Darwinian motoring

There are multiple reported origins of the Tree of Life, as applied to the species of plants and animals.  While some of the early works just mapped the legged and legless, the significant step was the inclusion of the evolution concept.  Probably the most famous is Darwin’s sketch from On the Origin of Species, but I prefer the later image by Ernst Haeckler, A Pedigree of Man – a beautifully etched picture of a gnarled, old tree carrying labels of the genera.

Looking at this, there are a few ways to map the world of motor cars into a similar tree (although perhaps the use of a tree is a slightly inappropriate simile, given the not-entirely-green credentials of our favourite four-wheeled friend).

The obvious mapping is to look at the flora and fauna names we have chosen for cars over the last century or so.  Unashamedly, I shall mix manufacturer and model names as both form part of a vehicle’s branding. 

So we have the big cats, the Jaguar and Sunbeam Tiger, Panther and Ford Puma.  There is the slightly less frightening Reliant Kitten, too.  We also have the dog family, with the Wolverine, VW Fox and VW Lupo (wolf in Italian).  From the hunters, we move on to the hunted, the Chevrolet Impala, Triumph Stag and VW Rabbit (as the Golf was originally marketed outside the UK).  Primates are represented by the Gibbon and the AC Cobra is ambassador for the reptiles.

Our watery neighbours make a presence with the manufacturers Salmon, Seal and Marlin.  In terms of model variants, we have the Corvette Stingray and Plymouth Barracuda.  The largest surprise is the number of flying things with the Albatross, Crane, Chrysler Eagle, Ford Falcon, Lark, Suzuki Swift and Swallow.  And how could we forget the humble Reliant Robin?  Related is the non-flying Bantam.  Also air-borne are the insects, the Firefly, Wasp and Wolseley (or indeed the Hudson) Hornet.

Animals and birds are dynamic creatures; borrowing a name surely brings nature’s imagery and dynamism to the automobile.  A little investigation, however, brought the relatively inanimate flora to the naming game with the Apple, Bean, Birch and Shamrock.

One slightly alarming observation is how many of the manufacturers are actually extinct, some surviving for just a couple of years.  Perhaps the life of a manufacturer in the entire history of motoring mirrors the short existence of some animal species in the life of the planet.  At the opposite end of the scale, the analogy with makes such as Peugeot and Benz, alive from the start of the motoring journey until today might be the basic and beautiful fern or wood louse, their fossils showing they too have endured for a great time.

While searching for these long-lost names in the motoring world might be fascinating, it is perhaps more relevant to look at the lineage of power source, body style and drive train configuration.  It is interesting to note that steam and battery power, two of the earliest forms of propulsion, live on today.  In 1900, over a quarter of all vehicles in the US were electric.  Perhaps in another decade, this will again be the case.

There are several genera which have endured the passage of time.  I believe the concept of a sports car will always be with us; it is in human nature to see how fast something can go.  Luggage-carriers too should have a branch of their own, maybe split further by people and goods.

Conversely, along the way, many forms and concepts have become extinct.  The Landaulette might not have been as tasty as a dodo but similarly, it is no more.  And it seems somehow fitting that the Hummer brand has also gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Interestingly, some ideas which were essentially parked, or perhaps cryogenically frozen in this analogy, are with us once more.  Think of the pre-selection gearbox on a pre-war Lanchester.  Albeit with new technology and much electronic intervention, this is currently enjoyed in the DSG ‘boxes in VWs amongst others.

It would be remiss of me not to mention endangered species at this point.  Crawling out of the primeval ooze (literally) is Land Rover’s Defender, as closely related to its 1948 ancestor as the alligator is to the first footed amphibians.  The Morgan too lives in a special vehicle sanctuary, tended by careful keepers.  A spindly little twig off the Morgan branch of the tree will represent the resurrected three wheeler, two wheels at the front, of course.

The analogies are seemingly endless.  There are cars with chassis (vertebrates) and those using monocoque construction (exoskeletons) – particularly evident on Smart cars.  The Amphicar is a remarkable example of an amphibian.  Even pouched creatures carry their young about like parents in people carriers. 

Finally, I’ll leave you with a concept which rarely occurs in the animal kingdom – that of interbreeding.  Imagine here the camel with a fish’s head or sheep with an elephant’s trunk.  We have estate-car and 4×4 combinations, sports hatches, SUV people carriers, and so-on.  And the most dominant genus in this world of niche and cross-over vehicles?  Surely it must be Nissan with its self-pronounced “world’s first all-wheel-drive crossover convertible” – the Murano CrossCabriolet.  Only time will tell if this will be a successful branch on the tree or as lifeless as the mythical griffin – its head that of an eagle atop a lion’s body.

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