From the Observer archive, 15 October 1961: the ideal car for a woman

The wife of the Observer’s motoring correspondent gives a thumbs-up to the Mini… for its handbag space

“One long holiday,” they say – married to a motoring journalist, always on the move, driving the latest cars. Hmm.

Watching a front wheel disappear into a shop doorway as we enter Paris after cruising for miles at 80. Sitting helpless, wondering whether to bale out as the driver struggles with a car that has gone berserk because one front brake has locked on. Getting to know that sudden crunch when a tyre tread comes off at over 100mph.

The bitterest memories, however, are of mundane things. The countless miserable miles I have travelled with rain dripping on my knees through leaking glove compartments and windscreens, the hours I have passed with my feet soaking in inches of rainwater. Cars which get a thorough test in a spray booth before leaving the factory get good marks from me.

But the thing that reduces a woman to screaming hysteria is an inadequate parcel shelf. No matter how expensive they are, few cars have shelves or any other receptacles that will take one of today’s large-size handbags, so there is nowhere to put it except on the floor, on the back seat or beside you. On the floor, it will soon get mixed up with the pedals, producing murderous reactions from the driver. On the front seat, it slides across and gets wedged under his elbows just as he is taking a corner on the limit. On the back seat, it ends up on the floor anyway. Alec Issigonis has earned the gratitude of every woman who owns a good handbag by providing four big boxes on the BMC Mini range, any one of which will hold a really big bag.

Besides a handbag, I am often burdened with stop-watches, log-book and pencils, but every family does trips when the parcel shelf and glove box are filled with guidebooks, toffees, tissues, cigarettes, cameras and sunglasses. There are cars on which the whole collection is tipped over the passenger’s legs every time the car moves away. After the tenth time, I develop a very special hate for the manufacturer.

Luggage suffers too. Luggage trunks get larger all the time, and a lot of them are now partly lined with some plastic covering to protect the cases, but on one expensive car the hinges shredded our cases like egg-slicers as soon as we shut the lid. Another rubbed two holes in the lining of a coat which rested on top of the luggage.

Punctures are rare these days, but they always happen at the most inconvenient moments, and fast cars do seem to break up their tyres on motorways fairly regularly. It is bad enough to have to change a wheel, but worse if you have to shift the luggage to get at the spare. So my vote goes to spare wheels in separate cradles, either under the trunk, or under the front bumper, as on the Dauphine.

More and more passengers are enjoying the feeling of security that safety belts bring, and I am sure they are a good thing, but I cannot bear being trussed up. So I am all the more interested in the other safety precautions on the car. I look for padded visors and instrument panels. For the driver, a dished steering-wheel and a collapsible column, as on the Herald, are real life-savers.

Unframed driving mirrors are now illegal in some countries and I would not have one on any car I used regularly, for they can add the menace of flying glass in a crash. Interior door handles are best recessed in the doors or under the arm rests and should always have child-proof catches. Even on very expensive cars it is amazing to find how often the door handle is where a solid grab handle should be, and when cornering fast it is all too easy to clutch the handle for support and open the door by mistake.

Whether driving or riding as a passenger, I find few seats that are really comfortable over long distances. Costly, deep and soft upholstery is often a sad disappointment. There is rarely enough support for the back and the body is allowed to sag into most unnatural positions. Reclining seats with fully adjustable backrests are really essential for passenger comfort on long journeys, and I have spent hundreds of miles of night driving in comfort on them. They also help the driver to get the best out of brief roadside nap, but they are seldom found on British cars except at enormous cost. Full marks to the Jaguar Mark X, on which they are standard. But continental manufacturers, and even the Russians, provide them on cheap cars. Why should we be the last to have them?

The most practical floor covering for low-priced cars is moulded rubber. Cheap pile carpets look shoddy after a few months. Washable plastic head-linings help to keep a car young. Cloth acts as a filter for sooty city air and cannot be cleaned.

It may surprise some designers to know that women do not always want pretty cars. The style can be quite stark so long as it is solidly built and put together, so that bits do not drop off. Spartan cars that look as though a few dents would not matter could attract a lot of women and I suspect a lot of men, too. The 2CV Citroen and the Renault 4 are two examples. Like the Triumph Herald, they have wings that can easily be removed for repair.

Contrary to male belief, women are not complete idiots when it comes to mechanical matters but they resent having to waste time over needless chores. This year brings good news in a big selection of cars on which chassis greasing has been abolished or greatly reduced.

Automatic gearboxes are a boon but they add a good deal to the price and they are not found on the smallest cars, except the charming little Dutch DAF. So it would be nice if all manufacturers would spend a few shillings extra to give us synchromesh on first gear. And come to that there are some popular models on which even a skilled driver cannot emerge from first gear from rest without making a nasty crunching noise.

Driving is all very well, but with police and traffic wardens constantly under one’s feet, added to the normal hazards of British roads, any woman would rather be driven if she had the chance. After using a Rolls-Royce Phantom V with a chauffeur for part of the Observer‘s test, I am completely sold on the kind of motoring where you never have to open a door, bother with parcels and luggage or think about garages and parking places. I would scrap all my theories about utility motoring at the drop of a hat by any old-fashioned millionaire.

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