Saturday, October 25, 2008


I have worked in the Car Industry for most of my adult working life, and trust me, that’s a long time. It is a totally fascinating environment – very fast moving, very complicated and very satisfying. The human relationship with the Motor Car is not just one of Man v Metal. These things take on an almost human form, and we love them, fawn over them and spend far more money on them than makes even the slightest bit of sense - sometimes it spills over into mechanical lust.

On the other hand, the “tree-huggers” seem to be saying that the motor car, almost single-handedly is destroying the planet. That’s why the perception of what these mechanical monsters are, what they stand for, and how they explain so much about you, is so important. If all we wanted was a set of wheels to go from A to B, we’d all be driving around in a well, you fill in that blank. If only it was as simple as that.

I’ve watched enthusiastically for 40 years as styles and manufacturers rose and fell, came and went, ebbed and flowed, or just disappeared off the scene. I can still recall the day I first read about and saw pictures of the E Type Jaguar in 1965 – the pleasure was almost orgasmic. It did 150 mph, looked like a rocket ship, and cost the equivalent of $3,000.


Since then, some amazing machines have come along, each in their own way moving the face of motoring style for ever –

- Rover 2000 (yes really, look it up), 4 seat exec saloon with De Dion Rear suspension which made a new niche for the small, high quality car.

- NSU Ro80, Wankel engine, futuristic space age styling – a car 20 years ahead of its time. What guts the manufacturers had launching that onto the market.

- Mini. What do you say? 10 feet long, fitting four adults in it. Front wheel drive, transverse engine, handled like a roller skate. Huge fun to drive. We went on holiday with a couple of grown up friends in one. Luggage everywhere in it, and we drove 1000 miles in a few days, but it worked. Unbelievable intellect of Alec Issigonis whose idea it was. A car which would never get off the drawing board today, more’s the pity.

- Golf GTI, a piece of marketing genius which, at a stroke, made most sports cars look 10 years out of date. It went like a bomb, was refined and comfortable and seated 4 people, yet ran rings round the 2 seaters of the day. A car where you could definitely have your cake and eat it. You still see the originals around today.

- The original Range Rover. The first SUV, and a work of someone (Spen King) who was one of the great innovative thinkers in the European Motor Industry. I went to Land Rover for a job at the time of its launch (I was offered the job), and as part of the interview was driven round Land Rover’s then brand new off-road Test track by Spen King in his new baby. He scared the s*** out of me, by taking it to within a millimetre of falling over on its side and its end.

- Citroen DS – a great car. Just look at it today, and it still looks modern. Hydraulic suspension which made you feel that someone had just resurfaced every road you drove along. Lots of innovation - a single spoke steering wheel for instance. A remarkable car with tons of room in it. If it was released today, you'd think it was really advanced. It actually came out in 1957!

- Renault 16 (if you don’t know why, look this one up as well) The first truly modern hatchback, with space beyond its size. It had a rear door which lifted up all the way. Common today, but this was around the first to do it. It looks nothing special today, but put it back in its time, when it was the first of its kind, and you have one of the most revolutionary cars ever designed.

- BMW 2002 series – the car which turned the ailing Isetta Bubble Car manufacturer into a world force. A pocket rocket which started the small sporty exec saloon market niche all on its own. BMW would not be here were it not for that car.

But where are we now?

Companies have come and gone – try looking back over the British motor industry for the last 40 years or so, for an almost unending list of extinct names. Collaborations progress, and mergers abound. Money drives much of life, but in the car industry, it now drives almost everything, resulting in the strangest alliances. Ten years ago, could you imagine Fiat and BMW doing a collaborative engine deal? What price BMW and Mercedes developing a small car together?

I find the ups and downs of the various companies in the business over a longish period fascinating, so I decided to put these muses down to see if I could discern any patterns. Here goes. I can only look at them from a British viewpoint – the subtleties of how a company is viewed in the American MidWest, or South Africa is simply not clear to me.

Alfa Romeo – A company with a great name and a great past. In all sorts of a mess a few years ago, with patchy quality, and a Dealer Network with the lousiest reputation of any company in the UK. But someone (Fiat) is spending a load of money on them, and they produce today the most attractive mainstream range of cars in the world. Every model, you lust after. The only problem is it takes years to get round the rust image, the perceived reliability issues and the crappy dealer network image. Great to drool over, but I wouldn’t touch one for a few years. Let’s see how the Marketing men set about changing my mind.



Audi – Alright, I own one, so I’m a bit biased. They have a great image in the market place, which they look after very diligently. One of the major judgements any car maker has to make is exactly when and how to move the image along, and rip up what’s currently working well for them, in order to safeguard the future.

Some have made a huge mess of this (see Peugeot if I ever get that far!), but Audi have done in recently in copybook style. A brave and dramatic change to the Corporate front end style of all the range has worked brilliantly. They’ve combined class leading modern design with just the right touch of old Audi heritage. Look up the style of the 1930s Audi racing machines if you want to see where the design clues came from.

However, they still don’t seem to appreciate that it’s almost impossible to get a car to handle well if you stick the engine way out in front of the front axle like they do. But, perhaps in the end, it’s not the most important thing in the world. For them, it’s all about image, and quality both perceived and actual. They make the best interiors of any car on the market.

They play for quiet understatement in their approach, just to give an alternative to the brash, pushy image which BMW, deservedly or otherwise, have.

Good on them.

BMW – I’ve never owned a BMW, mainly because I don’t want to be seen driving around in one. Everyone in the UK dislikes the drivers just because they’re driving a Beemer, no one lets them in from side-roads, and most of the time when some bright spark blasts up behind you threateningly on a Motorway, it’ll be a BMW.

