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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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In this world of Health and Safety, it seems car design now has to be practical

Thankfully that wasn’t always the case. I’ve got a Jaguar XK120 coupé, which I think is one of the most achingly beautiful cars ever produced. The fact that anybody driving it who’s bigger than Sneezy The Dwarf is going to be terribly uncomfortable didn’t even seem to play a part in its design. They wanted it to be a good-looking car; it had to look like this.

Comfort and safety seemed to matter for little. Take, for instance, the XK120 steering column. Not only is it not collapsible, it’s a long rod that literally runs from the cockpit all the way to the front of the car. Just in case you should have any chance of surviving an accident, they put what looks like a giant arrowhead on the end, which is the horn button. Nobody engineered safety into cars in those days.

Same thing with the Lamborghini Miura. It’s like the folks at Lamborghini thought, ‘We designed the car to be beautiful and you have to change your physiology to adapt to the design.’ Nobody does that anymore. We have cars that are more practical and comfortable but less attractive.

I think in the early days you could be an artist and design a car, but now you have to be an engineer. In the old days, an artist would design it and then an engineer would come in and figure out how to make it. But now the artist and the engineer almost have to be one and the same. You certainly can’t design a car these days without having gone to college, but in the old days a lot of the guys were not college guys, they were artists. That’s what they did.

To me, of all the cars of the 20th century, the one that epitomizes pure design best would be the McLaren F1. You sit in the center, it’s incredibly comfortable, you’re not cramped. Anybody from 4ft 9in to 7ft tall can drive a McLaren comfortably. With the F1 they designed the mechanicals first, and it’s almost as if they poured chocolate over it to form the shape of the car.

It seems to me that in the early days design came from nature. You only need to look at a Jaguar to see those rear haunches are like a cat about to leap. Admittedly, some of the early cars that we think of as being aerodynamic were not particularly aerodynamic at all, but to the human eye they looked aerodynamic. They drew their shapes from forms in nature that are pleasing to the human eye.

I think things that are made by hand are always much more appealing, on some sort of psychological level, than things that are made by machine. To this day, when you want to show quality you say ‘handmade’. No hand or eye is as good as a micrometer, but for some reason the English craftsman putting his thumb up and closing one eye and saying, ‘hmmm, that’s good enough’, somehow seems more impressive than a laser.

And for years the eye was the best judge of form. When the Stanley brothers set the Land Speed Record in 1906 there were no wind tunnels. They noticed how a canoe went through the water and they equated water with air. So they put two canoes together, one on top of the other, and that formed the body for that record-breaking car.

Good design is a lack of chrome, a lack of scoops. To me there are not a lot of cars prettier than the mid-’50s Lancia Aurelia. It looks so simple, almost like a first-year student would draw it. But try it. It’s very hard. The best designs are the simplest and the cleanest.

I think the Countach is outrageous but it’s not particularly aerodynamic and it’s a bit busy. It doesn’t have as clean or smooth a line as the Miura. If there was one car to represent the automotive world in a design museum I would probably have to go with the Bugatti Atlantique. It’s hard to top that. Art Deco streamlining may occasionally go out of fashion, but it never goes out of style. Even people who have very little interest in automobiles will always look at a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantique. I know women who have no interest at all in cars but who are drawn to the teardrop designs from the ’30s.

Same with a Jag XK120. I’ve seen it. I drive my white XK120 in Beverly Hills and if I’m just sitting in the car women come up and go, ‘Oooh, I love that! What kind of car is that?’ Penelope Cruz came to my garage one day and she was just looking at the cars, past the Atom, past the Countach, past the fire truck, and then all of a sudden she shouts, ‘What’s that?!’ She just ran to the white Jag and sat in it. That’s good enough for me.


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