Theme: Places – Ascona

A reflection on the car and the town: Ascona.

1972 Opel Ascona: source
1972 Opel Ascona: source

Ascona could be a place that takes you to other places, as in the driver’s seat of the Opel Ascona (1970-1988) or it could be the town in the Locarno district of Switzerland. I have to admit that until very recently in my life the Opel’s Swiss association lingered at the very far back of my mind. It lurked somewhere with Portuguese kings and medieval musical instruments. For most of my time on earth Ascona meant not a nice Swiss town but an unremarkable shape that usually rusted by the side of the road.

Opel must have had in mind the image of a pretty lakeside village with roots deep in the Bronze age but which is first mentioned in 1224 as Burgus de Scona. Until the end of the 19th century Asconans occupied themselves with fishing and agriculture but they also sometimes went forth as masons to Rome and to Tuscany. These days and since the 1970’s tourism has been the main economic activity. In 1970, just as the town began expanding to accommodate second homes, it may very well have been a little obscure. For Opel executives trying to dream up names, perhaps it sounded nicely vague with an added meaning for those in the know.

Artists such as Klee, Picard, Hesse and Gross had spent time there before the second world war.  For customers in Ireland that association can only have been a complete secret and therefore useless in conjouring images of a cosmopolitan, lacustrine Alpine holiday lifestyle.

The other Ascona: source
The other Ascona: source

This brings me to the possible problems with place names taking a second job as product names. The first is that the customer might be entirely ignorant of the link. Thus they are unable to create mental impressions of the car. Ideally, the Ascona buyer thought of a beautiful summer’s morning, driving to a pretty Alpine location to have a picnic of pastetli, Gruyere and a chilled bottle of Neuchatel. Without that imagery there is then no competitive advantage when weighing up the alternatives of a Ford Cortina or Morris Oxford. Granted for many customers Cortina was as obscure a reference as Ascona – and Oxford summoned up impressions of lower-ranking academics or cattle crossing a river. The second problem is that if the customer is wise to the reference they may take issue with its plausibility. A Morris in Oxford – that seems believable. And a Rolls-Royce on the Camargue is wholly natural.

More Ascona: source
More Ascona: source

So, how plausible is it to associate a moderately priced and entirely conventional family car with an exclusive lakeside Swiss town? Did many Ascona customers aspire to that or did their leisure interests lie elsewhere? It’s all a matter of perspective. The Ascona is notionally a shiny, well-equipped new car with a comfortably-off owner who may very well decide a motoring trip to Switzerland is on his or her itinerary. They may very well see the car on their driveway as a gateway to dreams of carefree vacations by the glittering waters of Maggiora even if the car’s main duties are ferrying children to school and plying the motorways on business.

Alternatively, as the car weathers and other nicer cars come along to show up its ageing lines, the Ascona might seem like an affront: honey, the car’s got to go to the mechanic on Monday – the engine’s stalling. Or, I do hope we can get this thing to finish the trip. Or, I wonder if that rust will eat through the sill? Or quite simply, I’m a bloke who works as a hardware store manager – I’m not ever going to Ascona, maybe a two-week package tour to Ibiza if things work out.

I don’t buy Monocle Magazine or the FT Weekend in part because, despite the impressions of a glamourous DTW lifestyle, they are way out of my league. I don’t want to be reminded that for yet another year I’m missing Art Basel and won’t be buying a bijoux home in Antibes. For similar reasons I might not want a car name that rubs my face in it, more confrontational than aspirational.

1970 Opel Ascona: source
1970 Opel Ascona: source

In 1988 the Ascona name gave way to the meaningless Vectra. It’s a blend of ‘vector’ and a neutral  feminine suffix ‘-tra’ (cars tend to be viewed as female, like ships). There’s probably a good deal of sociology in the study of the changing theme of vehicle names.  I would explore the hypothesis that by the 1980’s travel to foreign places seemed less aspirational and more routine. Possibly someone at Opel realised too few customers understood the association with Ascona, Switzerland. And, of course, a new name was a good way to signal a break with the past: the Vectra name worked in all the linguistic regions of Europe too and the car was significantly different from its predecessor to warrant a new moniker.

Oddly, and too late for Opel, I’ve finally got the Ascona association. And with it, I have re-evaluated the Ascona car. Gradually (as they have all but disappeared from the streets) I have images of showroom cars and clean, bright interiors, photos from scanned catalogues. I see the car less ironically now and (perhaps pathetically) allow myself to be transported from here to a summer’s evening in Ascona, with the gleaming 2.0 Ascona GLX parked in front of a grassy swathe leading to a lake. And for Ascona’s citizens, there is the added distant possibility that I may very well spend some of my money there while achieving the goal of seeing an Ascona in Ascona.

