The Sensual Appeal of I.C.E. and Automobilia
From the Sound of Silence to the Art of Noise, the tactility of textiles to the aroma of weathered hide, even tangential taste, Iain Robertson cites sight as the ultimate essence of our five inherent senses that draw us unerringly to the motorcar.
If there is one memorably key aspect attached to the present state of social distancing and semi-enforced isolation, it lies in the relative silence that allows us to hear the dawn chorus with such clarity and to sleep, or cogitate, as we wish, without the merest hint of neighbourly pollution. With a proposed 2035 electric vehicle future, even though total transport electrification will take a further 25 years to achieve at very least, I wonder if a new generation will fully comprehend the whirr of a Bendix starter motor, the off-beat firing order of an Audi 5-cylinder petrol engine, the clatter of a PSA TUD diesel motor, or the exhaust fart of a Minor 1000 on overrun.
When Porsche abandoned air for water as its engine cooling medium, the aftermarket went into overdrive, producing alternative manifolding and pipework, in an effort to retain the flat-six blart for which the 911 was renowned. The factory at Zuffenhausen reacted with a more raucous option. Yet, when exhaust emissions of the internal combustion engine (ICE) were first addressed with catalysers in the mid-1970s, many of their earlier characteristics were lost to legislation and the omnipresent whiff of rotten eggs. While a healthy disregard for rules has maintained tuning shop viability, a tightening of the MOT Test will reduce the washing machine rumble of a Subaru Boxer engine’s signature forever, turbo-boosted, or not.
Advances in technology have allowed some characteristics to return but the calico crackle of a Bugatti straight-eight, or the supercharger shrillness of a Le Mans Bentley are already lost to all but classic race car audiences. Yet, no in-car ‘symposer’ can replicate the sensual thrills attached to the changing camshaft profiles of a Honda VTEC engine, or nudging a solipsistic soprano solo 8,500rpm piston rev-limit, or even the rarity of a Mazda rotary at deafening full chat. Stretching the bounds of sonic appreciation is central to sensual appeal.
Methanol inflicts its chemical composition on some classes of racing car today, although being in the close proximity of that aforementioned Bugatti Type35, as its crankcase swells and it imbibes the explosive fuel, which causes eye watering anxiety, goes someway towards declaring sensual complexity. The sweet-smelling esters employed in conventional pump petrol and diesel cocktails, despite their cancer firing potential, are as beguiling as any odours emitted by cars of yore. The first heady breath, as the wood trimmed and hide lined driver’s door of a Jaguar Mark 2 is opened, has to be experienced to be comprehended. It is as cosy as grandad’s Borkum Riff pipe tobacco, or a crackling wood fire in a Highland stone cottage.
To fans of the race and rally scene, there can be little more beguiling a scent than Castrol R race lubrication on a burning exhaust pipe. Yet, even a plastic-fantastic Ford Consul, or Vauxhall Victor, or Hillman Minx, boasts an intrinsic essence linked inextricably to family holidays at the English Lakes, or Minehead, or Bognor Regis. To some aficionados of the art of glass(fibre), the layered aroma of resin is as omnipresent in a modern-day Lotus, as it is in a Marcos, Reliant, or even a Chevrolet Corvette.
Just harking back to that Jaguar Mark 2, the mechanical sound of depressing a chromed metal button in an external door handle is only matched by the surety of its latched closure; metal against metal and the thin damping of felt-lined rubber. Modern Volkswagens, while never quite equating the gentle wheeze of air seeking escape from a Beetle’s cabin, manage closures with professional zeal. The same firm (and its various offshoots) also manages tactility with religious fervour. The relative warmth of soft-touch, slush-moulded plastics may be at odds with the quality of saddle stitched leather but in terms of bringing lounge quality to automotive interiors, it was a 1990s’ gamechanger.
Slide across the Connolly treated leather of a Rolls Royce’s driver’s seat and intoxication is just a breath away, from the clinical chill of its chromed circular air-vents and the satin sheen of its French-polished wood veneers, down to the lambswool rugs adorning and protecting finest Axminster weave beneath. No less charming is the part-vulcanised appeal of Karobes rubber mats resisting winter weather damage in the family’s Cortina, even though the heater unit may breed a smell that is eminently resistible.
Soft trim, whether man-made, or treated natural, is as comfortable as Audi, Bentley, Fiat, or smart placing embroidered cushions in cars; they provide as much a link to domestic bliss as modern day in-car communications media. To people who find life without electronica unbearable, the motor industry is moving ever closer to relieving that burden. Yet, I fear that it might be a soul-less revolution that will lull us into even greater disconnection with our world, which may be a dichotomy too far.
Emitting little more than a man-made squawk at town speeds, a future of gently whirring automotive electrification is also a future without sights, without sonic distractions, without scents, lacking in tactility and with little to sate the inner being. Relegating sensual delight to Tesla standards of non-involvement is, in my book, a potential disaster awaiting discovery. To become detached from motoring life is to welcome a world of autonomous travel, like standing in a sardine-packed New York, Tokyo, or London subterranean train, with a latest novelette and Beats headphones for company.
Those familiar with driving by the seats of their pants, reacting to understeer, oversteer, or bumpsteer, revelling in mechanical traction and grip afforded by a low-slung chassis, while listening intently to the rise and fall of engine revolutions, as manually selected gears mesh with bevelled delight, will have magnificent tales to tell. Yet, the sensual delights will be relegated to some elements of largely unaffordable electric supercars. Do you want that? I don’t. I can’t afford it.
Conclusion: The automotive scene has been through such a major transformation this century, so far, it is actually sad that so much of what it achieved in the last one will be relegated to recorded highlights on social media ongoing.