15 April 2019

The past puts automotive developments into focus

Reporting on the new Porsche 911 - featured in this issue - and driving some older cars on this past weekend made me think about the extraordinary advances in automotive design and construction that I have seen in my lifetime.

I learnt to drive in a Morris Minor, a saloon not a convertible like the one I have now and in its day it was a very advanced vehicle. Torsion bar suspension, most panels curved to add strength to the fairly thin steel panels in its monocoque body, synchromesh on the top three of its four gears, and flashing indicators (turn signals) replacing the mechanical arm signals of earlier cars. My present Morris Minor was built in 1966, when the Porsche 911 was already in its third year of production. The differences between the two cars could hardly be more extreme. The 911 used magnesium and aluminium in its air-cooled flat-six engine and offered a five-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and disc brakes when the Morris still relied on drum brakes.

And the different methods of development and production engineering make an interesting study too. When the Morris was designed and prototyped in 1947, under the leadership of Alec Issigonis (who went on to design the original Mini), and with the factory at Cowley in the UK’s Midlands region already tooling up for production, Issigonis was unhappy with the appearance of the car. He had the prototype cut lengthways and the two halves moved apart until it looked 'right'. The production model was thus 4 inches (10 cm) wider than the prototype, this further improved interior space and road-holding but resulted in a flat section to the centre of the bonnet. It is hard to imagine Porsche engineers changing the body design of the 911 after they had ordered the tooling!

Looking at the new 911, with its extraordinary achievement of continuing to lose weight and improve its performance does make me wonder what might have been if British manufacturers had the foresight to invest in the continuous development of their products and had been more open-minded as to new materials and processes. The use of Organo sheet (a fibre-reinforced plastic made of continuous glass fibres embedded in cast polypropylene) in the 911’s body construction goes to show how open to new materials and processes successful vehicle makers have to be. With the boon for designers of electric vehicles being able to be made on entirely new platforms, not hampered by the packaging of i.c. powertrains, the automotive world has never been more exciting. Porsche is the most profitable vehicle maker pro rata and it will continue to develop lighter and more efficient vehicles and continue to make record profits but until I can afford one, I will stay with my Morris Minor...

Simon Duval Smith

Publisher: Paul Singh

Editor: Simon Duval Smith

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