Size matters

I recently made the acquaintance of Chester’s Pepper Street car park, and if you’re a local, you’ll know what a joy that was. 

Apparently dating from the early 1960s and abutting Chester’s city walls, the Chester Live website was moved to describe Pepper Street thus: “Cramped, damp, dirty. Ugly, ill-planned, unfitting. Concrete, but not even brutalist – just oblique misery in exposed aggregate.”

I’m not sure what ‘oblique misery in exposed aggregate’ actually means, but it’s expressive of the lowering of spirit I experienced when I threaded my wife’s decade old Skoda Octavia TDI Estate into Pepper Street. With low ceilings featuring giant concrete cross members and slit like apertures to let day light dribble in, the place was oppressive.

The Octavia is an old school upper medium model, so reasonably big, but not huge, yet it felt on the large side for Pepper Street, with its sharp turns and narrow parking spaces barely big enough to accommodate the hulking sports utility vehicles that many families favour these days.

“Breathe in,” I muttered to my beloved as we squeezed past other vehicles and continued our search for a vacant bay. Eventually we found one, and very slowly reversed into it, the clearance between our doors and the neighbouring cars was so insignificant that the manoeuvre put me in mind of toothpaste being squeezed from a tube.

This made getting out of the car somewhat problematic. The doors couldn’t be fully opened, and had to be handled carefully to avoid the risk of banging them into an adjacent car’s flank. It turned out that we were skinny enough to limbo through what gap there was between doors and B-pillars, but extracting the dog from the back seat required contortions that my ageing lower back objected to, which caused my long suffering better half to endure the pain of me moaning about it.

The brutal truth is that building new car parks isn’t an option for many towns and cities like Chester, and the cars we drive now are too big for the ones we’ve got. In particular, cars have become a lot wider, and the bulking up trend seems to be infecting many electric vehicles in particular, but we’ll come back to that. Vehicle makers seem to find adding the odd inch or two to long running products almost irresistible, until they are entirely altered. Take the Volkswagen Polo. This started life in the long ago 1970s, and was actually conceived as an Audi (a few escaped wearing Audi 50 badges). It was about 11 ft long and five foot wide. The current one about two foot longer and seven inches broader of beam, also means the car is larger than the original Golf.

Today’s MINI, in whatever guise, is anything but. I followed an Issigonis original not long ago, and thought how small and vulnerable it looked. This masterclass in packaging was a smidgen over 10ft long, and just 4ft 7 inches broad. Pepper Street car park could easily accommodate one. The girthsome 2022 Cooper would find it more of a squeeze, being 13 inches broader and 12ft 6 inches long.

The ‘size matters’ mantra appears to being applied to electric cars that have the advantage of being clean sheet designs, for which there are some interesting packaging opportunities. Take the interesting looking Hyundai Ioniq 5, a five-door family hatchback that’s 15ft long and 6.2ft wide. Its Kia EV6 cousin is an inch narrower, but fractionally longer. They’re both unashamedly big cars, but I wonder whether their replacements will be bigger still.

I know vehicle design is as much the product of legislation, marketing requirements and customer tastes as engineering, and generally speaking, people are bigger now than they were when Pepper Street car park was the future rather than an ‘oblique misery in exposed aggregate,’ but modern cars need to go on a diet and many of them would benefit from being smaller. This would make our miserably crowded roads just that little bit more bearable, and if people learned how to park properly, would create a bit more space for them to do so, even in the Pepper Street car park.

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