Conventional wisdom dictates that sports cars have two seats and family cars have four, five or seven. We won’t blur the lines by mentioning 2+2s. You can hardly blame manufacturers for being predictable: it’s all about selling cars. Not that this has stopped some car companies from thinking a little differently.
From supercars that put you at the centre of the action to a small car with the equivalent of a deckchair in the back, here are some of the more unconventional seating arrangements.
Speaking about the central driving position in the McLaren F1, designer Gordon Murray said: “I wanted the driver to feel special and sitting in the middle was synonymous with Formula One.” It also solved the problem of offset pedals that blighted many other supercars of the time, and of having to produce versions for both left- and right-hand drive markets.
The F1 isn’t the only three-seater sports car in the world – McLaren rebooted the idea for the Speedtail – but it’s the one everybody remembers.
Fiat Multipla 600
The godfather of the modern MPV, the Fiat 600 Multipla was a triumph of great packaging. By extending the cabin of the humble 600, Fiat transformed a city car into a little people carrier, of just 3531mm (139in) in length. ‘Little’ being the operative word, because space was at a premium.
“Whatever the need, a family car, a delivery vehicle, for town or country the 600 Multipla fits the bill,” said Fiat. There was even a Multipla 600 Taxi, complete with a pair of jump seats in the back.
Too often dismissed for its weird and unconventional styling, the modern Fiat Multipla, launched in 1998, demonstrated some rather clever thinking. The width of the car meant that Fiat could accommodate two rows of three-abreast seating with plenty of room for a large boot.
The flat floor delivered more room for feet and luggage, but the Multipla’s biggest strength was its versatility. Remove the rear seats to create a large three-seat estate car; fold the centre seats to turn it into a spacious four-seater. Brilliante!
Aston Martin DBS V8 Ogle
Also known as the ‘Sotheby Special’, the Aston Martin DBS V8 Ogle was designed by Tom Karen and financed by a tobacco company to promote a premium cigarette brand. It premiered at the 1972 Montreal motor show and even managed to secure a Motor magazine cover slot.
We could talk about the clever rear lights (all 22 of them – pictured inset), but of most interest here is the single transverse rear seat. Not just any rear seat, but a seat finished in green corduroy. God bless the 1970s.
Like the McLaren F1, the Renault Twizy electric vehicle features a central driving position, but that’s where the similarities end. Thanks to a top speed of 50mph, it doesn’t even boast a 0-62mph time.
Wind deflectors on the optional scissor doors should mean that the driver escapes the worst of the weather, but the same won’t be true of anyone unfortunate enough to be travelling in the back. Still, at least the rain on your face will take your mind off the awkward seating position.
Although never officially offered for sale in the UK, a small number of Matra-Simca Bagheera sports cars arrived via the Graham Pope establishment in Middlesex. Chrysler even displayed a Bagheera at the Earls Court motor show to gauge public interest.
It wasn’t the first three-seater sports car; the Ferrari 365 prototype and Bizzarrini Manta concept of the 1960s are earlier examples. The French hoped to take the concept to mass market, but only after Matra had ruled out a central driving position for practical and cost reasons. Matra stuck with the three-abreast idea for the Murena.
Citroën CX Familiale
Familiale versions of the Citroën CX could accommodate up to eight people. Known as the Safari in the UK, the CX was one of the largest and most practical cars in Europe, so it was ideal for cross-continental road trips with the family in tow.
In 1980, Autocar took a Citroën CX 2500 D Familiale on what we called “an unusually extended test” to the top of the Grossglockner pass in Austria. “It romped up in spite of the load”.
Skoda Felicia Fun
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Skoda Felicia Fun is little more than a bright yellow two-seater pick-up. The rear of the cab slides outwards to reveal a pair of additional passenger seats, turning the Skoda into a proper four-seater.
A rollbar, head restraints and seatbelts would protect the rear-seat occupants in the event of a crash, but there was nothing to protect them from the elements. It’s not all fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun.
Fiat Panda Mk1
Designed in record time by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, the original Panda was Fiat’s answer to a French-style utility vehicle. Flat glass, a simple dashboard, thin front seats and outside hinges on the doors were just some of the tricks used to keep costs to a minimum.
The back seat was little more than a pair of tubes and a piece of elasticated canvas, which could be removed to turn the Panda into a little estate car or small van. You could even use it as a hammock to carry babies. These were different times.
