Politically Driven


“Dynamism of a Car” by the Futurist, Luigi Russolo, 1913
“Dynamism of a Car” by the Futurist, Luigi Russolo, 1913

Once, car choice was easy. Saloon, estate or, if your were really naughty, sports car. Even with brand – your dad bought Vauxhalls, and you did too. Now it’s not like that. Brand loyalty has gone out the door and there are so many choices and niches, each trying to appeal to your specific lifestyle needs. Except, speaking for myself at least, they don’t. Now, politics in the UK is catching up. Ever since the days of Tony Blair, the old Left/Right polarity has been a bit ropey, but is the UK Independence Party, to give it its full name, the first of the true Crossover Hybrids?

The UK is in a General Election year and, at present, no-one has a clue where it could end up. The fly-in-the-ointment (or the light at the end of the tunnel, if you wish to look at it that way) is UKIP who, just like the Front National in France and the Five Star Movement in Italy, are hoovering up voters of various prior persuasions, based on their perceived alienation from the traditional parties. It’s unlikely to be a gentle election, and expect plenty of low blows so, to start the ball rolling and in the true spirit of modern politics, I’ll play an obvious and cheap card and state that, although I believe Nigel Farage is a Volvo man, to me the British Standard UKIP vehicle is a maroon XJ40 with an aftermarket leaper on the bonnet. But, to delve a bit less superficially than the average politician, what do cars actually say about politicians and what have politicians done for cars?

Fairly or unfairly, for me the car has always had a certain right-wing tinge to it. Before its democratisation by such as Henry Ford, Andre Citroen and Herbert Austin, the car was the conveyance of the elite. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Futurists, an art movement who were a lot of fun, providing you didn’t talk politics with them, espoused the car and, in the words of founder Marinetti, a complex and interesting figure but one who went on to cosy up to Mussolini and the Fascists, “a racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath, a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” – beat that Jeremy Clarkson, with your lame talk of throbbing trousers.

Ford Paper

Like many industrialists, most car manufacturer’s politics have been conservative, driven by what seemed best for their companies and, indeed, Herbert Austin served as a Conservative MP for a few years. But the fervently antisemitic Henry Ford’s politics went far beyond that and were not pleasant at all and today, even if erstwhile opportunistic Labour Party donor Bernie Ecclestone’s ‘Hitler got things done’ quote should not be judged too brutally, coming from someone who has probably never thought about history, except as it relates to how much he grossed from the 1998 British Grand Prix, I’ve never expected the world of motoring to be the epitome of socialist enlightenment.

On the other political wing, the Left have never really been entirely at ease with the car. It has too many social implications to be readily dealt with. Yes, it offered affordable powered mobility at a time when many people had been restricted by their ability to travel independently more than a short distance from their homes but, for every egalatarian Mini, there was a Ford Cortina 1600E, with vinyl roof and timber dash, encouraging the start of a climb up the conventional hierarchical ladder, leaving former comrades to scurry around on the shop floor. Back on that shop floor, it’s likely that union activists such as Derek Robinson (the notorious Red Robbo, beloved of UK journalists) had little interest in whether their members were manufacturing Metros or matches. And looking at the hard-line socialist countries, with the honourable exception of Tatra, the former European Communist countries showed their lack of interest by being absolute rubbish at making cars. Only in Italy could Communists (strikes naturally notwithstanding) have taken pride in building Ferraris.

What do the official cars of political leaders say of them? This is a potential minefield and care is often taken in selecting a vehicle, where fit-for-purpose means far more than ride, performance and fuel consumption.

Cameron Jaguar
The old XJ gets a new suit. The Eton boy wears an old one.

After the close election of 2010, David Cameron assumed office being driven to Downing Street in a Jaguar XJ, a model that was then just 10 months old. This was fortuitous. Despite criticism of its looks, Callum’s XJ looked modern. Cameron was an Old Etonian but even a jaded old cynic like me, who would never actually have voted Conservative, had a desperate, if short, period of wanting to think well of him, beyond the Ruling Class cliche. Disregarding a Rolls or Bentley then current UK built alternatives would have been a Range Rover (too country estate) or a Mini Clubman (I don’t think …). More likely would have been an old-school XJ, which the Labour leaders were still using, but I suspect that someone made the clever judgement that the new XJ gave off a much better impression. Of course it has ended up just being an impression and, anyway, I can’t help but feel that Cameron would be always have been more at home in an Audi.

Which brings us to Angela Merkel, wiser than most her political contemporaries in both the small and large things, who apparently alternates brands to avoid perceived partiality. Not so her predecessors, where Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was so enamoured with the Type 300 Mercedes of the Fifties, that it is still referred to as an ‘Adenauer’.

