Automotive complexity and where to stuff it: CAR+ archive, May 1999

Published: 09 May 1999

Russell Bulgin on unnecessary complexity
► Why a simple motoring life is better
► Classic CAR magazine column from 1999

When cars lack basic qualities, why do designers spend their time concocting four-speed seat-heaters?

Luddite? Me? With my life? Flitting from Minidisc to modem to Moulton bicycle, I’m not about to say the heck with tech. But a four-speed heater fan has never impressed me, sad to say. 

Cars today are about style and stuff. Style is the wrapping, inside and out. Stuff is content, bells-and-whistles to you and I, surprise-and-delight to the marketing wonks. I’ve had just about as much surprise-and-delight as a mere mortal can stand, let me tell you. When it comes to standard equipment, the modern car is a highly desirable five-bed detached dwelling with ensuite facilities, utility room, pool table and Jacuzzi. I want to pare cars back to a nicely minimalist space. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s stuff which I won’t do without. Air-conditioning. A solid sound system. Unobtrusive idle stabilisation. ABS brakes. Up-down-in-out steering-column adjustment. Remote central locking. I’ve tactile preference for leather seat facings and metal interior door handles, but that’s being a dweeb for you.

Remember the original Lexus LS400? It had air-conditioning, programmable in steps of 0.5degC. The ’93 facelift offered the same subservience … duplicated for individual mithering by driver and front-seat passenger. 

Perceived customer benefit? Lexus kids you in to thinking it is relentlessly high-tech, deeply caring. Actual customer benefit? Zero. Casual experimentation suggests that the Bulgin-bod can barely distinguish a two-degree difference in temperature, be it within a Toyota or a steaming mug of Tetley’s. Back in 1989, a 0.5-degree increment simply allowed Toyota’s air-conditioning boffins a sly smile every time they sat in a rival product. 

Why do automatically dipping interior mirrors always make your rear view appear fog-bound? You can’t tell if the vehicle tailgating you is car, van, truck or creature from the black lagoon. Why does the Ford Galaxy proffer six user-selectable positions for the heated seats? A warm arse is one of the world’s finest travelling companions, true, but I’m way past fretting whether my bumcakes should be grilled or casseroled during a frenzied dash to Texas homecare. 

Those tinted strips fading darker at the top of the windscreen; look up suddenly and you would swear you are minutes away from a migraine. And do you know why shelving sculpted into the fascia fails to house even a half-eaten packet of Polos?

It’s not supposed to. Otherwise, if the airbag triggers, that chewed-up biro turns into a pint-size ICBM and Pringles-shrapnel perforates your passenger. Liability lawyers put their kids through university arguing this level of nonsense. 

Frameless windows prove that advanced engineering is a synonym for stupidity. Wind-noisier, leakier, expensive, often required to perform and electrically-moderated jig to snug them up as the door handle is tugged, always splatting a nasty damp smudge where the rubber meets glass. Just say no.

High-intensity discharge headlights work for me, brightening the night and slashing full-beam scatter, but homofocal headlamps are a nonsense. All they do is apply a curious rainbow fringing to the outer extremities of dipped beam; my guess is the car industry has been successfully lobbied by the Campaign for Homofocal Equality. 

German cars come with stupid turnbuckle thingies intended to latch floormats to carpet. My right foot can un-selftap a set of those in less than a mile on a good day. Items to be banned from car interiors because I am officially sick to the back teeth of them include red instrument lighting and anything grey. Likewise, badging which is embossed into exterior or interior body parts – bumpers, side-mouldings, steering-wheel centre-pad – is a decorative touch which looks fine on a clay styling model but cheesifies once run through a Taiwanese injection moulding machine. 

Don’t need more than three-speed wipers or a three-speed fan. Need remote central locking which works at more than 30 feet from the car. Could probably live without electric mirrors and electric windows. Could definitely live without a car which parps to confirm the immobiliser is on; twinkling the hazards is so much more discreet, don’t you know?

Riddle me this. If I’ve got TC, ABS and EBD, do I really need ESP? With a decently quick front-wheel-drive car, I prefer helical LSD to TC, because however much fuzzy logic is programmed into a traction-control system, it’s not half as fuzzy as the logic I summon up in dealing with an unexpected off-camber blind-brow on a road I’m not sure of.

I’m no Luddite. I just reckon that, for most cars, usable content always scores over showroom glitz. So, Mr Manufacturer, you can shove your four-speed heater fan back on the shelf with all the other nasties. There’s plenty of space alongside that slot reserved for the diesel engine. 

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000