Ascona: its now a state of mind.

Author: richard herriott

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

60 thoughts on “Theme: Places – Ascona”

  1. It’s always interesting to think about place named cars and their relation to that place. While Ascona might be a bit far fetched, others like ‘Taunus’ or ‘Ibiza’ are clearer, as it’s more closely related with their origin. But then again, Ford decided to go south, even much more so, with the Granada.

    Do people notice? I can’t tell, as for most Swis, the Ascona reference is quite obvious, but for people from farther away, this may not be the case. And even much less so with the Seat Arosa: this refers to another Swiss touristic town, much smaller even, in the Grisons mountains, most famous for skiing, among narrow-gauge railway enthusiasts, and for a classic car race in which certainly no Seat Arosa has ever participated.

    Oh, and just a minor correction: it’s Locarno, not Tocarno.

  2. We never had the Ascona in the UK; it was called the Cavalier. Perhaps Ford should have called their overtly aerodynamic Cavalier mk 2 competitor the Roundhead?

    1. Hi: GM sold the Cavalier as an Opel Ascona in Ireland. They considered Opel a better brand than Vauxhall for the ROI market.
      Simon: I conflated Ticino with Locarno.

    2. Er John, you’re showing your youth; the Ascona was sold in the UK until 1981, my history teacher had one. Up until then, there were some marked differences from the Vauxhall Cavalier, most noticeably the nose. The fact that it was made in Germany rather than Britain would have sold it to some people too. There was a lot of emphasis on safety in their brochures, totally lacking in the Vauxhall equivalents which was epitomised by the fact that all Asconas had front head restraints whereas Cavaliers didn’t.

    1. Indeed but, more importantly, still out of place in Camargue (just less so).

  3. I think they were trying the exotic place thing, in an analogue to the Ford Cortina and Capri. Though the Opel Garmisch-Partenkirchen just doesn’t have the same ring to it….

    1. I’d never heard of the town of Ascona until you mentioned here a while back. That’s why I read DTW: I learn something (almost) every day.

    2. I obviously did…
      And probably also some people who are interested in the artists you mentioned. Their presence there was apparently linked to ‘Monte Verità’, a hill above Ascona, where a colony was founded with people living to the ideals of “free love, vegetarism, anarchy and communitary thinking” (according to German Wikipedia). It’s about the opposite of what comes to my mind when I think about Ascona drivers (or today’s Ascona tourists and inhabitants, by the way – the lakes of southern Switzerland have some reputation of being the Swiss Florida – a good place to spend your retirement).

  4. For a while my step granddad owned an Opel Ascona C five door in brown, with a tan interior. Although the car wasn’t very old, tin worm was starting to get into the arches and it had a prodigious thirst for oil. I have fond memories of that car and its egg crate grille; as a child I was often taken for a “ride out” to the metal merchant, whereupon a small trailer would be filled with various oddly sized and shaped lumps of steel for my step granddad’s toolmaking business, which he conducted from an extended garage in his back garden.

  5. in Portugal, the Ascona was sold by Opel as the 1604, as the name resembles “as conas” (the plural of the female genitalia in European Portuguese).

    down in Brazil, the Ascona C was sold as Chevrolet Monza (another Italian “place” but no pun, so that’s ok) and bears the honour of being the only midsize car to ever lead sales – for two straight years, 1985 and 1986. it received a heavy facelift in 1991 and was sold up until 1996.

    “I don´t buy Monocle Magazine or the FT Weekend in part because, despite the impressions of a glamourous DTW lifestyle, they are way out of my league”.

    c’mon, this Tyler Brule guy is just a poser. he aims to be seen as much more sophisticated than he really is, as if the glamour would disguise his fragile soul. and I’d rather spend £1000 on a Jaguar 420 to restore it than on a Bottega Veneta wallet and a Tom Ford keychain.

    1. There was a time when I did read the FT and would stare at Tyler Brule´s ludicrously specific recommendations. These could be typified by the suggestion that when you are in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, makes sure to visit the Jimbokodo stationary shop to get their own-brand ball-point pens which are only available in blue-black and maroon, ideal for note-taking on your Foxglove hand-made diary.
      (I am to some extent satirising myself as I do always stock up on Caran D’Ache 827 ball-pens when I am in Switzerland. They are pretty much a Swiss Bic but way, way better.) Being serious Brule did launch a very succesful magazine and then another one. Being critical, he is sometimes way, way to far deep up his own organic, hand-baked Cannaregio-sourced brioche.

