Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One size doesn't fit all

When the previous mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, decided to get rid of the Routemaster double decker buses and replace them with continental style, articulated bendy buses he forgot the reason why we had double decker buses in the first place. I say "forgot" - the chances are that he never knew in the first place, so, just in case anyone else was wondering the reason was simple.

British roads - and particularly London roads - were just too small. What was needed was a vehicle that could carry seventy or more people while being able to negotiate the multitude of tight, narrow corners and streets that proliferate in England's capital city. Consequently, they had to be short and narrow - by bus standards - but they could be tall as most bridges allowed clearance for a horse drawn carriage with a driver sitting atop carrying a driving whip in the upright position - hence double decker buses and thus an icon of Britain was born.

The vehicles were, of course, designed and built in Britain - for two reasons. Firstly, because we had the industrial base and technical know how to do it then and secondly, because British designers understood British requirements and nowhere was this more apparent than in car design.

American car designers were able to build large cars which suited their wide, straight roads. French car designers tended to concentrate on soft, long travel suspension to make driving over rutted cart tracks which proliferated in rural France less arduous and German designers concentrated on over engineering everything to the nth degree as they always have done because Germans are obsessed with such things.

In Britain, we made cars to suit British roads and this meant - on the whole, small and nimble. However, since globalisation we no longer have such diversity and choice. Everything is made pretty much for the some fictional ideal that only exists in the world of advertising. So the BMW 3 series is now more than seven inches wider than it was in 1992.

It's hardly surprising that more and more minor scrapes and accidents are happening on British roads with such large machines roaming around the countryside. Add on the fact that many of our roads have been narrowed to accommodate painted "cycle lanes" and are clogged with parked cars - many of which park on the pavement making it difficult for pedestrians to get by - and you can see why these accidents happen.

It also explains why few of us bother to put our cars in our garages anymore - they just don't bloody well fit! My garage was built in the seventies and, while it may have been wide enough to fit a Cortina into and still allow space for the driver to get out, the only way I could have got my Alfa in was if I climbed out of the sunroof (which it didn't have, so I couldn't have done).

However, since the Alfa was totalled last winter by a brainless idiot who thought (or didn't think) that just because he had a four wheel drive he could drive two yards behind my car in snow and ice and still be able to stop in time (he couldn't), I've been making do with a 1989 Ford Escort which fits in the garage nicely.

It also explains why parking spaces seem a lot smaller these days than they used to - and why my Alfa, despite me never personally having put one dent, scratch or mark on it - was covered in various dings and scrapes from other people opening their doors carelessly in car parks.

Actually, going off at tangent for a moment, that reminds me of something which sums up Britain today. I remember years ago when my mother and I returned to her ancient and battered Ford Anglia sitting in a car park in Maidenhead to find a note under the windscreen wiper. It had been left by a gentleman who had inadvertently clipped the bumper of the Anglia while reversing his car out of the space beside it. The note apologised and gave the gentleman's phone number along with an offer to pay for any damage.

To be honest, the bumper was already crooked and dented and it was hard to see any new damage, but when my mother called the gentleman and said that there really was no need to pay he nevertheless insisted and consequently sent a £20 postal order to my mother (it was a long time ago and that was a lot of money then). We didn't get the bumper fixed, but it did go a long way to paying for the family holiday that year!

It was symptomatic of those times - when people owned up and took responsibility. I've never had anyone own up to damaging my car in a car park despite the fact it has happened on at least half a dozen occasions. I think that is symptomatic of our times.

Anyway, back to my original point - the fact that one size doesn't fit all. That not only did we used to have cars designed specifically for the needs and requirements of British roads, but we also used to have laws designed to suit the British legal system; we had regulation to suit and benefit British industry; we had rules that made sense for British businesses and we had societal institutions that were tailored to meet the needs and requirements of the British people, its customs, traditions and quirks of constitution and culture.

Just as continental bus design doesn't suit British roads and cities so do a lot of EU inspired regulations, directives and laws fail to meet the needs of Britain. The countries of Europe are as diverse and different as chalk and cheese and it simply isn't possible to have a one size fits all approach to them all. It's stupid to even try, but it's even more stupid to insist it can work when common sense and evidence of your own eyes tells you it doesn't.


Antisthenes said...

"French car designers tended to concentrate on soft, long travel suspension to make driving over rutted cart tracks which proliferated in rural France"

The state of French road surfaces today I thought was down to neglect but obviously they hanker for the good old days.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Good post, thank you.

On the constant "growing" of cars, it's interesting to note that the current VW Polo is bigger than the original Golf - which is why they had to introduce another, smaller model - the Lupo - to fill the gap.

No doubt in time the Lupo, after several cycles of "improvement" will itself be bigger than the original Golf, so something else (the Cub?) will have to be brought into the bottom of the range.

If you want a tidy small car I recommend the 05-08 Fiesta; it's nippy, not too bad to drive, very cheap to run, and very easy to park. It would probably fit in your garage, too.

The new model - naturally - is more expensive, larger and clumsier, and although quite nice-looking, it doesn't fill the same market niche. Hence the Ka. But I'm starting to repeat myself.

Stan said...

Antisthenes ...

"The state of French road surfaces today I thought was down to neglect but obviously they hanker for the good old days."

LOL - maybe, but then British roads are in an awful state too and I don't think that's because we're looking forward to the return of the Renault 4.

Weekend Yachtsman ...

Thanks for the recommmendation, but I'm actually really happy with the Escort. It may be old, but it's low mileage and one owner who looked after it well.

It was intended to be a stop gap - and still is - but it suits my needs in most respects for the small amount of driving I do. Ok, it lacks air con - which is a real pain for the six days a year we actually need it - it doesn't have power steering, but what it lacks in ease of parking it makes up for with wonderfully precise and quick response on the move.

I don't even miss the electric windows.

English Pensioner said...

According to what I read, the new London Bus is to have an open rear platform. Apart from the fact that I thought these had been banned by the EU, they hardly fit in with modern Health and Safety considerations.
No doubt the no-win no-fee lawyers won't take long to jump on the bandwagon (or bus platform)

TheFatBigot said...

Splendid post Mr Stan. I don't know anyone who likes bendy buses, people regularly complain of a feeling of sea-sickness as they swing around numerous corners.

The new routemaster design looks promising although it would have been far more sensible to keep maintaining the old ones than spend more than half a million quid on each new one.