October 21, 2015

Horse 2011 - Back To The Past To Imagine The Future

Seeing as today is October 21, 2015; which is the date that Marty McFly travels to in Back To The Future Part II (the rubbish middle one), I thought I'd look into two cars which may or may not have been visions of the future.

Firstly I'll start not with either of those but the star of the Back To The Future trilogy, the DeLorean DMC-12.
John DeLorean who was an ex-engineer at General Motors had previously worked on the Pontiacs GTO, Grand Prix and Firebird and then the no so stellar H-body Chevrolet Vega. His eponymous DMC-12 which was built in Belfast of all places, had the 2.8L V6 out of the Renault Alpine A310 and Volvo 242. It's somewhat gutless 134bhp meant that it would get up to its top speed of 140mph eventually but not even the famous gull-wing doors couldn't convince enough buyers to part with their cash abd within 2 years, the project folded; having been a giant farce from the beginnning.
The only reason that the DeLorean achived any lasting fame was because of the movies.

The Ford Probe in Back To The Future Part II is most likely a 1988 Probe Mk1. It's basically the cousin of the contemporary Mazda 626 and under the hood had a 2.2L inline-4, producing 110bhp.
I don't know exactly if the example in Back To The Future Part II is supposed to be representative of the future, or if it's supposed to be a 27 year old car which has undergone some sort of conversion but I do know that as a movie car, this is the one that I remember the most from this yawnfest of a film.

This 1992 car is a prototype which existed before the 1993 film "Demolition Man", starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes came out but this is the other vision of the future of a motor car that I most remember from film. The GM Ultralite also appeared in the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, with Robin Williams and Sam Neill in it.
Like the Ford Probe, it also threw out a miserly 110bhp but it did so from a inline-3 cylinder engine which was two stroke as opposed to the normal four stroke engines found in cars. The car was mostly an exercise in materials technology and the whole car only weighed 635kg; as a result it could sip at 2.7L/100 km.

This is the thing about trying to imagine cars from the future, invariably because there's always the element of having to build the possible, then these imaginings end up being not that far away from something which will exist. The impossible remains impossible but the possible moves a couple of steps closer because someone imagined it.

That big swooping line on the Probe would not look pit of place on a current Honda Civic. The bulbous and rounded lines of the GM Ultralite look decidedly normal now as compared with the Ford Taurus circa 1999, or even the latest Mazda 3. These cars which embodied the future in the late 80s and early 90s wouldn't look out of place at all on modern roads and there's something a little bit sad about that.

Admittedly the imaginings of the 1950s, when cars suddenly sprouted fins still look like the future imaginings of the 1950s but if you were to take something like the lines of the Citroen DS19 and clean up the obviously outdated decorations, suddenly you have a car which still looks like it's from the future.
I've said it before that I think that the KE20 Toyota Corolla if it didn't have it's 1960s fake plasticy chrome to adorn it, would also look like it was still from the future.

Thanks to improvements in plastics technology and even in paint technology, car designers can pretty well much make cars look like whatever they feel like. I still find it disappointing that cars like the Toyota Corolla and the Hyundai i30 look so very similar. As soon as one trend in fashion hits the auto market, then suddenly everyone builds their own bandwagons and plays the same tune.

The real problem for car designers is to come up with something markedly different and is yet still acceptable to the public. As a design exercise, the GM Ultralite looks amazing but the practicalities of owning a car with gull-wing doors and no B-pillar would render it very annoying very quickly indeed to the average motorist if it was ever going to be sold. The future Ford Probe in the above picture has as far as I can see, no openable doors at all.
The DeLorean was itself a hideously impractical car for precisely this reason. I can't think of any sensible reason why anyone would have bought it when far more competent cars like the Mazda RX-7 or the Datsun Fairlady Z existed. The most futuristic car of the 1980s though had to be the Lamborghini Countach. This was a car which had been a product of the 1970s but through various iterations had become so outrageously bonkers, so expensive and so mind warpingly quick that it earned the right to wear its stupidly impractical scissor doors. I suspect that the GM Ultralite with its gull-wing doors was just like the DeLorean in that it was writing style cheques it knew it couldn't cash.
Both the future Ford Probe and the GM Ultralite, with their covered wheels would present the driver with an absolute headache if they were driving along and needed to change a tyre (unless those covers unlock somehow).

I haven't been to a motor show recently and so I can't say what future car being imagined today would look like but the interior of the current Honda Civic Type R (FD2) makes me think that the only possible direction that future dreamings for motor cars can go, is to either remove the steering wheel entirely and have the car drive itself, or move into some sort of super head-up display mode where every possible menu item is shown on the windscreen like some sort of fighter jet.

The exterior of whatever future visions of the future are going to be, are still constrained by the same design elements that were always there. The function of a car is to move people around. In doing that, there needs to be some place to put the people, door to be able to get in and out, some windows to look out of, some sort of propulsion device to make it go, lights to light the way and to indicate to others where you are going. Those things haven't really changed since the inception of the motor car.

PS: I still think it neat that even in the imagining of 2015 in Back To The Future Part II, if you look in the top right hand side of the picture, there's still an orange Volkswagen Beetle. I'd like to think that any vision of the future includes at least a few of those for a long time to come.

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