      When Portugese people were in Spain they would surely see Asconas on sale. This reminds me of the Mitsubishi Pajero and Buick Lacrosse, fabled and storied names in the joke-name canon.

    2. well, as far as I know, a Caran d’Ache doesn’t cost as much as a Montblanc or whatever pen Mr. Brule endorses. I never had a glamourous pen up until August, when I bought two used Waterman ballpoints at an online auction. still don’t use them so much though.

      a friend of mine once gave me a 1-year subscription of Monocle. indeed it has a wonderful graphic project (gotta praise Mr. Brule for the quality of the Winkreative projects) and some nice articles, but I surely miss the point on what Monocle exactly is for, at who it is targeted, etc. if it had more women, I could see Monocle as a lad’s mag for the intellectual men-about-town… but it is not quite it. I still miss its point.

      my joke-name canon is still led by the Toyota MR2 in France, but the ones you mention are also great. another favourite is the Ford Corcel, which the Americans wanted Ford of Brazil to sell as Ford Pinto. in Brazilian Portuguese, “pinto” can both mean a chick (the hen) or the male genitalia.

  6. Chris: I was slightly wrong. Caran d’Ache 828 is the pen I had in mind. I have one right here, the last one I can find. Some years back (try eight of them) I got a box of 50 shipped to Denmark. It´s just not the same though as going into one’s “favourite stationer” (Coop? A shop on the main street of Basel, I can´t recall) and getting a few. “Job done,” one says before proceeding on with one´s cosmopolitan shopping frenzy. I should note I get to very few other places in Europe, much as I´d like to. Reading Archie Vicar is great subsititute, if you will pardon the pun.

    Simon: please don´t kill my romantic associations of Ascona. I want to think of it as a place to sip aperatifs in a perpetual state of 8.12 pm with sizzling company and the prospect of fondue and raclette yet to come. I don´t want to think of retirees in mobility scooters and transient population of Philipino nurses on rounds to service colostomy bags (Luis Vuitton colostomy bags?). Annoying I was within about 20 kilometres of Ascona and never got to go the final distance: it´s those windy roads or slow public transport.

    1. I think you can still have the aperitive on the lakeside. I’d prefer Locarno, though, it’s a more urban place (and still on the lake with very nice scenery!).
      What you won’t get there (properly) are Pastetli, fondue, raclette or Gruyère cheese. This is more central Swiss (the first one) or western (all the others). The Ticino is more known for chestnust, polenta (corn), rabbit or luganighe (sausages). And you’d drink some Merlot with that.

  7. Eduardo: Monocle is aimed at anyone like Tyler Brule. Is it for well-travelled, well-paid, design-savvy, culturally sensitive people with beards? It strikes me as fictitious a designer’s target group “persona”. I imagine people in the design, architecture and marketing and high-end retail might buy it.

    1. Richard: I fully agree with your description. In the whole world, there are less than 500 people (all of them men) that fit it, and most of them are spoiled enough to buy a magazine edited by a fellow spoiled hipster.

      And what would you like to have for this evening’s aperitifs in Ascona?

  8. Simon: I will have to bring my own pastetli and Neuchatel then. I´ll pass on the polenta. I don´t see the attraction of these rubbery yellow bricks which have no capacity to absorb sauce or gravy.

    1. If they serve you bricks in Ascona, change the restaurant! You’ve found a tourist trap. Polenta should be half-liquid and creamy.

    1. Polenta can be cooked creamy or grilled/fried in blocks/chips. I’ve only ever tried the latter (and liked it).

  9. Eduardo: the aperatif I’m favouring is St Raphael Gold with soda and lime zest. I thank Sam and Sean for drawing my attention to this. We had a discussion a while back: DAFs and neglected drinks.

    1. it seems to be a good thing to drink when you’re in Roppongi wearing pink espadrilles and writing a text, on your beloved, limited-edition Rhodia Pad, about who to blame for this careless post-war town planning. this is so vile to see after spending 10 hours at the godawful Cathay Pacific first-class with no skin moisturiser!

      (I did my best to emulate the average Brule article but I ran out of product placements. have you ever noted that about a third of his articles mention espadrilles?)

