There are two vehicles that I’ve driven recently that have really made me think good things about the future of motoring. The first is the Nissan Leaf.
Now, I’m not going to deny that I found elements of it slightly irritating. First on that list is the high-set noddy-car driving position, swiftly followed by the odd looks. But regardless of that I really enjoyed the seamless power delivery, the refinement and the fact that it functions very well as a modern car. There is of course a novelty element involved in why I enjoy it so much, but discounting that it really is a pleasant way to travel, and you can have all the usual luxuries.
Which leads me to the second vehicle that had me thinking about the future, and that was a 1937 Ford Model Y. It cost £100 when new, complete with its 933cc in-line four pot engine, three-speed manual ‘box and top speed of 59mph, and was the cheapest full-size car of its era as well as the first car designed specifically for Europe and the UK. So when I’d had my fill of simply sitting in it and appreciating the smell of 74-year old wood and metal (if you don’t revel in the smell of museum cars you’re just not an enthusiast in my book), I took it for a short and terrifying drive.
The steering wheel apparently had its primary use in being available to hold on to, with directing the car a distant secondary purpose that came in handy to divert the nose away from the passing scenery that the front axle had bounced towards regardless of what you were telling the wheels to do. It was the most hoping and praying I have done behind the wheel since my driving test. But for all that, it is utterly fascinating and exhilarating to glimpse what it might have been like to motor around in a car that was designed for the pre-war masses, and to consider just how far we’ve come since.
It would be hard to call the Leaf a car for the masses given its range and price, but it is a milestone for this proud industry. Given my lack of a crystal ball it is hard to say quite what we’ll be driving around in following another 80-odd years of progress, but it seems unlikely that we will see the exponential rate of improvement that I witnessed first hand when I stepped out of the Model Y and into a Focus, which I imagine is how it would feel stepping from the same Ford Focus into the Starship Enterprise. Even Nissan’s own engineers couldn’t give me any solid answer when I asked how quickly they expected battery technology to progress. In fact, the vague suggestions I picked up were distinctly leaning towards “not very quickly.”
Even so, if my experience in the brilliant but truly frightening Model Y was anything to go by, we need only make half the rate of progress over the coming decades to be in a very good position by the time we’re looking back at the Nissan Leaf as a nostalgic milestone in history. The only real downer is that an 80-year old Leaf probably won’t smell good.