30 years ago today Looking back without hindsight. In July 1990 CAR attempted to predict the future. It got a surprising amount right.
‘After years of being offered clones, we should see some innovation’
The most interesting thing about CAR’s July 1990 issue wasn’t the magazine itself, with its cover lamenting the lack of distinctiveness in contemporary car design, but rather a separate supplement, The Car In The Future. For this supplement – also distributed with the Sunday Times – CAR got seriously bold. Future powertrains were examined with test-drives of the all-electric GM Impact (infamously the subject of the documentary film Who Killed The Electric Car?), VW’s direct-injection, one-box Futura concept, plus a diesel-electric hybrid Golf prototype, a hydrogen-powered BMW 7 Series and an electric Peugeot 205. Designers Patrick le Quèment, Hartmut Warkuss, Herbert Schafer, Claus Luthe and Wayne Cherry were asked to imagine the kind of car their employers might task them with in the 21st Century.
Executives from Ford, VW and Toyota were invited to predict the customer of the future, and perhaps boldest of all, environmentalist anti-car campaigner Jonathan Porritt was given several pages across which to make the case against cars altogether. CAR also poked fun at the future predictions of the Fifties -o-matic era, with its flying nuclear-powered cars; in retrospect, by being diligent, it got an awful lot right in its own. Hybrid and fully-electric cars can be found in every manufacturer’s range nowadays, and while the VW Futura’s gullwing doors are still a rare novelty, its monobox construction, direct-injection, all-digital dashboard and ability to park itself aren’t any more.
But it was the sage-like words of LJK Setright that resonate most. As he imagined the typical car in 2005, he touched on a paper he had written in 1974, noting the way that progress forms 90-year arcs comprising 30-year sub-arcs. ‘The public is dangerously quick to superimpose new social pressures on existing practical requirements,’ he noted, suggesting that new cars wouldn’t have to be burdened by nearly as much new safety equipment if people had learned to accept wearing seatbelts earlier, and simply drove more carefully.
Setright also predicted that by 2005 the pressures of urban driving would favour the hatchback form over the saloon, puncture-sealing spray cans would oust spare wheels and, despite the availability of alternative propulsion sources, that the internal combustion engine would still be the most viable. Electric power, he reasoned, would come of age within the following 30-year arc.
Misfired predictions include the impending rise of the two-stroke engine in small cars, a fixation with sliding and gullwing doors, and Lotus boss Mike Kimberley’s suggestion that future supercars would be engineered for acceleration rather than top speed, with any interest in going over 150mph muted by how unachievable it was on real-world roads. This was of course the era before track days. But overall, The Car In The Future reads like the work of a latter-day Nostradamus nowadays.