Light Car Company Rocket
In his weighty tome about the Light Car Company Rocket, author Clive Neville reveals that the company lost £5000 on each of the 47 cars sold. A £38,000 asking price in 1992 is the equivalent of £80,000 in 2021.
Gordon Murray, who co-designed the Rocket with racer Chris Craft, said: “It was way ahead of its time as an expensive track toy. They didn’t exist in those days.” Craft insisted on adding a second seat behind the driver, arguing that a passenger should be able to enjoy the ride.
Launched at a time when choosing a seven-seater meant deciding whether to squeeze your children into an estate car or putting up with something based on a van, the Renault Espace was little short of a revolution. “You’re about to be converted,” claimed Renault.
Having seven seats was only the start of it. Owners could employ seven, six, five, four, three or simply two front seats, with the front pair rotating to face the rear. One of the back seats could be folded to create a table. Families had never had it so good.
We called the Toyota iQ “a genuinely mould-breaking car”. There’s nothing ground-breaking about a city car with four seats, but it’s worth remembering that the iQ was shorter than the original Mini. Unlike the Mini, the iQ offered first-class safety and felt perfectly at home on the motorway.
Maybe we’re being a little generous. Only a cardboard cut-out of yourself would fit in the seat behind the driver, so in reality the iQ is little more than a three-seater. Still, cutting away the dashboard to enable to the passenger seat to slide forward was a clever move.
The original Geely GE concept – that’s GE for ‘Geely Excellence’, obviously – drew criticism for its similarity to the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Its copycat styling wasn’t the only thing to stand out at its unveiling in 2008.
A single rear throne has to be the ultimate sign of opulence – or an admission that you have no friends nor partner.
We called the 600 Multipla the godfather of the modern MPV, but the Stout Scarab predates by the Fiat by a couple of decades. Launched in 1935, the Scarab featured Art Deco-influenced styling and suspension built using aircraft technology.
A centrally positioned passenger door opened to reveal an incredibly spacious cabin. With the exception of the fixed driver’s seat, the chairs could be repositioned at will. Even the ‘sofa’ at the back could be turned into a sleeping couch.
Volvo XC90 Excellence Lounge Console
Because the front passenger seat is so overrated, Volvo invented the Lounge Console for the 2015 XC90. The space is used for a cushioned leg rest, complete with a storage area for shoes. It leaves the rear-seat passenger to stretch out in comfort, with a great view of the road ahead.
The driver gets a great view of the passenger’s feet.
The idea of an electric concept car with two seats isn’t particularly radical, but the Peugeot EX1 demonstrated a rather novel means of entry and exit. Your legs only joined you in the car once you’d closed the doors. That’s because the bucket seats were attached to the rear-hinged doors.
Peugeot claimed a 0-62mph time of 3.0sec for the EV concept, which was unveiled in 2010 as a 200th anniversary present to itself.
The Honda S-MX appeared to be a car designed for… getting intimate. It was part of Honda’s ‘Creative Mover’ series, which sought to shift a car beyond a means of basic transportation. Turn the letter ‘M’ on its side for a clue to this MPV’s true purpose.
It came complete with cupholders, a nightstand and, we’re not making this up, an integrated tissue holder.
Remember the Daihatsu Basket concept of 2009? “This slow pace of life open four-seater with a wide rear deck is designed for the full enjoyment of life, such as for trips to the family vegetable plot out of the city,” said Daihatsu.
A canvas roof provided shelter for the rear seats, which could be removed to turn the Basket into a two-seater pick-up. It’s the kei car your allotment has been waiting for.
American car designers of the 1950s toyed with the idea of introducing front seats that swivelled to aid entry and exit to the vehicle. Dodge offered them on the Custom Royal, telling customers they’ll wonder how they ever managed without them. They were called Swing-Out Swivel Seats, for obvious reasons.
Other car companies, including Chrysler (pictured) introduced swivel seats of their own, with De Soto claiming it had made seats “that let you step out like a lady”. Buick went one further by experimenting with a rear-facing passenger seat on the Flamingo, but it never made it into production.
The Nissan BladeGlider featured three seats, with a central driver’s seat flanked by one each side and slightly behind. Each occupant had four-point harness, with the seats coated in grippy materials to keep everyone in place.
Talk of Nissan building a production version as an “anti-establishment electric sports car” have come to nothing. Shame.