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July 21, 2008

Small-Car Styling

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Should little cars look quite similar to big cars? Nowadays most people would probably say No. But that wasn't always the case, as we shall see.

Before we take a look, it's probably a good idea to mention a few engineering-related items that I hope will set the scene -- nothing very technical.

By around 1910 most car makers standardized on the power train arrangement where the motor was near the front of the car, power was applied to the rear wheels and the linkage to the engive was a long drive shaft centered in the frame. About 1930, a few manufacturers began making cars where the engine powered the front wheels, eliminating the drive shaft at the price of added complexity. This arrangement was perfected and used in most cars by the 1990s. An arrangement that held theoretical appeal during the 30s and up to the mid-60s was rear-wheel drive with the motor also in the rear.

Most of the time, engines were installed front-to-rear, the long axis in parallel with the long axis of the vehicle. Where there was the motor in front driving the rear wheels, this tended to result in a comparatively long car. Long, compared to a engine-front/drive-front arrangement where the motor was "transverse" -- its long axis at a right angle to the car's long axis -- this making for a very compact power train.

Aside from the engine area, the major spaces in a car are devoted to the passenger compartment and the luggage area (trunk, in the USA). To make a car really compact, not much can be done with the passenger compartment because it has to be large enough to hold even fairly tall humans. So cutting luggage space to a minimum and using a transverse-mounted motor are the main routes to keeping overall length down. An ultra-compact car such as the Smart takes more radical steps including eliminating the rear seat and nearly all storage space.


English Ford Model Y - c. 1935
This was E.T. "Bob" Gregorie's first production design. He worked at Ford from 1931 until the late 1946 with a year's hiatus following Edsel Ford's death. For much of that period he was styling director. Design-wise the Model Y was essentially a miniaturized standard car, vintage early 1930s.

Fiat 500A - 1939
Topolino (Little Mouse) was the nickname given to the first version of the Fiat 500. Its small size was largely due to the elimination of the rear passenger seat, making it a small, Italian version of what in the USA was called a "business coupe" but without much storage area.

Volkswagen - 1949
Although its design took most of the late 1930s to evolve, mass-production had to wait until after World War 2. The VW had a rear-mounted air cooled motor that drove the rear wheels. This configuration, along with a desire to make the car aerodynamic, resulted in an automobile that did not resemble standard cars of its era.

French Ford Vedette - 1952
For a couple of decades Ford built cars in France. The Vedette was a post-war effort that was much larger than contemporary Citroën 2CVs and Renault 4CVs. The Vedette design is interesting because it was designed by Bob Gregorie as a small American Ford. Post-war, most American car makers toyed with the idea of producing small cars. Sketches were made and in a few cases, prototypes were built and some even entered production (the Nash Rambler and Kaiser's Henry J are two that made it to the showroom). Gregorie's small Ford design looks like a shrunken 1949 Mercury. This is understandable because the 1949 Mercury design (minus Mercury embellishments) was to have been the 1949 standard Ford. Ernie Breech, Ford's new president, though that design was too large and directed that it become the Mercury instead. The classic 1949 Ford was the result of a design competition won by George Walker's team using a design moonlighted by Studebaker (Raymond Loewy) stylists.

Chevrolet Vega - 1971
Detroit's "Big Three" automakers went through a spasm of producing small cars around 1960 in response to the sales success of the Volkswagen and the Rambler. Around 1970, Ford (pardon the expression) trotted out its Pinto and Chevy introduced its Vega, shown here. The Vega had a conventional (for the time) front engine, rear drive layout and is yet another example of shrunken big-car styling. Although nicely styled, both the Pinto and Vega had serious engineering defects and fairly quickly earned bad reputations.

Honda Civic - 1975
Honda got its start as a motorcycle manufacturer. Later, in defiance of Japan's MITI authority, it began making cars using the front-wheel drive layout. This early Civic looks somewhat conventional due to its comparatively long (for the length of the body) hood.


By the 1990s, designers of small cars shrugged off the notion that a small car had to look like a standard sized automobile. The Ford Ka, built and sold in Europe, used the corporate "edge" styling scheme of the time, but otherwise in no way looks like an undernourished standard car.


A more recent European small car design is Peugeot's bottom-of-line model 107. Again, it does not pretend to be a large car writ small. Note that it has four doors, quite a trick on such a short platform.

Toyota Corolla - 2009
The new 2009 Toyota Corolla for the U.S. market has been restyled. It is larger than the Ka and 107, but is considered small by American standards. For some reason it doesn't have the "look" of the two European examples just shown.

Toyota Camry - 2008
Hmm. It lacks that look because its styling is that of a shrunken Toyota Camry. Welcome to the Vedette/Vega and points between club, Toyota.



posted by Donald at July 21, 2008


Fab posting, great pix and info, tks. Fun to see and read all the facts and influences lined up like that. I remember the Pinto and Vega all too well. Had an AMC Gremlin myself for a few years, certainly one of Detroit's low points.