The favoured cars of France’s Presidents have changed. From 1945 to 1996, Renault was under state ownership, so it’s natural that François Mitterrand’s government favoured them. The right-wing Sarkozy generally liked Renaults too (post privatisation), though he used a Peugeot for his inauguration. Hollande prefers a Citroen C6 – well it’s good that someone does, though his is armoured – and for his inauguration PSA managed to come up with a convertible DS5 Hybrid, possibly afraid that their new brand would be shown up by the dusting off one of the two SM convertibles commissioned by Georges Pompidou. However, the arch Presidential Citroeniste was, of course, De Gaulle who, after deciding that his life had been saved by the DS’s unique suspension following a 1962 assassination attempt, is said to have blocked Fiat’s attempts to take over the company.

Italy, as you might guess, has a history of stylish limousines. Four Lancia Flaminia 335 Presidenziales were created in 1960 by Pininfarina whilst Sandro Pertini, who served as President for seven years, favoured a Maserati Quattroporte III.

Lancia 335 Presidenziale
Lancia 335 Presidenziale
De Valera's Wraith
The Wraith of De Valera

In other countries, the Japanese Prime Minister goes by business-like Lexus, though maybe occasionally gets offered a lift in the one-off Toyota Century Royal of the Emperor and Empress. Surprisingly, despite the traditional favouring in Ireland of Mercedes over cars from the land of the old oppressors, there is a Rolls Royce Wraith from De Valera’s time lurking in the presidential garage. In the USSR, the General Secretary always travelled by ZIL, a series of hand-built, chrome laden, American lookalike limousines that must have been developed at huge expense, but President Putin favours that staple of modern world leaders, a bulletproof S Class.

Model Comrades : Brezhnev and Erich Honecker take the air in a ZIL-111
Model Comrades : Brezhnev and Erich Honecker take the air in a ZIL-111 : http://www.istmodels.com

As regards the ‘Leader Of The Free World’, the fact that the US President’s car is airlifted around the World should not be seen too much as a sop to Detroit and a snub to local manufacturers, more due to the fact that ‘The Beast’ is a purpose built armoured car that just looks like a Cadillac, but is based on a Chevrolet commercial vehicle and could probably flatten Francois Hollande’s Citroen C6.

The Beast : The Chevy that thinks it's a Cadillac suffers a glitch.
The Beast : The Chevy that thinks it’s a Cadillac suffers a glitch.
Don't Get In! Franz Ferdinand seals our fate.
Don’t Get In! Franz Ferdinand seals our future.

Of course there are cars that, for good and bad, are forever connected with individual politicians and leaders. Assassinations, in particular, cement an image and, at the top of these is undoubtedly the Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy met his end. Even more portentous however is the Gräf & Stift that carried Archduke Franz Ferdinand to his assassination, triggering World War One, and still on display in a Vienna Museum which, as told by an apocryphal former curator “…(was) involved in 20 million deaths and looking for more victims”. I remember the crumpled Vauxhall Cavalier in which Airey Neave was killed by an IRA bomb, the Renault 4 into whose boot, former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro’s bullet ridden body was crammed, images of various mangled Alfas in Sicily in which bravely optimistic state fighters against the Mafia died, plus a further Alfa, the handsome 6C 2600 Berlinetta, that Mussolini had given to his girlfriend, Clara Petacci, and in which they were both captured prior to their humiliating deaths.

But some politicians had happier memories of their cars. Silvio Berlusconi seems to have been popular with Italy’s car dealers, purchasing many cars as gifts for his showgirl pals. When the business of keeping a leaden hand on the morbid bureaucracy of Soviet communism ever got too much for him, Leonid Brezhnev eschewed the official ZIL and relaxed with his stable of fine vehicles, including various of the big Americans he had a soft spot for, a couple of Silver Shadows, a Mercedes 600 (a bit of a dictator’s special), a Maserati Quattroporte and a Citroen SM. This last car I am afraid to say, has been favoured by even more dubious leaders than Brezhnev; Idi Amin owned two SMs. And, on the topic of Citroens, say what you will about Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, but his use of a Citroen CX Prestige, oddly said to have been given to his wife Elena by King Juan Carlos of Spain, must have worked in his favour at the petrolhead day of judgement.

Ceausescu had ambitions to increase Romania’s industrial footprint and, in the wake of Citroen’s takeover by Peugeot and its forced rationalisation of its home built cars by incorporating Peugeot components, the remnants of Citroen’s Project Y small car ended up being produced as a joint venture in Romania. The Oltcit Club, or Axel as it was called in France, was not a great success, conflicting with other PSA models and having build problems. Launched in 1984, years later than it should have been, it actually soldiered on until 1995 thus arguably technically beating the 2CV (d.1990) and the CX (d.1991) as ‘the last true Citroen’.

