William Towns: King of the wedge

From Hillman to Lagonda, Towns was one of Britain’s most creative car designers. We salute a man for whom no straight line was quite straight enough…

William Towns was nothing if not prolific. During a career that spanned almost 40 years, the imaginative Briton designed products ranging from bicycles to hearing aids via all things in between. But cars were his first love, and he penned several landmark classics along with just as many weird and wonderful fringe offerings.

Towns began his career as an apprentice with the Rootes Group, joining the firm in 1954 while still in his teens. It would be a further three years before he was allowed to sketch an entire car– the later Hillman Hunter being the only one to make the leap from rendering to three-dimensional reality. Not that he was particularly happy with the result, his design having been tweaked somewhat after he departed for Rover in 1963.

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Towns’ first task for his new employer was to conceive a short-wheelbase sports car based on the 2000 saloon. He produced a rakish two-seater with a Targa roof, but it remained only a drawing. He claimed in later years that studio chief David Bache was the best boss he ever had, describing time spent at Rover as like ‘…being born again’.

Towns went on to style the 1965 Rover-BRM Le Mans car (above), although he was unhappy with changes made to his design by an ex-Bristol Aircraft aerodynamicist. Three years later, he jumped ship to Aston Martin, where he produced renderings for a DB6 replacement, having been less than enthralled by Touring of Milan’s proposal.

His alternative design, produced in his own time and off his own bat, impressed company principal Sir David Brown to the point that work began on a clay model in October 1966 (along with a four-door Lagonda variant). A fully functional prototype was displayed at the Earls Court Motor Show barely 12 months later.

At the dawn of the 1970s, Towns briefly flirted with a friend’s ill-fated design consultancy before opting for life as a jobbing freelancer. One of his first gigs was to redesign what in time emerged as the Jensen-Healey. Ex-Rootes illustrator George Poole had already mapped out an outline, but his efforts had been reinterpreted in-house and the result was a mess.

Towns was brought in to salvage the project. He produced an attractive roadster that retained the existing centre section, but boasted a new nose that incorporated pop-up headlights, and a cropped tail.

He returned several months later to design the interior, only to discover that the full-scale model’s exterior styling had been hacked about to make it look more like a Triumph TR6. This in turn prompted another makeover, although Towns wasn’t exactly happy with the finished model.

If nothing else, time spent on this project led to further commissions for the West Bromwich firm. Towns’ proposal for an Interceptor replacement beat rival concepts from Pininfarina, Bertone, ItalDesign and Trevor Fiore, although Jensen tanked during the development stage.

Another casualty of the crash was a gullwing-doored, Lotus-engined four-seater. A two-year freelance stint with Triumph followed, with smaller projects including the mighty Guyson E12 (above). In many ways, this Jaguar E-type reskinning exercise ushered in Towns’ signature ‘origami’ styling treatment.

Back pedal to early 1972, and the ever-versatile designer was busy shaping bead-blasting machines for Guyson International. The company’s MD, hillclimb racer Jim Thompson, also requested Towns re-skin his hotted-up Jaguar E-type SIII, which he’d rearranged against something immovable.

The resultant E12 broke cover in 1974, and was a startling-looking device. It did away with the donor car’s curves, with new glassfibre panel work being grafted on to the existing sheet metal, rendering it angular and slab sided.

Nonetheless, the E12 racked up more than a few column inches in the mainstream motoring press, with Towns building a second model for personal use that gained a T-bar roof complete with flying buttresses.

Unfortunately, the cost of the conversion (roughly £2000), to say nothing of the car’s uncompromising styling, somewhat blunted its chances. As such, no E12s were ever sold to the public. Just to heap on the ignominy, Towns’ own car was later reconfigured back to a regular E-type once the model gained classic status.

No matter, Towns had also made headlines with a Mini-based device that was displayed on the British Leyland stand at the 1973 Earls Court Motor Show alongside the new Austin Allegro. The crisply styled Minissima (née Townscar) was built for Towns’ wife, and represented his take on a replacement for the aging Mini – albeit with the superannuated tiddler serving as the donor car for this brave new world, right down to its 10in wheels and 848cc A-series four-banger.

Remarkably, the prototype emerged some 75cm shorter than a regular Mini yet it could still accommodate four occupants, with the two rear passengers facing each other in the tiny cabin. The car’s angular bodywork consisted of aluminium panels hung over a tubular-steel structure, with access being granted via a single, side-hinged door at the rear.

BL ended up purchasing the Minissima and evaluating it extensively. The car went on to appear on the cover of several magazines in period before being immortalised in toy form by Corgi, but for all the positive ink it remained unique. Nonetheless, the design wasn’t wasted; it was later reworked to accommodate wheelchair-bound drivers, and put into production via GKN Stanky as the somewhat larger Elswick Envoy.

Towns followed through with the equally angular Microdot, a tiny electric car that broke cover at the 1976 Earls Court Motor Show. It was subsequently touted with everything from Mini and Reliant to Daihatsu power, with Bentley specialist Mallalieu Engineering attempting to produce the car in series from 1980 – at a cost roughly equivalent to two Jaguar XJ12s! There were no takers (shock).

Towns, however, had bigger fish to fry. He distilled all he had learned from the Minissima and Microdot projects into something aimed at a new and entirely different audience.

He conceived what became known as the Hustler (below) in July 1978 for JSP Engineering (formerly Jensen Special Projects), the intention being to create a car for Third World markets. He claimed the idea came to him in the bath! He envisaged a machine that could be assembled by seasoned mechanics with access only to hard standing and a tool kit, and it was a brilliantly simple design; a chassis/perimeter frame anchored the body parts, the lower portion of which comprised a series of glassfibre ‘boxes’.

The upper half consisted almost entirely of flat, bronze-tinted glass, including doors that slid back for cabin entry and a one-piece, lift-up tailgate. The ultra-basic design theme stretched to ribbed rubber matting in place of carpeting, and plastic Remploy seats that began life as stackable school chairs!

JSP soon backed out of the scheme, however, which prompted Towns to market the car himself under the Interstyl banner from 1979. The first model was launched in kit form as the Hustler 4. While Towns continued his day job as an in-demand industrial designer, he wasn’t content just to let his sideline business tick over.

Instead, the following decade would see him continue to hone and tweak the Hustler concept, with a staggering 72 spin-offs being offered over time. Of these, the most memorable was the model known in Towns speak as ‘Wooden Hustler’ (there was no actual model designation). Towns used Brazilian mahogany and ash when he constructed the prototype in 1980, and in time the model was offered in four- or six-wheeled forms.

Then there was the Towns design that polarised opinion like few others: the ‘wedge’ Lagonda. The project grew out of a proposed Aston DBS restyle that never went ahead. In its place, he designed a super-saloon that was infinitely more radical; something that was initially meant to be a concept car and nothing more.

The prototype was first seen at the October 1976 Earls Court Motor Show, parent company Aston Martin having been in receivership a year earlier. Some 250 deposits were taken at £2000 a pop, and this unquestionably helped save the company.

Towns was, however, rather less pleased with the Aston Martin Bulldog that followed in its wake. ‘[They] made the most spectacular balls-up of the entire concept,’ he said when interviewed in 1992. Nevertheless, the twin-turbocharged, gullwing-doored projectile kept his name in the limelight.

In later years Towns moved further into non-automotive design, but still found time to rustle up the Scimitar SS2 for Reliant, while also offering body kits under the Pizazz banner. That, and reviving the Railton marque with the Jaguar XJ-S-based F28 Fairmile and F29 Clairmont. Sadly, this likable artiste lost his battle with cancer in June 1993, by which time his legacy was already assured.

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