Designs to stand the test of time

WHAT makes a truly iconic design?

Stumbling across a little Morris Minor postal van the other day, we find ourselves smiling with delight – but why should this flashback to 1966 give us so much pleasure to look at?

Is it to do with the retro look and nostalgic memories of “happier days”, or is there something intrinsically satisfying about the design of this popular little car?

Morris Minor postal van by the roadside

By any standards the Morris Minor was iconic. It made its debut at the Earls Court motor show in 1948 and was designed under the leadership of Alec Issigonis, who went on to produce the even more legendary Mini.

I remember interviewing a car designer at a launch many years ago where the legendary late racing legend Stirling Moss was putting the roadster through its paces on a Spanish mountainside.

I think it was the first time I had conceived of the satisfaction someone might get from seeing a concept that started life as an idea on a drawing board being transformed into a car that people can actually one day drive, own and enjoy.

Of course these days that would involve millions of pounds, multiple changes to the original concept and thousands of people in the manufacturing process.

More than 1.6m Minors were produced by 1972 in three series – and this gorgeous postal van was part of the third series, manufactured from 1956. Light commercial vehicle versions were introduced from 1953 and some 300,000 vans, pick-ups and chassis/cabs were built in total.

The Post Office was the biggest operator of such vans, with dedicated fleets for both postal deliveries and telephone engineers, the postal vans boasting a number of factory-fitted modifications such as internal partitions and additional locks.

But it’s not just classic cars that catch the eye, of course. Steam trains and canal boats also have the power to stir our soul – and perhaps even phone boxes, letter boxes, lock gates and old fairground rides, as well as churches and mansion houses?

This stunning steam engine at Chinnor is one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on Great Western Railway branch lines.

Like all steam engines, nowadays it has the capacity to rapdily draw a crowd of admiring onlookers – but why is that?

Surely it’s not simply nostalgia for times past: you need to be over 60 to actually remember having seen steam on the railways and many in the crowd are much younger than that. Isn’t it more the fact that these living, breathing machines are perceived as objects of beauty in their own right?

And what about architecture? As partner Olivia says, good architecture looks as if it’s part of the landscape – it feels totally at home in its setting, at one with the natural world.

When you look at the weathered brick of a Kent farmhouse or the tiles and textures in a medieval French village, it looks as if that’s exactly how it was always meant to look: at home in the landscape, not in conflict with it.

Contrast that with some of our big cities, where much of the beauty created by past generations has been swept away under a hotch-potch of high-rise towers which do not feel integrated into the cityscape at all.

Majestic churches and other landmarks from the past have to be searched for, sandwiched between monstrosities of concrete and metal, if they have not been obliterated altogether.

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But this isn’t just lashing out at the modern. There are plenty of examples of good modern design all around us, whether on the roads, railways or on the skyline. We don’t always have to look to the past for inspiration.

It’s just a plea from the heart for designers to think about tomorrow, as well as today. We need new homes and new forms of transport, and affordability is always uppermost in our minds as consumers.

We have to accept that we won’t see modern buildings boasting all the ornate ornamentation of their neo-classical or neo-gothic predecessors.

But we have to live with design decisions for years to come – and it’s so much nicer to be surrounding by trains, homes and cars that can combine functionality with beauty, like the humble Morris Minor!