A reflection on the car and the town: Ascona.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ascona 1.9 S 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.