It is utterly fascinating to watch people interacting with old machinery, go into any antique shop and there will be a box of random old hand tools and every so often someone will pick one up and hold it carefully as if to perform some imaginary job on some long forgotten work piece. They inspect the deeply grained wood of the handle, turn it round until a pleasant grip is found, then a gentle movement up and down to test the weight is often followed by a satisfied nod or grunt.
Curiously most people then walk off, apparently having never had any intention to take the matter any further. The entire episode may feed a deep seated desire to be an ancient craftsman, working simple materials in much simpler times, but more likely its the fact that some artefacts just need to be touched and held.
And its the same with great cars, go to any car show and you can bear witness to droves of otherwise perfectly normal citizens stroking motor cars and gazing with clear emotion at a machine. Some do this overtly, boldly enthusing about the experience to there comrades, others are more furtive, seemingly brushing past but with fingertips turned outwards to briefly contact the hallowed metal.
Now, you might think that as a cold calculating engineer I would find this sort of behaviour quite ridiculous. But whilst it’s true that I don’t go round stroking cars or going gooey eyed at a classic form, much, I do spend far too much time just looking at designs, particularly old technical drawings which have a multi faceted beauty and can capture both the heart and mind at once.
You see, good engineering is driven by passion, from Brunel to Chapman it is the all consuming desire to make an idea into reality that drives us all. That original idea burns like a fire inside us until it is realised. And when an engineer looks at a design, it is not merely seen, but it is felt.
Equally, poor design generates intense irritation, leading to outrage and anger in extreme cases. Which is why many great engineers have stormed out of meetings with management who simply don’t ‘understand’.
There is a purity in design, and that is the thing that everyone can feel. And when it is corrupted, usually by commercial necessity, you can feel the jagged edge it leaves behind.
But times have changed. One hundred years ago, an engineer would come up with an idea for a car and draw up a specification, then set about finding some enterprising chap to finance it. But today this approach simply wouldn’t work, the market place is saturated and profit and loss is on a knife edge. So most modern cars have their target customers analysed and quantified, the data is scrutinized by computers and marketing executives. And it is they who now draw up the product specification, engineers have become merely a tool to bring the concept into production.
But fear not, there is still passion in the engineering, it is just the scale has changed. The beauty is in the detail, whether its the way the engine blips the throttle to make your gear shift seamless, or the way the ABS prevents skidding by maintaining a precise level of wheel slip, it’s still there. The current Jaguar XK8 has a cunning device mounted into a hole in the bulkhead, that transmits engine noise from the intake system into the cabin, but there is more to it than that, it transmits a filtered form of the engines wonderful growl, removing throttle whistle and other annoying noise, and it only transmits when you are giving it some welly so that round town it is quiet and refined, in short it gives us just what we want. Volkswagen were one of the first to spend a fortune engineering the feel and sound of the doors closing, analysing the best cars in the world to identify what made a closing door feel good. Arranging the parts inside the door to put the weight as far away from the hinge makes the door seem heavier and more solid, the door seals dampen the thud and the precise frequency range of this noise is tuned to give the perception of quality and safety. Even the feel of the door handle when its lifted, and the severity of the click as it unlatches the door is engineered precisely. We want to feel the quality, so this engineering gives us exactly what we want.
Of course the really intense engineering effort goes into the big bits like the engine, a modern diesel will inject fuel in several precise bursts every cycle to shape the pressure rise and fall in the combustion chamber to control refinement and ensure that the exhaust gas composition meets the stringent emission limits. In fact the control on all engines is so precise that a pin hole in the intake system would be detected and compensated for. And all this happens hundreds of times each second, reliably time and time again, for years. It’s quite amazing really.
Just take a moment to look round your car, think of all the things it does for you, there is a lot going on that most people simply don’t see.
In fact, in this modern world of ours with it’s engine management, direct injectors, WiFi, GPS signals and contactless technology, there is greatness all around us, it’s just a lot more difficult to stroke.
Just looking round your car, what marvels would you like to know more about, is there anything that makes you think ‘actually, I have no idea how that works’?