Monday, 24 October 2016

Never mind the fuel efficiency, look at the curves

As part of the research process for my novel A Murder To Die For I've been spending quite a lot of my time in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the novel is set in the present day, the plot centres - to some degree - around the life and works of a fictional crime fiction writer called Agnes Crabbe and her lady detective, Miss Millicent Cutter. Their story pretty much takes place between the wars and I've been immersing myself in the style and the fashion of the era to get a sense of it. And from a very early stage in the writing process I knew exactly what Miss Cutter would look like.

Model, actor and socialite Louise Brooks was sassy, tomboyish and seductive. She had an amazing life - hedonistic, scandalous and enigmatic (there's a nice Arena documentary about her which someone has kindly put up on YouTube here) - but ultimately tragic towards the end of her life as she was forgotten by Hollywood and ended up almost in penury. She was an icon of 20's 'flapper' society and the silent movie era and she is exactly how I see Miss Cutter.  

I quite fell in love with Ms Brooks during the novel's progress. But I also fell head over heels for the gorgeous Art Deco curves of 1920s and 1930s transport. Now, I don't know much about cars or bikes or trains and, whenever I think about those decades, all I see in my head are Model T Fords. What I hadn't expected was to find was vehicles of such staggering beauty as this 1930 Henderson KJ Slimline motorcycle:

How beautiful is that? It looks like Batman's spare batbike. And how about this 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster?

Or this 1939 Bugatti Type 57c cabriolet:  

Even the trains were gorgeous. We all know the Mallard in the UK but how about this New York Central Mercury engine from 1936? Oh my.

These were vehicles designed to be streamlined ... but sexy as well. I look at today's diesel trains and utterly boring hatchback saloon cars and I long for the days when money wasn't the primary method of valuing something. In my last book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? I recount a story told by advertising guru Rory Sutherland:

'Eurostar wanted suggestions on how to improve the service. Engineers came up with a £6 billion solution that involved laying a whole new set of tracks and faster trains that got you to the coast 40 minutes earlier. It strikes me that it’s a pretty unimaginative way of improving a train journey just to make it faster. They could have put on decent wi-fi and had all of the world’s top male and female supermodels wandering up and down the carriages serving Château Pétrus for the entire journey instead and they’d have saved around £3 billion. I’m pretty sure passengers would see this as an improvement and people would actually be asking for the trains to go slower.’

Yes, petrol is expensive. That's why your car is shaped like a jelly mould. But one glorious day, when renewable energy makes vehicles cheap to run, maybe we can have some style and elan back again. And maybe our vehicles will once again be as beautiful as those they enjoyed nearly 100 years ago.

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