PH Footnote: Size matters

There's an interesting thread on PH at the moment. Well, they're all interesting, obviously, but this one is more interesting than some.

At first sight, the subject matter looks less than enthralling. It's all about a tractor (or other motorised farming implement) not being able to squeeze down an English country lane because of parked cars. To see how this particular driver ingeniously solved his (or her) access problem, look here.

Older readers will remember Fordson and Ferguson tractors chugging merrily along the public highways. They weren't really an issue in those days because (a) they were relatively titchy, and (b) they didn't go much above 15mph. Today's Transformer-style farming behemoths, often apparently driven by small children, thunder along B-roads at bloodcurdling speeds while taking up rather more than their allotted half-share of the Tarmac. The only remedy for ordinary road-users faced with such a sight is to swerve into the dubious sanctuary of a thorny hedgerow, scraping eight layers of paint off the old motor.

That tractor thread has veered away from the initial 'who did what to whom' banter into an agricultural discussion on the effects of massive tyres on soft ground and the hidden dangers of soil compaction. In all the ooh-arr shouting, one key point seems to have been missed. Which is that the biggest threat posed by excessive girth on the roads is not coming from hulking great combine harvesters. It's coming from ordinary cars.

Take a squint at the header shot of the E63 v RS6 test. As rural roads go, that one seems luxuriously wide. Why, it even has a dotted line running down it. Even so, check the amount of space around either car. Not much. And they're not even especially big cars by modern standards.

And the space between cars is getting smaller all the time. Between 1974 and 2014, the average width of a car increased by 16 per cent. In the exciting new Trumpian era of bigliness, percentage increases of less than a thousand are generally considered to be not worth looking at, but 16 per cent in this context is a lot.

An unchecked increase in car width that isn't being matched by a similar increase in the width of roads, access points and parking spaces will, at some point, present a problem. The first 1959 Mini was less than 1.4 metres wide and the first 1974 Golf had a breadth of just over 1.6 metres - today's Golf is over 2 metres.

This bloating process isn't just a consequence of all the safety gubbins that needs to be packed between a door card and an outer skin. It's also because car manufacturer board members have started taking highly-stylised designer renderings literally. That's down to us lot demanding cars that look like concepts. Not many concepts in the last few years have been narrow.

The only major organisation that seems to have recognised this lurking width menace is not, as you might hope, the government, but Lego. They increased the width of their road plate sections in the earlier part of this decade - but even they seem to be disowning the problem now, having largely phased out their road plates altogether.

There's been a big increase in parking damage over the last couple of decades too. Two-thirds of British motorists have experienced some kind of damage to their vehicles after parking in a car park, with nearly half of that happening in supermarket car parks, and around a third of it is caused by carelessly-opened doors. Some of those incidents will be down to sudden gusts of wind, obviously, but the ever-reducing clearance between cars isn't helping.

(By the way, a non-fault claim on 'supermarket damage' can result in a hike in your own premium because insurers like Admiral reckon, incredibly, that 'customers who have a non-fault accident often go on to have a fault one within a relatively short time', citing 'a higher than average exposure to everyday driving risks' as the rationale, without so much as a hint of a grin.)

You can be sure that budget-conscious car park planners won't be widening the spaces anytime soon. After all, they don't care about what happens to your car. On the length front, the minimum parking bay size hasn't changed since 1994: UK bays are now two inches smaller than the average car. It's all going to become more of a problem as our roads become awash with SUVs.

So, how can we tackle the effects of this embiggening process, given that the car manufacturers are only going to go one way until they're told to stop, by which time it will be too late? Can we at least mitigate the crash/scrape-damage implications of ongoing sexy girth?

It seems odd that no manufacturer has brought in old-fashioned radar detectors with a Goldfinger DB5-type screen display to show oncoming vehicles approaching on high-hedgerowed country lanes. For parking and exiting ease, manufacturers could bring back sliding doors. Unfortunately, nobody really likes sliding doors on passenger cars because they're electric and break down a lot, they mean you've got to have an ugly slot carved into the side of your car and who wants that, or they might let your kids fall out of the side (pick any one).

Vans like old Transits, Bedford CFs and Austin J2s used to be available with sliding front doors. They were handy on urban delivery routes, especially if the driver was feeling a bit queasy from the previous night's sesh. That was until the door unexpectedly slid forward, slicing off a couple of fingers.

How about other vehicle-entry solutions like Tesla's double-hinged 'falcon' doors? Nope. Even Elon Musk has said he'll never try anything like that again, and he's building space rockets in his spare time.

The trouble is, as a species we're getting bigger - and not just us high-fat, high-carb Western folks either. The average height of a South Korean woman has increased from 4ft 8in in 1896 to 5ft 4in in 1996. That's a bigly percentage. So, not only do we want bigger cars, it seems that we actually need them, yet at the same time we don't have the time or space for a desperate road-widening programme. Luckily, there is no plan for one, but in lieu of such a measure, where does the answer to our dearth of driving space lie?



P.H. O'meter

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Comments (84) Join the discussion on the forum

  • V8 FOU 28 Nov 2017

    Interesting article TM.
    I am just finishing a minor resto on a Fiesta Mk1. Such a sweet wee car. Looks so small compared to moderns. Even the P38 RR seems to be shrinking over the years compared to a Ford smax or whatever.
    I would guess there is a need for small cars - look how many Smart cars there are around.
    My OH has a Fiat Seicento - she parked it next to a Fiat 500 the other week. Talk about little and large.

  • hardworker 28 Nov 2017

    In built up areas they put lumps of concrete on both sides of the road so both sides are forced to the middle of the road to such an extent that it is not uncomfortably narrow but dangerously narrow for 2 normal size cars to pass, if a bus or truck is coming the other way at the same time it is downright dangerous. God forbid if 2 vans want to pass at the same time or 2 busses etc, they will be clashing wing mirrors, if not outright crashing sooner or later, and this on a road which WAS perfectly wide enough for 2 busses to pass each other comfortably until they added this crap. They do the same at zebra crossings, pedestrian crossings etc. again to such an extent there is but millimetres to spare. A little bit narrower I could understand but not the extent they reduce it to. It must be a nightmare being a bus or truck driver in Britain these days. They are deliberately making the roads not only uncomfortably narrow but dangerously narrow.

    Edited by hardworker on Tuesday 28th November 22:06

    Edited by hardworker on Tuesday 28th November 22:13

  • g7jhp 28 Nov 2017

    There's a joy to driving 3.2 Carrera or Caterham down a narrow windy road where you have space to position it.

    Only problem is the other guy in their big SUV who insists on taking up the whole road because they're bigger and don't want to scratch their cat on the hedge!

  • Kawasicki 28 Nov 2017

    Selling cars is a competition, interior space is important to customers, so car sizes grow with each new model. There is an upper limit to width though, I think we are starting to see a slow down in width increases soon. A golf can only get so wide.

  • downsman 28 Nov 2017

    Regarding the parking damage issue, Citroen came up the brilliant idea of putting air bumps on the side of the Cactus which is also relatively narrow for its length.

    Bizarrely, on its replacement next year the bumps are much smaller and so low on the doors that they will be useless rolleyes

    Seems people didn't want to buy a car that was less likely to be damaged in a car park and avoid the premium increases after all.

    Guess which car we have just bought smile

    By the way, my Caterham is great in tight parking spaces, as the car sides are about a foot in from the edges of the wings.

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