In the very earliest days of motoring, the shape of a car wasn’t something that designers gave much thought to. It was simply a question of arranging various components in an order that produced something which could travel further and faster than a horse.
Things developed very quickly. In the 1920s the industry was full of coachbuilding companies, all capable of making your car look utterly different from anyone else’s.
Mass production in enormous quantities, and the switch from body-on-chassis construction to the modern method of building a shell and attaching everything to it, have made this much less practical than it used to be. Today, manufacturers determine the shape of a car, and you don’t get a say in the matter unless you are colossally rich.
But what should that shape be? It depends, of course, on what customers want and will pay for. Here’s a run-down of the basic shapes you’re most likely to see on our roads.
For a very long time, most cars were saloons. This shape is also known as ‘three-box’. The box at the front contains the engine, the one in the middle the passengers and the one in the back their luggage.
Saloons have two major advantages over most other shapes. First, they have bulkheads separating each box, and these contribute to the stiffness of the bodyshell, which as any automotive engineer will tell you is a very good thing.
Second, because the bodywork at the rear fades away rather than stopping abruptly, there is less aerodynamic drag back there. Among other benefits, this means that a saloon can be much more economical than its hatchback equivalent.
The problem is that the interior space is not flexible, partly because of that rear bulkhead and partly because the luggage compartment is quite small compared with that of an estate of hatchback.
Manufacturers have got round this to some extent by fitting rear seats which can be folded down so that the luggage space can be increased.
This, however, means removing the rear bulkhead, and it doesn’t solve the issue of limited access.
Most family cars nowadays are hatchbacks. In this ‘two-box’ shape, access to the rear is through a tailgate which is nearly as tall as the entire body. Loading luggage is therefore much easier than it is in a saloon.
Unlike a saloon’s bootlid, the tailgate is considered to be an extra door. Three- and five door hatchbacks are the equivalent of two- and four-door saloons.
Interior space is much more flexible in a hatchback than a saloon. There is no rear bulkhead, and the aerodynamics at the rear aren’t great, but most customers put higher value on practicality.
The estate format has been around for a long time, and wasn’t affected by the switch from saloons to hatchbacks.
An estate is the same as any other kind of family car as far back as the rear seats. From then on, the roof line continues at more or less the same height until the body ends sharply at the tailgate.
The rear suspension has to be set up to cope with very heavy loads, no load at all or something in between, so estates do not generally handle as well as more conventional cars. They also create a lot of aerodynamic drag.
In terms of practicality, though, they are fantastic. Some hatchbacks are nearly as good in this respect, but if you really need to carry a lot of stuff there’s not much wrong with an estate.
This is a small but important market niche which got going in the 1990s. The idea is to cater for people who need to go off-road some of the time but, for whatever reason, don’t particularly want an SUV.
Off-road estates are always based on existing estates, they are all four-wheel drive and they generally have diesel engines.
They are even more compromised than regular estates because they are going to be driven on both ordinary roads and rough. This is a very difficult balance to get right, and it’s quite common to find that they are more suited to one or the other.
If you just want an estate and never go off-road, these cars are not for you, but it seems there are people who need them. If there weren’t, the manufacturers would stop building them.
Traditionally, a coupe was a saloon car with a sloping roof line intended to give a more sporty appearance and perhaps better aerodynamics.
This inevitably led to less room for rear passengers and luggage, a sacrifice coupe enthusiasts are happy to make, though nowadays manufacturers often do a pretty good job of making the compromise as small as possible.
A roadster is a two-seat sports car with either a retractable roof or, in extreme cases, no roof at all.
As a general rule, they have very little luggage space, and they are often awkward for drivers or passengers over six feet tall. The priority, though, is that they fun to drive. Practicality isn’t really an issue.
Slightly different from a roadster, a convertible is any car with a folding roof. It can be ‘converted’ from roof-up to roof-down or vice versa, hence the name.
Saloons and hatchbacks (but not estates) have been turned into convertibles, and recently manufacturers have even started doing this with SUVs.
Coupe-convertibles, which enjoyed a brief vogue in the first decade of the 21st century, were mostly based on ordinary hatchbacks and were designed to look fashionable (sometimes in a weird way) whether the roof was up or down.
Their roofs tended to be metal and have very complicated folding mechanisms. This once seemed like the way forward for convertibles, but the day of the fabric roof is not yet over.
MPV stands for Multi-Purpose Vehicle and is a term which has replaced ‘people carrier’, the one commonly used in the UK for several years.
The primary function of an MPV is to carry as many people as possible, and many have seven or more seats. Oddly, though, a trend developed a long time ago for MPVs with just five seats, the same number as in a saloon, hatchback or estate.
Despite this, MPVs have an enormous amount of luggage space if you fold down some of the seats, and the driving position is high, which some people find comforting.
SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles, or Sport Utes as they’re known in America) are traditionally serious off-roaders.
In order to be able to perform this function, they should have lots of ground clearance, four-wheel drive and probably a powerful diesel engine. Really capable ones used to be quite intimidating to drive if you weren’t used to them.
Things have changed a lot over the years, though. Some big SUVs, notably the Range Rover, are still very good off-road but are actually sold and used more as luxury cars.
There is also a more recently introduced sub-set of SUVs which we’ll deal with next.
Before attention switched to hybrid, fully-electric and autonomous cars, the star of nearly every major motor show was a crossover SUV of some kind.
They are a cross between an SUV and a conventional car (usually a hatchback, sometimes a coupe). They often look fairly rugged and have unusually high ground clearance, but they may not have four-wheel drive and their off-road ability is quite limited.
As with five-seat MPVs, their advantages are flexible interior space and a higher seating position. They are also slightly more like conventional cars to drive than the MPVs are, which may partly explain why they have become more popular in recent years.
Pickups started out as purely functional workhorses, but the introduction of the Double Cab body style with two rows of seats meant they could also be used as family transport.
Nobody has yet come up with a way of making a pickup as easy to drive as a family car, and perhaps nobody ever will.
However, steady development on the part of the engineers has meant that they are a lot more comfortable, refined and safe than they were 20 years ago.