Gavin Green, Mark Wal­ton and Sam Smith

CAR (UK) - - News -

MIL­LEN­NI­ALS SHUN NEW cars and Gen Z’ers pre­fer Ubers, bi­cy­cles or buses. Is it any won­der, when no main­stream car brand sells in­tel­li­gently min­i­mal­ist low-cost cars, af­ford­able to many un­der-30s? And I don’t just mean cheap to buy. I mean cheap to in­sure, re­pair and run – yet full of char­ac­ter.

It’s a sorry sit­u­a­tion high­lighted by my re­cent visit to the Con­ser­va­toire Citroën (CAR, July), and happy reac­quain­tance with the Citroën 2CV, the most re­morse­lessly eco­nom­i­cal car ever.

Soon after that trip to Paris the Green fam­ily cel­e­brated the 10th birth­day of our Peu­geot 107 (aka the first-gen Citroën C1/ Toy­ota Aygo), prob­a­bly the last clev­erly en­gi­neered low-cost car from a well-known car brand. In­deed, the 107/C1/Aygo’s place as the ‘new’ 2CV was re­cently sanc­ti­fied by news that 2CV 24-hour rac­ing is be­ing sup­planted by 24-hour C1 rac­ing.

Great low-cost cars should be charm­ingly min­i­mal­ist, like the 2CV. They should be clean, sim­ple de­signs, free of frills and frip­peries; no­ble ex­am­ples of ar­chi­tect Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more’. Yet if we take the least ex­pen­sive ex­am­ple of Bri­tain’s best­selling car, the Fi­esta, we find such ‘essen­tials’ as a lane-keep­ing aid, tyre-pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing and an ad­justable speed lim­iter. These are about as nec­es­sary to a car as Waitrose’s Re­duced Fat Brus­sels Paté and Ver­mi­celli Nests are to ev­ery­day shop­ping. The cheap­est Fi­esta costs £13,715. And that is not cheap. Car specs nowa­days bor­der on the lu­di­crous. Big BMWs have eight choices of cabin fra­grance. Mer­cedes of­fers heated arm­rests on its E and S. The new Mer­cedes A-Class small hatch has a g-force me­ter. Most cars have nu­mer­ous fea­tures their own­ers don’t know about, care about or use. And cars are over-kit­ted be­cause mar­ket­ing de­part­ments are ob­sessed with out-spec­c­ing ri­vals. If Mer­cedes has four shades of am­bi­ent light­ing, then BMW’s and Audi’s mar­ke­teers de­mand more. If Vaux­hall of­fers a heated steer­ing wheel on its en­try-level car, then so must Ford. The fi­nance folk like it too, be­cause more al­ways costs more.

In­tel­li­gently en­gi­neered min­i­mal­ist cars should not, though, be just de-specced ev­ery­day hatches. Nor should they be smaller cuts of an ex­ist­ing hatch­back style, when lower cost of­ten means lower stan­dard. They should be de­signed from the out­set as log­i­cal and func­tional, and their en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign pu­rity should be a source of pride, not apol­ogy. They should be small not be­cause that saves money – though it usu­ally does – but be­cause small­ness is it­self a virtue. Al­though they may use me­chan­i­cals from a main­stream hatch, their core de­sign should be unique. They must have emo­tional ap­peal, as the 2CV had, as the el­e­gant and func­tional Re­nault 4 did, and so did the orig­i­nal Mini and first Fiat Panda, whose flat-plane glass saved cost and added dis­tinc­tion. The lat­est Panda Twin Air is prob­a­bly the best min­i­mal­ist car from an es­tab­lished maker on sale to­day. But when there’s a leather steer­ing wheel with au­dio con­trols on of­fer some­thing is wrong.

Sim­plic­ity should add ap­peal (con­versely, most en­gi­neers seem hell-bent on adding com­pli­ca­tion). The 2CV had exquisitely en­gi­neered and sim­ple steel disc wheels, like the DS. It had an ap­peal­ing roll-back fab­ric roof – and with­out the cost, com­pli­ca­tion and weight of elec­tric power. The win­dows flipped up or down, sav­ing weight and im­prov­ing pack­ag­ing (no need for a win­dow chan­nel in the door cas­ing). Ini­tially, it had but one head­lamp, per­haps a min­i­mal­ist step too far. It could be hosed clean in­side (no un­sightly car­pet, which just gets filthy and adds mass). Seats could eas­ily be re­moved to trans­form it into a van. It was eco­nom­i­cal to op­er­ate, too, in­clud­ing bolt-on body pan­els for easy re­pair and cheaper in­sur­ance.

Sim­i­larly, the 107/C1 had en­gi­neer­ing fe­lic­i­ties such as a de­light­ful and light three-cylin­der en­gine (a nov­elty in 2005) and an all-glass tail­gate (sav­ing cost and weight). It was re­placed by the 108/re­vised C1, which was big­ger, heav­ier, had more ‘fea­tures’ and added glit­ter. As one wag re­marked, it was a 107 with ‘added shite­ness’.

The only no-frills car brand cur­rently sold in the UK is Da­cia (core val­ues ‘sim­ple is smart’ and ‘just the essen­tials’). Is it any won­der Euro­pean sales boom?

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