Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Spark - Simplicity and Complexity

"Less is more", said Mies van der Rohe.  The endurance of the modernist aesthetic he helped create puts weight behind those words.  Simplicity and purity of form, whether expressed through architecture, industrial design or engineering, are the foundations of good design.  Elegant, inspired thinking leads to elegant and inspiring things - like cars, for example.
Colin Chapman was the Mies of the automotive world, his similar mantra "simplify and add lightness" neatly summarizing his thoughts on automotive engineering.  Simple, straightforward mechanics in conjunction with low weight produce a kind of magic loop of efficiency.  Less weight means less need for heavy, powerful engines, large brakes and elaborate suspensions - in turn these less complex systems lead to less weight, repeat.  Chapman's way of thinking was a sharp contrast to "band aid engineering", that is, rather than addressing symptoms of convoluted design with more of the same it simply cut to the root cause and detangled the web before it could start.
Chapman-era Lotus was arguably best represented in the original Elan, a car blessed with poise, fluidity and just plain brilliant handling.  It was a car known for riding better than many luxury cars, for being quicker than machines with twice as much or more power, and for having what I've seen described over and over as the best steering feel and response of any car ever built.  The Elan was Mazda's primary influence when they designed the original Eunos Roadster / MX-5 / Miata, which through all three generations has remained the world's best-selling sports car.  As die-hard gearheads it's easy to be slightly elitist about our hobby, but by the look of things we're not the only ones who appreciate shades of gray and nuance in the driving experience - there are cupholders in the new one, though... but I digress.
Just as engineering simplicity can give birth to brilliance, it can also result in the opposite.  A sharp knife is a pretty elegant and effective tool, but a jagged, blunt rock can be used to attain similar results.  If Elans and Elises are examples of the former, the Reliant Robin is definitely more like an amorphous hunk of mineral and fossilized worm poo.  In his hilarious book "Crap Cars", Richard Porter summed up the Robin rather nicely: "Holds the lap record at the famous Le Mans circuit in France. Hang on, I was thinking of something else. The Robin is an unloved pile of shit. Sorry."

On the flipside of the same token, not all complex cars are bad.

Nissan GT-R - more computers than in all of North Korea
For example, 911 Turbos, the Ur Quattro, Lancia Delta Integrales, GT-Rs, Lancer EVOs and Subaru STis - machines with more computers, differentials, sensors, servos and actuators than lugnuts. They are all legendary driver's cars despite, and indeed because of, their high-tech engineering solutions.
Then there's the Rube Goldberg school of design, case in point the Mitsubishi GTO / 3000GT / Dodge Stealth.  The automotive equivalent of a Dream Theater record - all technique and no soul, complexity for the sake of complexity, showy, artless.  The car had twin turbos, four wheel steering, four wheel drive, active aerodynamics, electronically controlled suspension and perhaps most illustrative of my point - switchable exhaust notes.  It weighed seven tons, understeered like a shopping cart with a 40 pound sack of dog food over the front casters and offered all the feedback of a large fishing boat. They were pretty quick when they weren't broken.

What I'm saying is that there are always multiple ways to skin a cat, and the results are all down to that rare spark of focus and inspiration.  I have my preferences, we all do, but I'm grateful we have so many choices - variety keeps competition among manufacturers strong, and it keeps this hobby interesting.  Just be sure to know your rib eye from a McRib.


  1. The McRib is not a made from Ribeye steak? What? Oh no!

  2. Hey, I like the idea of comparing cars to bands/artists... Perhaps you should take some time and cover this area thoroughly (if you haven't already, note that I'm still reading all your stuff in chronological order)!

    1. Hmm, that could be an interesting angle - I'll think it over, thanks.

      Super-cool you're going through my back-catalog, very flattered!