Flying Cars & Design Folly
Everyone is always so polite about totally impractical ideas such as the flying car. There’s a piece up on the BBC right now about the latest prototype, from a Dutch company. These articles appear every two years or so, always with the pay off that maybe it wouldn’t be a breeze to own a flying car…
Fist of all you need a pilot’s license, and 2500 feet to take off from, which means you need an airport. Only Alaska allows you to take off from public roads – But they should change that: Imagine racing someone off the lights only to take off. There’s also the hint that insurance companies might consider a flying car to be a slightly more risky endeavour than normal motoring. I mean I’m sure that thing’s safe. I can’t even picture it falling from the sky like a stone. It’s unimaginable. Right?
Still, I’m glad to live in a world where someone, somewhere is inventing weird looking cars with strange bendy propellers that look like they’d fall off when you sneeze. And who knows, one day we may all have one of these things. Not soon though.
I’m from the UK and the flying car put me in mind of a couple of design classics from our own recent past. These two were both in the “nice idea, but…” category, and the mere mention of their name in the UK reduces many to shoulder shaking, tears down the cheeks, hysterical laughter.
The first is the G-Wiz. An electric car sold mainly in London, made by the Indian company Reva. G-Wiz is a city run-about with a top speed of 50mph, a range of about 50 miles, and is claimed to be the most successful all-electric car ever made. Sounds good right? Well, no. The G-Wiz is just horribly wrong.
First is the fact that it’s not actually a car. Its light weight means it’s classed as a quadricycle, which means it’s exempt from awkward European Union legislation that would require it to have airbags and pass a crash test. Fill you with confidence? Next is the price. About $12,000. For a glorified bicycle.
The final problem with the G-Wiz is the design. When they ask, “who killed the electric car” we at last have a clear response. It was Reva, in London, with the G-Wiz.
The car is crashingly, disturbingly, absurdly ugly. It looks like it’s already been through the crash tests which they so cunningly side-stepped. In a discipline which brought the world the Model T Ford, the Bugatti Type 57, the Jaguar E-Type, the Mini and even the Lotus-designed Tesla electric vehicle, Reva appear to have bent some metal and plastic around a battery and saved on design altogether.
Next up is the Sinclair C5. A battery powered single-seat tricycle launched with much fanfare in the mid 1980s. It was designed by the inventor and entrepreneur Sir Clive Sinclair and, nearly 20 years before the Segway failed to perform the trick, the C5 was expected to mark a revolution in urban transport.
It didn’t of course; the C5 was a commercial disaster, which ruined the reputation of one of the world’s visionary technology designers. Sir Clive Sinclair had been instrumental in developing pocket calculators in the 1970s and affordable home computing in the early 1980s, but is instead known for building the most dangerous vehicle ever to hit the streets of the UK.
The problem was the height. The C5 required its passenger to sit about two inches above the ground, which put the passenger’s head about three feet from the ground. The handlebars were positioned under the knees, making it feel as though you were sitting on your hands, there were no seat-belts and it was made of plastic. To say it felt vulnerable is an understatement. People pursue the exhilaration of sledging down a fast slope with limited steering and just the suggestion of crashing to a glorious death, but no one ever wanted this every time they popped out for a pint of milk.
Then there was the aesthetic design. If Buck Rogers had been reduced to buying his gadgets from a garage sale, he’d be crawling around in a C5. With an ergonomic windshield which guided wind directly into the eyes, zero side protection and a “you can have any color as long as it’s grimy grey” approach to customization, it was never likely to win any design awards.
Reader, I bought one. A perfectly preserved specimen from eBay. That’s me driving it in the picture and the grin is real.
I love the Sinclair C5, I love the G-Wiz and I love the flying car. Good design costs no more than bad design, but terrible design, grand scale folly, is priceless.