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