In praise of cars with personality

JASON H HARPER
Last updated 11:31 18/02/2013
The rear frame of the 1961 Morris Minor Traveller is made out of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks.
Bloomberg

HOW ODD IS THIS CAR?: The rear frame of the 1961 Morris Minor Traveller is made out of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks.

The much-loved Saab 900 was so nerdy that it was cool.
CHARACTER CAR: The much-loved Saab 900 was so nerdy that it was cool.

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As I cruised down a New Jersey interstate in a late model Infiniti, a 1971 Buick Riviera "Boattail" floated alongside.

Imagine a gargantuan two-door coupe with a shiny canted grill and a radical "V"-shaped rear. And oh, that fast-back rear window!

What an utterly shameless piece of extravagant design, showing an optimistic, hedonistic, we-won't-be-denied bravura.

That thing had personality.

My Infiniti, a conveyance stuffed with conveniences, suddenly felt a little pale. Banal.

It got me to wondering. In this age of mass production and global distribution, have we seen the last tail-lights of cars with personality? Where are the oddball autos that appeal to only a heartfelt few?

While those mid-century American cars with big fins weren't practical or even always beautiful, they sure had charisma.

Perhaps we've lost something along the way. While our cars rarely break down and are safer and more efficient than earlier autos, one has to wonder if we are now living in an age of characterless cars.

The death of Saab certainly points in that direction. The much-loved Saab 900, for instance, was so nerdy that it was cool, with a flat roof, odd angles and an ignition in the centre console. Driving a Saab was a proclamation that your marching inner drummer was actually playing a trombone.

General Motors took over full ownership of the Swedish automaker in 2000 and sucked out the remaining quirk, going so far as to develop a Saab SUV based on a Chevy Trailblazer. A decade later, GM dumped the brand, where the marketplace toyed with it until it slumped out of existence.

Citroen is also struggling, partly because the French themselves are ignoring the maker in droves. Shame.

Google the term "Citroen DS" and then goggle the sedan, produced from the 1950s to 1970s. I challenge you to find another wackadoo contraption so chock-full of unadulterated charm. Zooey Deschanel, eat your heart out.

Speaking of dysfunctional makes, the British leap to mind. Not Jaguar and the Land Rover, but Rover, Triumph and Morris. I'm surrounded by car colleagues who shamelessly adore defunct British models that I've never even heard of.

Take John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, who focuses on ruthlessly aerodynamic and efficient modern vehicles. He owns a 1961 Morris Minor Traveller, a car his dad originally bought new in London.

How odd is this car? The rear frame is made out of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks. It requires, he said, "as much maintenance as a boat."

"The Morris has a rounded front end and it comes across as very friendly," he said. "People look at it and smile. You get that reaction from many older cars, from the extreme fins on a 1959 Cadillac or the humped gangster profile of a 1940s Chrysler Windsor. People think, 'Wow, that's wild.'

"Relatively few new cars give me that warm fuzzy feeling. Of course I don't expect an old car to do the same things as a new one. We make allowances."

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Modern cars must meet a phalanx of safety regulations set by the Americans, Europeans and others. This includes crumple zones and pedestrian safety parameters, which influence the dimensions of the hood. One wonders what regulators would think of the fins and protrusions found on a 1950s Ford Thunderbird.

Not necessarily, say some. "We like to blame regulation, but I really think the issue is globalisation," Vic Doolan said, a longtime industry executive who was president of both BMW North America and Volvo North America.

"I was walking around the Detroit show, and all the cars were competent. Very nice. But other than a few that are truly set apart, like Ferraris and Maserati, none were driven by passion."

"People want to make money, which means more mainstream, predictable designs. Look at BMW, Mercedes and Audi: These days they are high-volume brands. It's difficult to stand out in the crowd when you are the crowd," he said.

He makes a good point. I can think of only a few, recent, oddball designs, like the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, a convertible SUV. It is surprising and interesting. It is also hideous.

The others are from Silicon Valley startups: The Fisker Karma and the Tesla Model S. The Fisker, an electric-gas hybrid, is a design-forward car with sensuous curves, a wacky nose and madcap interior details.

The Model S, meanwhile, is conservative on the exterior. The interior is full of innovation including a flat floor and storage under the front hood, both owing to its all-electric powertrain.

Doolan agrees that electric technology will influence future cars, allowing for innovations that surprise and stimulate. "Hopefully we'll see designs that stir both the passion of a six-year-old boy and a 60-year-old boy."

— Jason H Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News.

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