Modern family cars are bigger - and all the better for it

Italy's tiny medieval streets can only accommodate vehicles the size of the Fiat 500

Italy's tiny medieval streets can only accommodate vehicles the size of the Fiat 500 - Credit: Paul Jolly

The family car was perhaps the greatest invention of the 20th century and symbolised the era’s growing need for greater freedom and mobility. 

Mass production of motor cars only really started in earnest after the Second World War.

In the 1950s, the vast majority were small family cars and a modicum of little MG-type, open sports cars, many of which were exported to the USA.

In Britain, we churned out Austin A35s, Ford Prefects and Morris Minors by the thousands every week.

The Italians likewise with Fiat 500s and 600s and the French with 2CVs. Even the Germans got in on the act with the Beetle.

The thing these cars had in common was size. Between 10ft and 12ft in length and under 5ft width.

A trip to any Italian town or city will show you why the Fiat 500 was the size it was. The tiny medieval streets would not accommodate anything bigger.

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Cost was also a major factor. These cars had to be small to keep the price down but nobody then viewed them as small. It was the norm.

Whole families would pile in these little cars for family outings and were very grateful for the new-found liberty.

By the 1960s the cars became more space efficient. The Mini at just 10ft long easily took a family of five and the Morris 1100 at 12ft was positively cavernous with room for three in the front. 

It became the UK’s best seller. 

Seating six was never a problem with bench seats front and rear and no seat belt fixings. 

Then along came the Cortina. A stylish car the whole family could be proud of and a whopping 14ft long. It exuded class and a certain ‘Trans-Atlantic’ image that set the standard.

If you parked one next to the equivalent Ford Mondeo today, you would be struck at how small it was.

Yet the Cortina evolved, via the Sierra into the 2ft longer and nearly 2ft wider Mondeo. But it still only seats five.

The increased girth is predominantly safety equipment and insulation, plus all the electronic kit and air-conditioning.

These cars have doubled in weight along the way. Difficult to imagine now, but were you to park a new Ford Focus next to a new Ford Popular in its day, the Focus would seem to have come from outer space and the pen of some futuristic design studio. 

However, the modern family car will last longer, keep you safe, cost less to run and emit vastly less harmful pollutants than its predecessor.

It may now be 16ft long and nearly 7ft wide, but is all the better for it.

An example of how the UK motor industry has evolved is to look at India, which from a motoring standpoint is stuck in the 1950s. 

Up until recently, they still built a version of the 1956 Morris Oxford, now called the Ambassador, used as taxis and it is as dangerous now as it ever was then. 

India has 150,000 road traffic deaths annually. The UK figure is around one per cent of that. 

Our worst year was 8,000 fatalities in 1966, now down to about 1,500. Fifty years ago, cars were not good places to have accidents in.

Yet we take this mobility for granted today, even by those who do not drive themselves, and may complain at the size of cars, but the reality is vastly more road users now than ever before and a greatly reduced fatality record. 

So, when great aunt Agatha has that nasty head-on in the lanes which writes her car off and from which she emerges, unscathed, we must give credit to the motor car which not only gave her that independence, but which also looked after her. 

Getting bigger has some advantages.

Footnote: The Range Rover celebrates its 50th anniversary this year!