Designed into history

The Sunday Times (UK)

Sunday 7 December 2003
by Nicholas Rufford and Julian Rendell

Britain’s small but thriving industry of car builders is facing European legislation that could wipe it out.

The manufacturers of quintessentially British marques such as Morgan and Caterham say the design changes required by new laws are not only too costly but would ruin the distinctive looks of their cars.

The rules, from October 2005, will require cars to be made more “pedestrian friendly” with shock absorbent panels and bumpers. All car manufacturers, including multinational giants, are grappling with the far-reaching implications, but small manufacturers say they will be hardest hit by costs.

“It could be the end of Morgan,” says Mark Aston, assistant managing director of the car maker, whose customers include Iain Duncan Smith and the actor Nicolas Cage. “In the worst case, a change in the legislation could make it virtually impossible to market the product.”

Experts say the Honda Civic is the car that conforms best to the stringent new rules. “If we are forced to make something that looks like a Honda Civic we will not be able to sell it,” says Aston. “Our customers expect us to keep the heritage.”

The motor industry’s trade body is lobbying Brussels on behalf of the smallest car makers such as Noble to exempt them from having to carry out expensive redesigns they say they cannot afford.

However, the new rules are almost certain to ensnare some of Britain’s best-known sports car brands, including Lotus, which are to big to escape the legislation.

“It’s an absolute minefield that is going to kill the industry,” says George Read, senior manager of Status, an automotive consultancy that is advising small manufacturers.

By 2010 pedestrian safety rules will be tightened further and may result in cars with larger front overhangs (more bodywork in front of the wheels) higher, sloping bonnets and bigger “crumple zones” — design changes that makers say will make their cars taller and uglier.

“We could be going back to the 1970s and all end up with horrible front-end styling,” says Lee Noble of Noble sports cars.

Experts agree bonnets will have to be raised by as much as three inches to create a “crush zone” between the bodywork and the engine and parts underneath — the components most likely to cause a pedestrian serious injury. The result will be a higher seating position for the driver to ensure good visibility over the raised bonnet, and therefore a higher roof too.

That will add bulk to the sports car’s traditional design that “wraps” the front-end metalwork around the engine to reduce wind drag and keep the car’s stance low and sleek for maximum agility.

“Making a front-engine sports car look good with a low bonnet line is going to be very hard in the future,” says Russell Carr, design chief at Lotus.

But it is not just sports cars that will be affected. The new rules will transform the design of every new car brought on to the market after 2005. Existing models will have to comply from 2012. The new legislation has been 18 years in the making and was given full EU approval last month.

“What is going to happen in the early stages is a complete redesign for cars,” says Graham Lawrence, the Transport Research Laboratory’s pedestrian safety expert and one of the architects of the new law, who believes a considerable number of pedestrian lives will be saved by the measures. “This is not a bolt-on safety solution. We have to rethink the way cars are made.”

The big manufacturers are set to respond by unveiling a string of pedestrian-friendly models over the next two years, but many designers remain unhappy.

Olivier Boulay, Mitsubishi’s design chief, was so incensed that at the Tokyo Motor Show in October he launched an outspoken attack on EU rulemakers. “This is rubbish — they are off their trolleys,” he said.

Off-roaders are staring trouble in the face

Square-fronted 4x4s with their bold, bluff features are also going to be seriously affected by the new regulations. Their high bumpers mean they are more likely to damage pedestrians’ knees, and square bonnets are more prone to cause injury than a glancing blow from a raked bonnet. Off-roader designers are now working on alternatives.

Andy Wheel, lead designer at Land Rover, said the company was trying to both comply with the new regulations and preserve the look of its cars.

One solution may be protruding “skirts” on vehicles to lower the point of impact. By 2010, when even tougher tests come into force, 4x4s are likely to have to abandon their square fronts altogether in favour of sloping MPV-style bonnets.

More pedestrian friendly vehicles for Europe.

September 23, 2003
The European Union (EU), a 15 nation bloc of European countries, has just endorsed a law that would require automakers to design more pedestrian-friendly vehicles. The law establishes standards that the auto industry has to adopt if it wishes to participate in the $400 billion market. Manufacturers have until October 2005 to comply. Most European and Asian manufacturers have already agreed to the law, which is based on an existing informal voluntary industry accord. There is no estimate as to the cost for companies and consumers.