Social Signifiers

Which cars are for today’s ophthalmologists, vets and professors of Medieval law? 

For Prof. Castiglione
For Prof. Castiglione

About three decades ago certain makers sold cars for easily identifiable groups in society. Saabs were for well-paid university lecturers. Citroen could appeal to the Francophile and arty middle-class man. Lancia sold to intellectuals and business men who probably saw their work as a vocation. Humber appealed to bank managers of the bigger branches. But today, these brands are gone or unrecognisable

I was trying to think of appropriate cars for these people and I could see all of them in a Ford, an Opel or an Audi. Or a BMW. They are quite interchangeable. It’s hard to convincingly think of a car for the intellectual motorist (if there is such a thing, present company excluded). By chance a Nissan Leaf caught my attention and perhaps this car might have a rather specific niche in the market. The owner came by and in the course of a short chat revealed he was working in IT.

It is true that cars are still social signifiers but in the crudest of senses. The signification is a matter of money and little else. Or maybe it might say something about your family status. Hot-blooded young males are not seen often in Ford Galaxies or Skoda Yetis. Smart young females are, I imagine, buying the tinselly little cars with 100000 to the power of nine customisation options. Beyond being female and “smart” I can’t think of much else these purchases are saying about the drivers.

Ronald Chalmer-Green´s company car
Ronald Chalmer-Green´s company car

Among the prompts for this line of reasoning has been a review of 60s motor cars. In this trawl I saw cars whose owners were easy to visualise, personas in the modern language of industrial designers. Assuming Audi are using this concept to envisage the target market of their cars, their personas are males 30 to 60 with a fair amount of money but who have no other qualities. How do you design for shadows like that?

Forty years ago the market was neatly segmented and perhaps, as a result, the designers didn’t need to think of their target market. They knew that if they sold a car with a large engine, some chrome, walnut and leather then the stock brokers and affluent GPs would amble along with their cheque books. Goodness knows who Lancia had in mind other than Lancia engineers but, strangely, psychologists and lawyers from the Piedmont and Ticino would materialise and place an order.

Here we get to the irony of the pre-persona era. The cars with character were designed in all likelihood by designers from the cars’ regions with nobody much in mind. The customers simply picked the formula they liked best and so the stereotypes were born. Interestingly, the BMW engineers imagined cars that thrusting executives would prefer over larger Opels, Fords and Renaults. It was not planned. They could in another universe have conceived cars for art and history teachers and professors of planning. And today BMW would be extinct.

Philip Stamberly´s Saab: at the Modern Engineering conference, Lugano, 1969
Philip Stamberly´s Saab: at the Modern Engineering conference, Lugano, 1969

Britain’s flattening class structure and the evaporating sense of the rest of society has put paid to the Triumph man, the Wolseley man and the Humber man. All of them have a 3 or a 5 or a C or an E. And so does the identikit rep. I don’t suppose the class system was much of a good thing and social rigidity is stifling. At the same time, in losing our awareness of being a part of society – being seen by those we recognise – seems a bit of a loss. The cars we drive now seem to be cars for Me, alone in the world.

A Nissan Leaf
A Nissan Leaf

Author: richard herriott

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

8 thoughts on “Social Signifiers”

  1. In another time I frequented another motoring website and I noticed that some (though not all) of the people who got most excited about some fussy and excrescent piece of ‘funky’ design (see Nissan Juke) were often the people who otherwise seemed rather conservative, judging by their prose. Fifty-five years ago these people would have worried if the wings of the new Ford Anglia were a bit too ‘American’ and wondered whether they should change their current Prefect for a more sober Wolseley 1500 instead. Except that the Wolseley had a wooden dashboard which might suggest that they had ambitions beyond their station.

    Today, the car is readily accepted by many people as a bit of applique character and, if that character isn’t really you, it doesn’t matter. And architects and psychologists are happy to schlep up on TV and get down and dirty with the celebrities – they want to be just like the rest of us, they no longer value that cool reserve. Certainly no manufacturer has the exclusive rights to the more cerebral members of our society any more. If I imagine myself arriving through a time-port from 1965, bow-tied and tweed suited, clutching a smoking pipe and slide-rule, what car would I choose? A Citroen Picasso comes to mind for some reason, though I realise already that the name itself would have already sent me into paroxysms of distaste