  10. This is a bit unseemly for DTW; Tyler Brûle being castigated by contributors who care deeply about which particular pen/pencil they use. Surely we are a group which cares about the minutae of life when in reality many or most of those minutae are unimportant. I am a fan of the FT for the same reasons as I enjoy DTW, they are both interested in details and relevance while avoiding the obvious mainstream. I will say the following in defence of Mr. Brûlé:

    His columns are mostly interesting but occasionally piffle

    He was a front line journalist and was considerably wounded in Afghanistan

    I am sure more than 500 people buy Monocle (but I’m not sure why)

    He wrote a very polite reply to my wife when she queried something in his column

    One of his favourite cars is a previous model Forester

    The Opel Ascona? Yes nice car, my friend had an estate but it rusted terribly. Why so many names from Italy and Switzerland and so few from England and Holland? We need to know.

    1. Barry, I just think Mr. Brule has some three or four articles that he keeps rewriting (a place, a product, a drink; throw in some criticism and finish it with espadrilles). and I was never sure about who Monocle is target at.

    2. Well, at least in the germanophonic world, the dream of travelling (especially with a car) was always linked to holidays and crossing the Alps. Hence it’s not completely unexpected that a presumable dream car is named after a destination one longs for. I can’t imagine people here having romantic notions about England and Holland in the same way, at least thirty or fourty years ago.
      Could that serve as an explanation?

    3. It’s not so much castigation as something much milder. Correct, Brule (apologies for the missing diacritical marks) was injured as a journalist in a war zone and I did note he had the drive to start two magazines. Further, I admit a penchant for particulars. So, it’s a case of the Le Creuset calling the Staub black. That said… erm.

  11. Mark: I never knew that about the Ascona in the U.K! My excuse is that I hated Vauxhalls/Opels growing up. Apart from the second generation Astra, I like(d) that.

    1. This question probably warrants an article in itself. For me, Vauxhall (and Holden, closer to home) are irretrievably bound up with associations with The General, which is basically shorthand for lowest-common-denominator sludge like the 1996 Vectra. Somehow, in my formative years Ford’s output always seemed a cut above GM’s, even if it really wasn’t.

  12. Being an eight year old at the British launch of the Sierra at the 1982 Birmingham motor show turned me into a Ford man (boy). I didn’t like the angular design of Vauxhalls of that era. That initial “V” for Vauxhall seemed to sum up the design philosophy; all creases and hard edges. Which is why I liked the 1984 aero Astra which wasn’t like that.

    I couldn’t understand why the J-car Ascona/Cavalier was a sales success in the U.K. and the Sierra tanked. Now I’m a lot older I understand it was because the J-car had better handling/engines/FWD/cross-wind stability and appealed to all the conservative buyers of Cortinas that Ford had left high and dry.

    1. Autocar liked the Cavalier. I have a glowing article about its introduction, from back in the day when these cars mattered.
      I respect both the Sierra for its modernism and the Ascona for precisely delivering what customers wanted.

  13. I used to enjoy Tyler Brûlé on the back page of the Weekend FT. The pairing of him with Harry Eyres was a sort of Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson de nos jours. Brûlé is nothing if not dependable – the subject matter is usually airline cabin crew uniforms, and the quality of mens’ underpants and swimming trunks available from Swiss or Japanese chain stores.

    The entertainment value paled when I established that Tyler was a real person and not a sharply observed creation of Lucy Kellaway.

    Nowadays part of my investment strategy is to save myself £3.50 every Saturday, download the crossword, and occasionally check on the FT website what Jonathan Margolis is up to.

    1. In Harry Eyres I found a very decent chap, as if Radio 4 had embodied “Something Understood”. He quoted Ivan Illich who wrote “Tools for Conviviality” which I found useful.
      It’s been about five years since I regularly bought the FT Weekend. I’ve saved about a thousand pounds.

  14. My tediously banal and car-fixated side recalls that Harry’s first car was a Citroën GS, and his transport about five or six years ago was a Vauxhall Cavalier (generation not stated). A good egg. He’s a near contemporary and I recognised a lot of his angst. Regrettably I haven’t a fraction of his talent, learning, or social conscience, so vainly buried myself in car nonsense as some sort of escape, rather than trying to make the world a better place.

    1. That’s me in a nutshell though I have a citizen activist side which involves struggling with the municipality over biodiversity, urban planning dangerous parking and fly-tipping.

  15. Stradale: at various times and in different places, GM has offered some very bad products. When they produce as many cars as they do it’s almost inevitable.
    While the 1996 Vectra was not exciting it was not inappropriate for the market. Anyone who wanted a sporty drive knew where to find Alfa Romeo and Ford. The Vectra was aimed at being totally stress-free. Its appearsnce was professional; I don’t recall J Clarkson sulking over Carinas or Mazda 626s. Why did he pick on the Vectra? Bullying, I think – an easy target.
    Most Vauxhalls are straightforward cars. I think they seem to serve their customers well while my lovely Citroens look nice but often don’t perform as promised.

