Diversity Lost - Blackbourn 385

By: Rob Blackbourn

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blackbourn 385 blackbourn 385

Same same and same again with today's cars is getting Rob all cranky

WHEN BEING boring achieves Olympic recognition, car makers and owners alike could be going for gold based on the sameness of today’s cars. In the morning peak as you wait to join the main road traffic it’s: SUV (black), SUV (black), SUV (silver), SUV (black), Sweet relief! – Vito van (white), uh oh! – SUV (black), SUV (white)…

It wasn’t like that when grey-motor Holdens ruled the family-car roost. Paint colours were varied and often bright and mostly two-tone. Exhausts might have a copper tail-pipe or a twin-pipe Lukey muffler. Some even featured a quirky Kenrich Jet. Aerials were short, long or whipstyle – the odd one sporting a fox tail. Some rear bumpers dangled static straps.

There were back-window venetians, even mud-flaps with matching stainless-steel bikini girls. Front-bumpers might display a pair of Lucas Flamethrowers or a canvas water bag. Matte-black wheels sans hubcaps, wearing Pirelli Cinturatos or Michelin Xs, were a sure sign of an enthusiast behind the wheel.

Then in 1962 real diversity arrived, pushing detail differences into the background. Three quite different vehicles occupied the six-cylinder family-car category. Ford and Chrysler were finally having a red-hot go at tackling GM’s Holden.

Ford -falcon

The XK Falcon’s fresh styling, a proper 1960s appearance, shamed the EK Holden’s complacent, high, slab-sided, kinked-screen shape that harked back to the Chevs of the mid-50s. And, bless Mopar’s audacious stylists, the first Valiant, the R series, blew the other two away with its complex, indulgent styling, complete with a fake spare-wheel cover on the bootlid.

The Valiant also trumped the others with the sheer grunt of the big 245-cube slant-six that featured a novel bunch-of-bananas inlet manifold. The ability of that 145hp motor to smoke up the skinny 5.90x14 tyres was particularly embarrassing for EK Holden owners whose modest 138-cube (yep, more than 100 cubes behind) 75hp grey motors could barely raise a chirp from the 6.40x13 boots. The 90hp from the Falcon’s 144-cube engine suddenly joined the juniorleague ranks as well. Sadly diversity seems long lost in this era when, ‘Will I have my SUV in black or white?’ seems the pressing buying decision. The biggest surprise is the loss of distinctive factory styling across competing brands. As Pete Seeger sang: "They all look just the same."

Chrysler

Apparently a Mazda ends up looking like a BMW (which looks like a Kia, which looks like a Toyota…) because of safety rules and fuel economy considerations.

Allegedly the generic pedestrian-friendly high noses and bonnets produce uniform belt-line heights and uniform window heights.

Rollover protection results in similar pillar shapes. Fuel-saving aerodynamics dictate windscreen slope and the universal, broadbackside, body shape.

Brand-differentiation is left to mere styling cues like grilles,  wheels, lights and badges.

Nowadays the industry seems to be run by a bunch of timid suits instead of the bold visionaries, radical engineers and flamboyant stylists who would have found the means, somehow, to produce distinctive cars despite these controlling criteria. Avoiding standing out from the crowd seems to be the guiding ethos of today’s buttoned-down, group-think tribe.

How dull would automotive history be if Henry Ford had feared standing out from the crowd? Or Ferdinand Porsche? Or, for that matter, Andre Citroen, or William Lyons, or Alec Issigonis, or Virgil Exner, or Harley Earl, or Lee Iacocca?

It was wonderful when Lee Iacocca disciple, Bill Bourke, brought his unique, exciting vision to Ford Australia. At the wheel of a car featuring a shaker bonnet-scoop, 351GT badges, and Super Roo decals on the front guards, not only did you stand out from the crowd, even Blind Freddy could tell it was a Ford.

Oh well, maybe fox tails will make a comeback…

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