“And now, my friend, the first rule of Italian driving: What is behind me is not important.”
— Franco Bertollini, The Gumball Rally (1976)
I’m an unabashed fan of cars from the post-war period, right up until the end of the 1980s. Even those cars from that bleak period in the 1970s, after the fuel crisis of 1973, have a special place in my heart because those are the cars I remember my parents driving when I first became aware that cars were more than just an appliance for transporting you from place to place.
After you’ve spent some time driving modern cars, what becomes abundantly clear the second you plant yourself in the driver’s seat of any car from the 2000s back is that you have a clear view of every corner. My daily driver is a 1983 Pontiac Parisienne, and while that car is often criticized for its “design-by-T-square” styling, at a glance, I have a largely uninterrupted view, thanks to the glassy greenhouse that used to be part of every car’s design.
Of course, the law of unintended consequences has forced some design features in the second decade of the new millennium. Every car now has enough airbags to raise a scuttled battleship, and you’ve got to put those things somewhere, so the A-, B- and C-pillars have gotten much thicker. In fact, rollover standards mandating a strong safety cage have made the term “pillar” a misnomer. They’re full blown panels now.
But much of this is simple design choice. You can build a curtain-style airbag into the roof as easily as you can build it into a pillar. As 19- and 20-inch wheels become the norm on even the most pedestrian automobiles, it has pushed designers to build their most outrageous concepts at the expense of visibility. Sit in a ’65 Mustang and you can hang your arm out the window. Sit in a ’10 Mustang and the window opening starts somewhere around the top of your left ear, leaving passengers feeling like they’re sitting at the bottom of a deep, dark hole.
Vehicles like the Honda Crosstour and the Acura ZDX that fall into a new segment somewhere between coupe and crossover have taken the lack of visibility to a ridiculous extreme. Between the gigantic sail panels and the five headrests the size of a marble rye, there’s nothing to see out the back window. And if there was, designers put the kibosh on it. Look out the rear view mirror and all you can see is the thick horizontal bar across the entire rear window.
Designers counter that both the Crosstour and the ZDX have blindspot warning systems and rear view cameras as standard equipment.
That argument is fine if you’re designing motorhomes or Peterbilts. These are cars that in large part are being purchased by people older than 50, who require a freshened eyeglass prescription every year. Why aren’t we designing cars that allow them to see more, rather than less?