Simplicity of Specification

Simplicity provides a good frame for yet another answer to the question “Will sports cars die?”  As I stated earlier, a better question is “What form will the sports car take?”, and simplicity, expressed two ways, also provides answers.

The first answer comes from the idea of simplicity of specification.  The MG TC, which introduced the sports car idea virus to the United States, was an incredibly simple machine, almost to the point of being crude and agricultural.  Four cylinders, ladder frame, cycle fenders, and little to no weather protection, it was an elemental design.  But its very simplicity created its value: next to the average American lead sled, the MG TC was light and nimble and immersed its pilot in an intensely visceral driving experience: wind, noise, oil everywhere, steering kickback, blatting exhaust. 

Joining the MG TC in the ranks of all-time great sports cars is the Porsche 356, also a machine of simple specification, a far cry from lardy descendants such as the Porsche Cayenne.  A sophisticated design for its epoch, the 356 was derived from one of the simplest of cars, the VW Beetle.  The 356 provided a drive with more protection from the elements than did the MG TC, but still made him a full participant in the process of getting down the road.  356Even today, to drive a 356 is to experience a car as almost a living, breathing animal. To illustrate how compelling the 356 driving experience is, I have several friends who own both a modern Porsche 911 and a 40- to 50-year-old 356.  These are cars separated by 1000+ pounds of curb weight, as well as by two extra cylinders and 200 horsepower.  But to a person, they prefer the 356.  Simply put, its Visceral-Behavioral-Reflective signature hits the enthusiast driver’s sweet spot. 

Both the MG TC and 356 were simple machines, even for their time. Where they excelled was in the sense of lightness that comes with a simple (but elegantly executed) mechanical specification, resulting in a direct, stimulating driving experience.  From a pure feel point of view, there’s no substitute for “adding lightness” to a car.  Heavy designs can be made to handle well – and elephants can be taught to dance – but if you want to float like a butterfly, why not start with a butterfly?
Significantly, neither car was about heaps of horsepower.  Both, in fact, were rather slow relative to contemporary family sedans.  There’s a lesson here for designers of future sports cars: as I’ve noted earlier on this blog, the automotive world is in a wild upward spiral of horsepower; it’s a place where a $32,000 Subaru can give a $70,000 Porsche a run for its money.  Within a few years, any marque, be it Ford or Ferrari, will be able to deliver a reliable, 600 horsepower street car, and at that point, the only way to create a truly differentiated driving experience will be via feel.  And the best way to create good feel is by designing around a simple, even spartan, point of view. 

As such, the Porsche 356 is the template for future sports cars. 

I’ll discuss the second expression of simplicity later this week.