  16. Mindful as I am of the severe financial strain that running the digital behemoth that is DTW puts on my three principals (a fact that, Jimmy Wales like, I might point out to our regulars this Yule season – PayPal, Credit Card or Cash) I was anxious to save Richard the trip to the Lakes. I have spent some time therefore cruising the Googlefied Streets of Ascona in search of an Ascona, but to no avail. I did however find a Citroen Mehari, a Lancia Fulvia Coupe (for sale) and a nice old Mercedes under a cover. The streets, though not deserted, actually seemed sparsely populated. It’s a pleasant place, but hardly exotic (then neither is the car).

    1. Simon: I can only thank you for saving me the trouble of a cross-continent trip, two nights in the Eden Roc and lunches in Osteria Borei, La Brezza and dinners too. I thank you again.
      Plus the use of a Lancia Ypsilon “Elle”.

    1. Hi Niels: It seems not many did. In that sense it must not have worked very far from southern and central Europe. If indeed they intended that.
      Thanks by the way for the images – I meant to write back. One of them will make an excellent mystery car!

    2. To my immense shame, my realisation that Ascona was a place came through watching Jeux san Frontiers, in which the Ticinese municipality was competing. We didn’t have the internet in those days, and reference books and atlases were kept under lock and key for fear of corrupting the children with their profanity.

      I can remember little about the vacuous entertainment, but the place names stuck. Onchan and Knokke-Heist also immediately spring to mind.

      The Ascona A is a rare sight now, but one turned up at an Oldtimer event in Hameln I visited in August. A very neat car, and I’m fascinated by the way the GM styling vocabulary pervaded the globe like an ever-evolving three-dimensional Esperanto. The Ascona A has strong visual links to the contemporary Holden HQ Kingswood / Belmont, and the slightly later LH Torana. Both are much bigger cars, and probably never sold in the same markets as the Ascona A.

      Another Ascona A oddity is that it is barely larger than the Kadett B. The wheelbase is 16mm longer, and it’s only 73mm longer overall. What were GM thinking?

    3. Apparently it was meant to be the Kadett C, but at the time it was presented as a needed gap-filler between Kadett and Record. That always seemed a bit unlikely, but it started the shift upwards resulting in the sad demise of the KAD cars when the bigger Record and its Senator derivative took their place.

      It took me much longer to find Ascona was a place, when I drove down from a mountain and saw the town sign.

  17. And on the subject of cars named after locations, I used to own a Ford Grand Torino GT, nothing could be further from Italian 🙂
    I think I know what car you are thinking on for a mystery car.
    I’ll send you a few more 🙂

    1. The Americans routinely borrowed European names. I find that those borrowings strip the names of meaning. I wouldn´t expect it to mean anything. It sounds nice and is as far from Italy as you can get, mentally. That doesn´t make it a bad car: wasn´t that the one Starsky and Hutch used to drive around in? Or am I mixing them up with Kojak? Isn´t it nice they called it a Gran Torino. Was there a less Gran Torino? Yes, there was. It was a bog-standard Torino. Interesting. I didn´t know that; I thought they were all Gran Torinos. The GM and US naming is baffling. I sometimes think even GM and Ford didn´t know how their product ranges were structured or supposed to be structured. What happened to the car?

  18. There was a Turino, a Grand Turino and the Grand Turino GT. Trim and engine was the deciding factor. The Grand Turino had the 351W and gear selector on the steering column, while the Grand Turino GT had a floor gear selector and the 351Cl engine. Mine was a bit special, it had the 460 and vinyl roof.
    I sold it before moving to Sweden, it really was a boyhood dream, not very practically and very expensive to run.
    And the same car as Starsky and Hutch, minus the hideous paint job.
    Replaced it with a 1976 Toyota Celica.

    1. That’s quite a change, from the American to Japanese form of sportscars. There’s such a big difference in weight, engine and handling. I note that the name scheme and trim level are done differently than usual. Normally as I see it the trim follow the model: brand – body – trim e.g Nissan Sentra DL or Volvo 240 GLE. For the ford the whole model name implies trim, but with a suffix (GT) on one variant
      Ford Torino
      Ford Gran Torino
      Ford Gran Torino GT
      The bodies were the same, I presume.

      Celica is a place in Ecuador. It has to be a coincidence though, as there is no link to Toyota or glamorous holiday spots etc.

  19. Coincidentally, the train I’m sitting in will pass Ascona (from a distance) in a few minutes. Later on, there will also be a stop in Monza. No vehicles of those names spotted so far, though.

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