Popular car magazines came to America fairly late, toward the end of the Forties. Yes, Road & Track appeared in 1947, but only six issues trickled out by December 1949, when continuous monthly publication began. Motor Trend started in September 1949. As a schoolboy I started collecting those old magazines, so very different from car publications intended for garage owners and parts stores. What I learned by assiduous reading was that everything wrong with cars at the time was the fault of “stylists.” Uncle Tom McCahill in Mechanix Illustrated told us that a sports car should have MG TC-inspired spear-like clamshell fenders, totally ignoring aerodynamics or safety, and the new car magazines all repeated the charge that stylists were to blame for wallowing suspensions, inadequate brakes, and whatever other vices they could turn up as inherent in all American cars.
When, in the middle Fifties, I became one of those dreaded “Detroit stylists,” I learned that as a group, we had very little indeed to do with the dynamic characteristics of cars. We were in effect exactly what many engineers insisted we were: cake decorators. I think it reasonably safe to say that nothing we did in our assigned work had consequences in the on-road behavior of cars made in the U.S. But it was also noticeable that we were the ones who were driving the few imported cars one saw on the streets of Detroit, infecting the populace with the idea that there were other ways to make cars. In my brief career as a big-company guy in the Fifties, I had four different — very different — German cars, three with rear engines, one with front-wheel drive and three cylinders, and I never owned a domestic product.
All that is preamble to saying that today, I think stylists really are directly responsible for a great deal that is wrong with modern cars. This view came in a flash as I looked at the Mini Rocketman concept car in Geneva. I was with Adrian Van Hooydonk, whose singular point of view about design I have admired since he was a student back in 1992. As he detailed multiple clever, charming, or practical features of the little car (still a lot bigger than Issigonis’s original late-Fifties classic), it came to me that a lot of the car’s footprint was absorbed by the wheel wells. If you look at the Rocketman from above, as the Union Jack roof structure encourages you to do, you realize that the rear wheel wells are long and wide, the front ones just as long and even wider, to allow steering.
One of the keys to the first Morris Mini Minors and Austin Se7ens (yes, they really did spell it that way) was the use of ten-inch wheels and narrow tires. The cars were ten feet long, eighty percent of the overall length was given to passenger accommodation, and the engine sat on top of the gearbox to save more length. The Minis were uncomfortable with their awkward driving position (selected by Issigonis to “keep drivers alert”) and rubber-cone suspension, but they were great for using almost all of the footprint for the people within. Later models went to 12-inch wheels, but with lower-profile rubber so the tire diameter did not change appreciably, and any increase in tire tread width had to be added to the overall width — there was no room for bigger tires within the original body module.
When I read road tests in British, European and — sometimes — our own magazine, I see comments to the effect that the optional, stylist-approved and championed, big wheels and tires totally screw up the ride, and even sometimes the handling. It’s all very well to be excited by 600-hp machines that will exceed reasonable (130 kph, 82 mph) speed limits three times over, but most cars are, if not really just “transportation appliances,” meant to carry the owners and their families and/or significant others in reasonable comfort and calm. Low-profile fat tires get in the way of that primary function, and I’d like to see it stop.
We need smaller tire diameters, higher tire sidewalls, and better space utilization in our daily driver cars. I’ve no objection to super hot dog variants of basic sedans like the Ford Focus, but it’s too bad that there isn’t a bit more room in the “civilian” models, gained by, dare I say it, smaller and better tire and wheel combinations and much smaller wheel houses. Twenty-inch wheels and 25 percent section heights may look really cool in sketches and magazine photography, but in practice they¹re pretty stupid on real-world cars.