Ceausescu had an even less illustrious predecessor in becoming a car manufacturer in Adolf Hitler. History, quite correctly, doesn’t hold Volkswagen’s genesis against it, helped by the fact that none of the kDf Wagens were actually delivered to those citizens who subscribed to the pre-War savings scheme, together with the impetus for the car’s post-War revival being largely accredited to the efforts of a British Army major.

Neither Hitler or Ceausescu needed to worry about wining votes, and I don’t know how much emphasis motoring enthusiasts put on a politician’s attitude towards their pet interest. I was shocked at the 1997 Election to read an editorial in Classic & Sportscar encouraging readers not to vote for Tony Blair’s Labour due to concerns that it might legislate against the use of classic cars. Of course no such thing happened, and on reflection it was no more that I’d have expected to read from certain establishment cronies on that otherwise excellent magazine, but politics are actually a bit more important than that. Had they the foresight to say that our future Prime Minister would collude with the most odious, post-war government the United States has seen (later note: subsequent events have downgraded this comment a notch) to further destabilise world peace, I might have been more inspired and given my vote to …. um, was Screaming Lord Sutch still alive back then?

Aside from Mr Farage’s V70 Estate, of the UK’s main political players David Cameron apparently owns a Honda CR-V, Nick Clegg has an old Ford Galaxy and Ed Miliband drives a Ford Focus. Since John Prescott was crudely, if amusingly, dubbed ‘Two Jags’ years ago, it’s apparent that ownership of a distinctive car is not a positive in British electioneering. Indeed the inverted car snob in me means that the less I know about a political leader’s motoring interest, the better I’ll probably think of them. Which means that, from the above three, Nick Clegg would win my vote, since that Galaxy is definitely simply an object of convenience. But I can’t do that so, despite her recent interview humiliation, Natalie Bennett of The Green Party impresses most with complete disinterest through her use of a car club.

2 thoughts on “Politically Driven”

  1. There is a lot there to reply to.
    The question of politics and cars is awkward and here I must face my own cognitive dissonance. I ought not to like cars because they are generally in keeping with the principles and practices of people whose political views I don´t wholeheartedly share. It´s private transport after all and from that derive a sweep of consequences antithetical to my deeply personal prejudices. Somehow I overlook all this and use something analogous to the lame argument deployed by gun enthusiasts that guns don´t kill, people do. Cars don´t pollute, the use of them does. As someone in a state of bereavement over the death of the classical, compact city, it is perverse I like cars at all. So, politically and practically I am on shakey ground.
    LJK Setright shone like no other journalist when it came to understanding and explaining engineering. He´s one of the people I´d be rushing to meet if there was an afterlife. However, as soon as he stepped off the terrain of automobiles, he became somewhat of hard-nut Libertarian and his intelligence foundered as much as mine does when I stray from political science into automotive matters. Clarkson´s politics lack the erudite charm of Setright and I suspect the two men might not have had much time for each other. James May strikes me as one of those affable old-school Tories who I can´t dislike because what we share is a sense of society even if we have different views of how it might be arranged. And rather surprisingly one or two of the journalists as Car seem to hold political views that are not market liberal. If we go to the other side of the Atlantic the general apolitical stance of automotive journalists changes to one of pretty clear Republicanism or Libertarianism. Patrick Bedard late of Car&Driver (I see he retired only six years ago) is a fanatical market liberal but also probably as technically literate as Setright. Any political flavours I can detect at the Truth About Cars are tending to the right but nicely the postings show no general bias; some are red and some are blue but mostly people don´t bring up the subject. Of the rest of the US press that I know of, only Jamie Kitman is avowedly Democratic. I thought he fitted in better at Car and I thought it strange he switched to Top Clarkson (as it was once called). The upshot of all this is that most car writers are either apolitical or right of centre. Happily most of this never becomes a matter of any significance which is why I can still follow this subject without feeling alienated.

  2. Former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was probably the strongest advocate of the Phaeton there’s ever been. As former prime minister of Lower Saxony, he’d been member of VAG’s supervisory board before becoming elected chancellor, an opportunity he used to end decades of German heads of state remaining loyal to the S-class when he first chose an A8 W12 to bridge the gap until an armoured Phaeton became available.

    Angela Merkel has kept her predecessor’s cars in the fleet, which now also includes A8s and S-classes, but, if I’m not mistaken, no BMW 7 series.

    In stark contrast, all Bavarian prime ministers would drive are BMWs, with the odd secretary making do with an Audi. Most notable among this lot was, for a great many reason, Franz Josef Strauß, who was not only being driven around in different versions of the 7 series, but actually privately owned a succession of BMW Alpinas. Which, together with his role in the creation of Airbus and a grudging respect for his eloquence, are about the only positive things a non-Bavarian can say about The Last Emperor.

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