If All the World Were Paper and All the Sea Were Ink…

What if the Golf wasn’t the average car?

It is always useful to consider a counterfactual. For example, by asking what would have happened if Franz Ferdinand had survived his assassination attempt, we ask about how avoidable the first World War was. Another counterfactual might be to ask what if REM had disbanded after their drummer Bill Berry retired? That is to ask what was the importance of Bill Berry to the band. The answer to that second question is easier than the first. REM should have disbanded. Berry’s drumming was as integral as Michael Stipe’s vocals.

About two decades ago in the US the Ford Taurus held a very strong position at the top of a market dominated by family cars. Chances were that if you bought an estate car it was a Taurus and if you didn’t buy a Taurus you certainly would have thought about it. But the world changed. First the Taurus was deposed as best-seller. Well, I say deposed, Ford fumbled this one and the 1996 design lost droves of customers.

Then the market changed too and families wanted taller cars, bigger, more off-roadie vehicles. But in 1994 to ask “what if the Taurus wasn’t a best-seller” might have been as difficult a question as asking now what if the VW Golf was just another car, like the Mitsubishi Lancer or Renault Laguna. Anyone who could have imagined then what it would take to depose the Taurus was probably getting well paid to find out something even closer to the market sweet-spot than the Taurus was.

In this spirit, today I am posing the question about a world where the VW Golf was not the median car. As it happens a useful post at the Truth About Cars offers some insight. The VW Golf is the median car, so the chart shows. It outsells every other single car and on its own makes up 10% or so of its market. We take this for granted, I would suggest. If asked to picture a car, it seems likely that many people would picture something Golf-like. Every big manufacturer wants to be in this sector. I expect Ferrari would do well to offer a car with a Golf-type package. It would sell as the truth is a Ferraris is miles away from useful. A Golf is in every measurable way a better product.

This leads me to a tangent. Some researchers in Denmark spent time and money asking people what they wanted from an electric car. There were focus groups, drawings, little models and all that paraphernalia designers use to get at people’s views and wishes. The answer of course is that people want an electric car that does everything a Golf can, only that it runs on electricity.

The Evolution of The Golf. Image vwcult.com

To return to the main point, were the Golf to totter from its perch as top dog, there would have to be a big [“seismic” in journalese] change in the market’s demands. The Golf has lost sales due to competition in some years, yes, but facelifts and new models are always able to keep it competitive.

What the Golf could not cope with is a reduction in our need for a usefully–sized, reasonably priced, nicely made, quite pleasant and fairly practical car. That is the only silver bullet that could deep six the Golf. There are cars that are bigger, cheaper, more practical and better made but none of them do all of this at once. And we don’t seem to want to want something a bit other when it comes to our family car.

It is hard to think of people not needing so many Golf-like vehicles. Thinking of a world where the Golf was not the ur-car is like trying to imagine a new colour. People would have to want to move either more things or fewer things. Families would have to be either much bigger or smaller. Perhaps if people suddenly wanted something, anything, that was more extrovert could the VW lose out to other competitors but they’d still be Golf-like underneath. Even a change in preference from five door to saloon is hard to imagine but would also make little difference to the essential nature of the median car.

Golf VI. (c) Ausmotive

To beat the Golf is the task of a generation: you need time, and you need a car that offers incremental improvements in all the main areas the Golf is optimised for. Chop 4% off the price, improve quality by a noticeable amount, reduce fuel consumption and improve performance. Maybe make it bit bigger.

Hard to imagine? But there is already a firm out there working on a car to beat the Golf and it’s called VW. It’ll be on sale in 2019.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “If All the World Were Paper and All the Sea Were Ink…”

  1. Since writing this I have had some further thoughts. The lines these followed related to what other type of car could have been the default car in Europe. If cultural values were different, a two-door car of the hatchback, saloon or estate could have been a contender. Let´s say people bought a car bearing in mind that they usually drive alone: why then have two extra doors. And bearing in mind people have families to transport for only one quarter of their lives (maybe less) then it could be that a five door hatch could be viewed as we view MPVs in actuality. That is, you only would buy a five door hatch if you had a family and as soon as the kids had grown up, you´d return to two-door life as soon as possible.
    I read here http://bestsellingcarsblog.com/1974/01/ that the Ford Cortina was the UK´s best-selling car and what was it but a two door saloon. The Beetle was a best-seller in Germany in 1970-1973 but so too were the Opel Kadett and the Opel Ascona. The Kadett was a two-door saloon and the Ascona a saloon in two or four door format.

    1. Two-door sedans sold well the world over in the years prior to child-restraint laws; back then four doors came in handy if you had secondary-aged kids who were or soon would be reaching their full height but wouldn’t have their own cars for a while. So that’s one car in a lifetime.

  2. That´s a good answer, I am embarrassed to admit. I can now see Mr and Mrs 1975 opening the front doors of their 2-door Granada and sending four children to sit, unrestrained on the vinyl back seat. Mr 1975 then starts up the Cologne V6, fires up his Rothmans and off they go from Lübeck to Aachen to visit the grandparents.

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