And their styling. A guy named Chris Bangle conceived something he called Flame Surfacing, and a whole range of ugly cars was spawned. The 7 series was a mess – they should have designed the boot (trunk for the USA) at the same time as the rest of the car. The 5 series was little better, although the Estate was better. The 1 series is in my Top Ten Ugliest cars ever. The X3 was a gawky, unconnected disaster. The Z4, well would you want one? And only the 3 series, which is the bedrock on which their sales rely very heavily took some account of what the customers actually liked, and was toned down in looks. That one just looks nondescript.

But, if you look past the prejudice (and I’m not sure I can), if you want a judgement on which company has made the biggest improvement in Emissions and engine performance in an age where the environment has now taken centre stage, the winner is BMW.

They have made stunning improvements in their engines, to the point where they stand today head and shoulders above any other manufacturer today. And they’ve done it without compromising the performance edge which has always been their hallmark. Just look at their new 3 litre diesel engine in a 3-series. 241 BHP, which makes it go like a rocket, a fuel consumption as near 50 mpg as makes no difference, and an emission level of 152 g/km, which is less than a 70 BHP Nissan Micra. Is that good or what?

But I still don’t want one – the power of image at work. Now if they only sold their engine designs and VW bought them, I’d be OK. But, pigs may fly……. – das Fliegende Schwein.

Cadillac/Chevrolet/Chrysler/Dodge – Yes, I know they’re not connected but they’re all American manufacturers, with massive brand presences in the USA. And they’ve all launched themselves recently in the UK market.

And all failing dismally.



Sometimes, I think it’s the wish being father to the thought, with some pushy CEO thinking he can make a name for himself by spreading the brand around the world in a couple of years. Even when the names have been around for a long time, you still face a massive task in getting a foothold in a newcar market. Look at Skoda, with all the might and money of VW behind them. It’s taken them nearly twenty years to get really going in the UK, and still there is a good degree of resistance. The last two times I’ve been in the market for a new car, I selected a Skoda on merit, and ended up with firstly a VW, and now an Audi. And I don’t think I’m alone. I want everyone else to have one on their drive, but not me, just at the moment, thank you. And that’s for a car I actually quite fancy.

As an alternative, look at how Infiniti, Lexus and Acura are doing it in the US. Ultra long term, gradual build up. Only one of these two approaches will work, and it’s not difficult to decide which it is.

And anyway, just look at the offerings of these four US contenders, and you do wonder why they think we’re going to reject what we already buy, and change to one of theirs. They’re all either ugly or bland, or both. They offer nothing that’s not already available, and if you listen to the guys who drive them for the magazines, they’re not even very well put together.

I’m struggling to understand the Business Case for any of them. But who am I to have a view. I’m only a customer.

Citroen – Now here’s a company with a massive heritage. Inventor of the 1934 “Traction Avant” Front wheel drive car, as well as the 2CV, the DS, the SM. And yet as the kid brother to Peugeot in the PSA Group, you had to wonder about them over the last 20 years. All the innovation seemed to have gone, the styling was anonymous, the quality was questionable, and, and, and…

But today, if there’s a car company in Europe with a more modern, positive view of the way forward for motor car styling, I don’t know who it is. Their new C5 is trying to out-German the Germans, and from a styling point of view at least, it’s a cracking looking machine which is as good as anything our German friends produce. The new C4 Picasso people carrier is an utterly modern looking thing, bristling with excitement and flair, and some of their concept cars show signs of real ingenuity, and amazingly clever design – just like 70 years ago. Quite how this is happening, when Peugeot, their “owners” have, over the same period, got themselves in such a mess from a design and styling viewpoint is totally beyond me.

Good on them.

Well, that’s got me from A to D, so I’m off to bed to think about Ferrari, Fiat and Ford. Sad, or what?


1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Interesting piece, Roger, thanks.

But, what a difference geography makes... Here- to drive a European car, especially a British car, is to be immediately branded an eccentric for a member of the wealthy elite.

A close friend drove a Jaguar (Jag-wire in Canadianese) for years and nearly went broke keeping it in good running order. For example- $2500 for a stainless steel exhaust system when north american cars could have the same work for about 4 or 5 hundred dollars...

That's not to knock the product, but parts and service placed the vehicle in an entirely different market. Same for Range Rover, a vehicle I admire, but can't justify because of the price premium.

The other place that European machinery fails (even Airbus, BTW) is considering the punishing Canadian climate. Temperatures around +33°C in summer but -40°C in winter. Snow (read traction, obstacle-clearance issues)... We need to plug our cars in to an electrical outlet overnight during the dead of winter, yet most of the European vehicles would come without block heaters. Other considerations- gas lines freezing, windshield-washer lines and outlets freezing...

The Japanese fared somewhat better here, but still at a price premium. Many of my friends went Japanese and never turned back. I've driven other people's Japanese cars but never quite liked them.

Personally, I've stuck with the domestic manufacturers, in particular Chrysler. Why? They feel right. I know what to expect. They hit the sweet spot for price/performance/reliability. And, the models we have over here are larger and seem to be better-looking than what they're shipping to you. Currently, I drive a Ram 4x4 pickup with a crew cab. My wife drives a Dodge Caravan. (I once mentioned to my ex-British neighbour that I'd have fun importing a big pickup to a place like London. He replied "no you wouldn't. Everyone would assume that you're a labourer." Cultural bias, indeed.)

As you pointed out- it's interesting that something that could be a basic commodity isn't. So many consiiderations...