Pardon a dumb and beyond-basic question from someone who hasn't owned a car in 30 years: are most cars today front-wheel drive? Back in the '70s, front-wheel drive was considered pretty avant-garde, I seem to recall. And is engine-in-back / rear-wheel -drive no longer done? Why not?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 21, 2008 11:15 PM

I've ridden in the Smart car, which is just about the most radical re-design I've seen.

Amazingly, it's easy to get into and comfortable to ride in.

One pioneering small car that is seldom discussed is the Henry J, made by Kaiser. I had one when I was a kid. Bought it for 50 bucks at the junkyard, towed it home and brought it back to life.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 22, 2008 6:31 AM

Ah, the Vega, my high-school beater. Not bad styling, actually.

Watching a Smart Car on a busy freeway recently made my hands clammy for its occupants. I do want a certain amount of metal around me.

Posted by: Steve on July 22, 2008 10:45 AM

Steve, my man, you are spot on. The older I get, the more horrified I become of small cars. Give me metal, or give me death!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 22, 2008 10:54 AM

Michael -- Yes, most cars are front-drive. Exceptions include some large cars such as Mercedes, Chrysler 300 and the biggest Fords, Mercuries and Lincolns. This has to do with engineering reasons I don't fully understand -- fwd doesn't work well on large cars.

Another exception is performance cars such as BMWs, Dodge Chargers (basically a 300) and the police cruisers you see on the highways. The latter are mostly big Ford rear-wheel drive jobs, but some Chargers are out there too.

Porsche still make cars with the engine at the rear, but that's about it. Rear-engine cars are harder to control, their weight distribution being such that the heavy (rear) part wants to lead once the car approaches spin conditions. A rear engine also cuts luggage space; front luggage space is constricted because front wheel wells have to be deeper than rear wells because front wheels need to pivot for steering.

Another variation is the so-called mid-engine driving rear wheels. "Mid engine" in practice means that the motor is in front of the rear axle. Examples are certain "supercars" -- those low, wide sports jobs that sell for hundreds of thousands. The concept is to concentrate weight near the center of gravity to cut down the moment of inertia deflection when turning. In practice, such cars can have a rear weight bias. My old Porsche 914 was an example. It spun out beautifully on a snowy road in the Catskills back in winter '74, encouraging me to sell the thing later that year.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 22, 2008 12:06 PM

For small cars having FWD is cheaper because it requires fewer parts. The transmission and differential can be in one unit--you don't have to build a separate drive shaft down the center of the car to the rear wheels. It also saves on space inside and under the car. Also, in a snowy conditions having the engine weight over the wheels with power gives you better control. I remember well the complete lack of traction trying to drive my Vega on icy roads back in the '70s.

Posted by: Steve on July 22, 2008 5:13 PM

I have never had a very small car, even though I had a late 80s Civic, that is small by American standards. Speaking of really small cars, I wonder about this one. We will never see the car in the US, and nobody would buy it here, given the following stats:

Acceleration: 0-70 km/h (43 mph): 14 seconds

Maximum speed: 105 km/h (65 mph)

It does look boxy, like a bigger autorickshaw, but I could get used to it.

Posted by: JM on July 22, 2008 6:24 PM

When I visited the Netherlands in 1987, I was amused to see Mercedes-Benz compacts. Exactly the same lines and proportions as a full-size Mercedes, but tiny. Never sold in the U.S., of course.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 23, 2008 12:40 AM

I had one of those exact yellow Hondas, and love small cars. This is the one I would buy if those EPA dorks would ever allow it into the US:

Posted by: David C on July 23, 2008 1:23 AM

Vega, Pinto, Gremlin... where was Chrysler in this lineup? Why, they were smart enough to sell captive Mitsubishi imports as their own "Colts". They figured, rightly, that the Japanese did this better than they ever could.

Two ironies, though... The Colt may have been the best of the "American" compacts, but Mitsubishi didn't save Chrysler, Jimmy & Walter did. And Mitsubishi was at the time the youngest automaker in the world. They only had a separate car division since 1970.

Up here in Pig's Eye we've been a major collector-car mecca for decades. The old Monkey Ward's lot, and more recently Porky's Drive In, served as a focal point. Once in a blue, blue moon you might see a Pinto, but never a Vega!

Where did they all go?

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on July 23, 2008 11:35 PM

Just returned from a trip to Europe and noticed a myriad of current and older models of small cars. We rented a Nissan Micra for a day or two and it wasn't bad at all, styling or performance.

Some notables: different version of the BMW/Cooper Mini (which are starting to show up in the US), the original minis, a sportcar styled model of the Smart two-seater (slightly longer, much shorter), and a great looking small Volvo from the 60's, I'm guessing.

Cheers -

Posted by: holling on August 1, 2008 10:21 AM

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