Motor Mouth: The People's Carrier - The MPV is New Britain on wheels, the one that wears Gap and drinks Cloudy Bay

Motor Mouth: The People's Carrier - The MPV is New Britain on wheels, the one that wears Gap and drinks Cloudy Bay - There's a very long road in south London. I don't know whether market researchers have discovered it, but they should as it is an accurate

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There's a very long road in south London. I don't know whether market researchers have discovered it, but they should as it is an accurate, though cruel, linear representation of New Britain. At one end there are council estates and J-registered, paint-worn Nissans swarming aimlessly in that automotive imitation of the po' boy's shuffle. At the other, shiny, late-registered German cars leave their shingle drives with neatly uniformed children on school-runs, in environments that are a Stuttgart executive's low-church concept of luxury. Halfway between, socially and topographically, you find the MPVs - Multi Purpose Vehicles.

The MPV is New Britain on wheels, the one that wears Gap rather than Austin Reed, drinks Cloudy Bay in favour of cloudy bitter, mountain bikes instead of playing golf. So accurate is the symbolic-functional fit between man and machine that Tony Blair's advisers had him in a Ford Galaxy, the category-leading MPV, for his first official photo after the coronation.

They must have decided a Jaguar was too ancien regime, a Mondeo too proletarian and a Range Rover too horse 'n' hounds. But the multi-purpose vehicle was ideal for the multi-purpose leader of New Britain. Not only is it a people mover it is, class-wise, indefinable. And, best of all, its flexible seating arrangement allows travellers to face in the direction opposite to progress. Or, more appropriately, change their minds mid-journey.

The MPV has two evolutionary sources, one in Old Britain, the other in the New World. In Old Britain we had the Dormobile whose very name suggests a narcoleptic drug for ambulant patients. Dormobiles were Bedford, Commer or Thames vans, converted to residential use with marine ply to allow provincial university professors to visit Continental camp sites. There was something vaguely pleasing about the concept of these automobile homes, but the caravan-standard technology and commercial-vehicle dynamics compromised their real-world usefulness.

In the New World, Americans had a superior form of conversion for rednecks who found the Volkswagen Microbus too hippy-dippy: the camper van and its diurnal twin, the day van. Again, these were commercial vehicles, but fitted-out to US standards of comfort with revolving captain's chairs, huge dimensions and interesting fenestration. They handled like Great Lakes barges and ate fuel like a Saturn V at liftoff.

Then someone had a brilliant inspiration and created a new category of vehicle which had the space and flexibility of the old conversions but cornered like a car rather than the Merchant Navy on manoeuvres. Sure evidence of the Zeitgeist, it happened simultaneously in Europe and America.

Chrysler's new generation front-wheel drive mini vans and Renault's Espace, built from ingenious materials a few years before the required plastic-aluminium bonding technology, were the first to market in 1984. The Chrysler was too big for Europe but the Espace caused a sensation, making conventional saloons seem antique. History does not recall whether the ingenious flexible seating which offered more permutations than The 1001 Nights was ever used, but customers enjoyed the idea of it ... just in case. Until the arrival of the Ford Galaxy (and its mates, the Volkswagen Sharan and SEAT Alhambra), Renault owned the MPV market. Now it has gone Ford's way: the Galaxy is better to drive, even if the Espace's interior remains the more intelligent. Vauxhall has joined in, but never mind.

It is inevitable that one day all cars will be MPVs, yet for now there is resistance in the hairier end of the market. Even though the V6 Galaxy offers a supremely comfortable and effective way to travel, a cultural inheritance that includes family holidays in the Dordogne rather than Le Mans means the MPV is taboo to brutes who like sniffing exhausts and kicking tyres. I know some otherwise sensible men who would rather have 'Pity me I am an emasculated suburban wretch with heavy family responsibilities' tattooed on their foreheads than own a Galaxy or an Espace.

They are wrong. I know this after a recent trip to Paris where, laden with shopping and two children, I tired of the contortions necessary to climb into a conventional saloon taxi. When you start seeking out MPVs in a taxi rank you know something is happening. When we see Jaguar and BMW versions you will know I am right.

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