Recent correspondence has hinted at the genre of car analogous to a band’s difficult second album.
Every one knows Kula Shaker’s second album was going to be a disappointment. It happens to a lot of bands. The musicians have a lifetime (say, 23 years) to work on the first album. Then they have about eight months to work on the second album, once the tour is done and the alcohol has been washed out of the system and the papers are signed on the Chiswick house they will have to sell a year or two later.
For some cars something similar applies. For various reasons, the manufacturer chances upon a hot new niche or just strikes it lucky with a particular formula of the same old thing. Then, with just six years to think it over, they launch a revised version that fails to ignite buyers’ passions the way the first one did. Some of this is down to it being harder to surprise someone with the same thing a second time. And the rest of the explanation relates to the irresistible need for the new thing to be a slightly different thing. The Law of Replaced Cars says that the replaced car must be bigger, more refined and more mature. Since the manufacturer needs to advertise those changes, the car will look a bit different too.
With the help of our contributors here I can think of some examples of the breed of “tricky second generation”. Two big names stand out. The original VW Beetle had its name re-used on a car that looked a bit like a Beetle and had nothing else in common. The Mini had its name re-used on a car that looked a bit like a Mini and had nothing else in common. The Ford Ka had its name… You get the idea. Fiat had a hit with the Nuovo Cinquecento, a pert and spiky little roller-skate that had price on its side as well as nippy road manners. That too had to be fudged for the Seicento which lacked most of the first car’s appeal.
Audi didn’t know what to do with the TT when it came time to replace it and over time the car bearing that name gets less and less like a TT. Audi seemed not to understand that the appeal of the TT lay in two unique sets of conditions. One, the timing. The market wanted a bijou sportscar of this ilk and there were not so many around made by anyone with a big presence in the showrooms. And two, the appearance. Freeman Thomas and his colleagues struck it lucky with a style that managed to be expressively cool.
That exact look was right for the customers looking for a two-door sports car. Chronology being what it is, 1998 could never happen again and there was nothing to do with the original design but cock it up gradually by making it more mature, bigger and more emotional. Everything pointed in the direction of a disappointment and the TT is today another pea in a big bucket of peas.
What are manufacturers to do? One way to avoid disappointment with a potential one-hit wonder is to avoid leading people to expect a second surprise. Audi could have done another coupe but perhaps by using the simple expedient of renaming it they could have stopped people thinking it was 1998 again. Speaking against this is that the marketing people want to use the equity of the first hit to leverage the sales of the second. You’d be mad not to try. And mad to try because it always fails.
The Mini is a fine car as it is (apart from rotten packaging). It needs a new name now as it’s not a Mini and has even less to do with Issigonis’ original. The Beetle needed to stay as a show car. There isn’t much mileage in image-led cars as the last Thunderbird and the Coupe Fiat show. As soon as the 46,000 people born for that car have one the market has dried up.
The other option is to accept that some cars are meant for evolution not revolution. The Golf has never disappointed the ninety thousand billion people who demand such a car and all VW do is gently revise the car in line with regulations and production methods. Then again, a car as ordinary as a Golf can’t really disappoint as long as it carries shopping and a person about the place quite reliably. The emotional cars are the ones almost born to disappoint as first love is a one-time experience.
Perhaps the surprising thing about this rumination is that it casts some light on the intemperate display of silence or outraged boredom manifested by Jeremy C***son in response to the 1996 Vectra. His little turn is understandable as a form of disappointment and we can see he was wrong to expect from the car the thrills you’d find in something a) more costly and b) less constrained. Much the same review could have been done for almost any car filling a long-standing section of the market.
Disappointment is based on expectations and if you are given a commodity car (Golf, Vectra, C4) then you ought not to expect the earth to move. And when the time comes to repeat the punchline you didn’t expect, disappointment is always on the cards.