 80N to spawn? I think I'd feel a lot more relaxed and safe, because my pointy rear end would protect me from a lethal highway pile-up, I'm sure.
Innovation is still hard to come by in automotive design. Trading the technical images between marine design and the horse and buggy could be a big step.
Pinch welcomes your commentary. We have only one rule: don't be a douche. Oh, and watch your spelling and grammar. Because we'll deliberately miss the point of your comment and comment on those, instead.