The 5 cars that predicted the future
Good news for nerds who like to drive (and have £54,500 burning a hole in their wallet): the 329 horsepower Tesla S 70D has been unveiled, with a 240-mile range and a battery-mullering top speed of 140mph. Still, despite a round of (wrong) “entry-level Tesla!” headlines, the 70D is probably more a sign of things to come than the benchmark by which mass-market electric cars will be judged. But it’s in good company: the history of motoring is littered with cars whose technology far outpaced that of the vehicles around them. Here are five outstanding anachronisms.
The 1967 Citroen DS
Every list about cars should find a way to finagle in the Citroen DS. Such a good-looking, comfortable personality deserves it. And for nerds and car historians, the 1967 version – the Series 3 – is top trumps. Famously, it had headlights that peered around corners for you, swivelling up to 80 degrees as you turned the steering wheel – handy on classic French hairpins. That wasn’t the end of the story, either: the hydraulic-pneumatic suspension meant you could change a wheel without anything as antediluvian as a jack, and kept the ride smoother than a Bobby Darin number. If you’ve got a spare 25 minutes you could watch Jay Leno cast an affectionate eye over his own DS.
Crystal ball: You don’t see hydropneumatic suspension many places these days: prone to bouts of bad-tempered unreliability and famed for its complexity, the good old sprung shock absorber more or less rules the roost. Swivelly headlamps, on the other hand, are all the rage. Some BMWs come with adaptive headlights, although these are more complicated than Citroen’s. The DS’s headlights moved when you turned the steering wheel. BMW’s do as well, but they also take into account the speed of the car and the incline of the road. Mazda, Ford, Mercedes and several others offer similar technology.
The 1959 Morris Mini Minor
British cars are the envy of the world; or at least they were while we made ‘em. Take the 1959 Mark I Morris Mini, for example: a small, cheap getaround that was as much a fashion hit as a practical success. The secret ingredient was its transverse-mounted engine: most cars at the time had an engine whose driveshaft came out of the engine and pointed down the length of the vehicle to drive the rear wheels. The front-wheel-drive Mini – along with a few post-war Saabs – mounted its four-cylinder engine sideways, giving passengers and luggage more space. Everything about the Mini was designed to maximise space: even the seams where the different body panels met were joined externally to stop the welded ridges intruding into the valuable cabin space.
Crystal ball: These days, unsightly external welds are never seen, but if you’ve got a small or medium car the engine is almost certainly transversely mounted.
The 1933 10hp Crossley Saloon
Although it would turn heads now, the 1.2-litre Crossley Saloon was relatively unremarkable in its time. It wasn’t the fastest car around (although rattling along at its top speed of 67mph would probably have felt plenty), but it does have another claim to fame: for a princely £35 (a frankly whopping TWO GRAND if the inflation calculator at the Bank of England is to be believed) you could have a car radio fitted at the factory, making the Crossley the first British car to come with such an option. Something to think about the next time the brats in the back complain about having finished all their DVDs.
Crystal ball: You can buy a car without a stereo these days: the threadbare Ariel Atom, last seen turning Jeremy Clarkson’s face into windswept mush, eschews Radio 4 in favour of a more pure driving experience. Elsewhere, virtually every car on the market has a radio, CD player, Bluetooth and plenty of other toys.
The 1990 Volkswagen Futura
We love concept cars: they’re a chance to see into the deranged, creative brains of the world’s leading car designers, unencumbered by nagging practicalities such as cost, market demand or even utility. Enter the 1990 VW Futura: never built but nonetheless striking thanks to its two gullwing doors, used to enter either the front or rear seats; its supercharged (supercharged! A minivan with a supercharger!), evaporatively cooled engine; and, best of all, its steering. All four wheels could be steered, allowing the Futura to fit into challenging parking spaces, and for those who find parallel parking all a bit much, a laser and ultrasonic-guided automated parking system.
Crystal ball: There aren’t many minivans with superchargers, we’ll give the Futura that much. Gullwing doors, ditto, despite their advantages (they actually increase the width of a car less than traditional outward-swinging doors). All-wheel steering make occasional appearances: this year’s Acura RLX can steer from the rear wheels. Self-parking is catching on in a big way, though: the Ford Focus can do it, as can the Vauxhall Corsa – but these are far from the only manufacturers help parallel-park-phobic drives conquer town driving.
The 1959 Volvo Amazon
The Swedes make positively lovely looking cars, neatly encapsulated by the cracking-looking Volvo Amazon. Comfortable, handsome, reasonably fast and the first production car in the world to have a three-point retractable seatbelt fitted as standard. The man behind the belt was Volvo safety engineer Nils Bohlin, who conducted a study that showed that out of 28,000 smashes, no-one wearing a seatbelt in collision less than 60mph was fatally injured. The 1959 model was the one with standard seatbelts for the front seats, but the story doesn’t quite finish there: Bohlin was awarded the patent for his retractable seatbelt design in 1962. Volvo promptly released the patent to other car manufacturers, an altruistic move that saves hundreds of lives in the UK every year, and gave rise to the phenomenally catchy “clunk-click” campaign, as well as this astonishingly violent public-service advert.
Crystal ball: Seatbelts aren’t only mandatory for drivers; they’re a legal must-have for car manufacturers in the UK since 1968. Volvo has continued to innovate: its pedestrian detection system throws a warning to a car’s HUD to warn of the sudden appearance of a pedestrian, and will give the brakes full whack if the driver fails to take action. Its driver-alert control also monitors your driving style and gives you a forceful audiovisual nudge if your concentration seems to have wandered. It’s also built a safety concept car, complete with transparent A-pillars for increased visibility.