  2. You make some good points, specifically with the fact that like clothing, people today seem to be a lot less fussy about how they appear. And to whom do we appear? To others. Others seem to matter less to us now. For better and for worse. I suppose if you went looking for the preferred car of, say, the affluent senior partner in a big dental practice you´d have to hunt within the ranges of the manufacturers rather than among them. There may be a colour and trim option in the BMW range which very much appeals to arty, continental-loving types, or a version of the Opel Zafira that is particularly attractive to lecturers in business studies. This is a natural consequence of the range of some manufacturers widening as others die off (Lancia, Austin, Rover, Saab and Alfa Romeo for example). Isn´t this just capitalism in action? It tends towards monopoly as I am sure Marx noted. Or maybe it was Adam Smith. We see the supermarkets selling everything from books to dogfood to banking services while those who just specialise go extinct.
    On a separate point I feel like the fellow at the church meeting who owns up to enjoying bestiality when I say I quite like the Nissan Juke. I thought it was a humorous and jolly vehicle even if some corners didn´t look as good on closer inspection as you would expect. On the other hand I have no time for Minis, Adams or any of the tricksy DS cars. In fact, I don´t see it belonging in that set precisely because it isn´t, as far as I know, trying the “million combinations” game.

    1. Richard. When writing the above, I had some hazy memory that you liked the Juke and hastily added the “(though not all)”. Actually, although the C pillar treatment profoundly irritates me, I’d rather the Juke existed than didn’t. But I am still confused why Juke admirers might still scorn the Multipla which looked the way it did because it was truly different, whereas, at heart, the Juke is just a very ordinary SUV.

  3. In support of Richard’s view, I’d point out that when a TV series or film wants to establish a character as an outsider, or a bit of a thinker, or both, they usually give them some sort of old car, seldom a new one. New cars just can’t work as lazy short-cuts as signifiers of character. Therefore you get TV cops driving around in unlikely and generally inappropriate vehicles. Although it is pleasant enough to see an old car on the screen, the use of such as character props is a tiresome cliche. Good policemen (in the UK) drive new, well-maintained Vauxhalls, not clapped out Saab 99s that break down on the way to apprehend the murderer. My recipe for a truly radical 21st Century TV series, will feature a maverick crime fighter, a brilliant risk taking neurosugeon or a transgender vampire fighting psychic, or maybe all three in one character but, now here’s the stunning twist, they will drive a light blue Hyundai i30.

  4. Alexei Sayle wrote that you could always tell there would be a big car crash in a crime series because someone was driving a £400 Sierra. These are cheaper to smash up and you can buy five at a time as back ups. You are quite right about the tiresome use of old cars as a way of saying the character is interesting. Actually it says the character is a rather impractical person who sets appearances above utility in the value hierarchy. And it doesn´t guarantee interestingness, and I speak here as a rather boring person. The car I own compensates for my very lack of charisma.
    It´s not easy to imagine inspector Morse doing all the things needed to do to keep an old Lancia running, is it? Most people who run an old car spend all their time running their old car and work is a distraction from welding the rear valence or greasing the gearbox mounts. What you really want is a fault free vehicle that runs without fail so you can get on with more interesting pursuits, certainly if the old car in question requires more than the most minimal of care.

  5. I’d agree Richard that I have never fooled myself into thinking that any car I owned reflected well on me, save as a testament for my philanthropic work towards members of the motor trade. That said, I looked at your photo of the DKW Junior and though that, for reasons to do with the method of movement (a car so light and a funny, tinny 2 stroke) I’d quite like a car like that for my short commute to work. But it would also suggest that I was some sort of contrived eccentric, which I don’t think I am. So I’ll save that 10,000 Euros for the next service.

  6. Richard. I‘ve done a little extra research and found that all three gentlemen you mention in the photos have been blessed with extraordinarily long lives.

    Professore Castiglione accepted the poisoned chalice of advisor to the Berlusconi government and was given a chauffeur driven Thesis. He is now separated from his family, has a visiting professorship at Harvard and drives a blue and white Dodge Viper.

    Mr Chalmer-Green stuck with British Leyland through all its changes and, stung by the closure of MG Rover bought one of the very last Rover 75s, expecting it to see him to and after his retirement. He was made redundant the week it was delivered, the gearbox failed soon after and he found there was no warranty. Chalmer-Green now works in an Amazon warehouse, prefers to be called Veronica and drives a Hyundai i20 which, she says, is the best car she has ever owned.

    Phil Stamberly lost faith in Saab when the 9000 came out. After a brief flirtation with Citroen and Audi he moved on to Subaru, owning several practical models until he tired of salesmen always trying to sell him the WRX. He is currently Head of Predictive Research at Tribrid Technologies, rides a bicycle and is a member of a car sharing club.

  7. During the 2008 market crash, I coined the term “Oldsmobile Banker” – the (perhaps imaginary) post Depression-pre Reagan ’80s successful financial-services provider who drove a top-of-the-line Olds 98 (or Buick Roadmaster/Electra, or Chrysler New Yorker) because a Cadillac was too flashy and said “I’m rich” too loudly for someone who made their living handling other people’s money…

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