Differential Calculus

A not-so-serious look at the dark art of automotive one-upmanship.

(c) Ford UK

Buying a new car these days is an exhausting process. Manufacturers, in their quest to fill every imaginable (and some unimaginable) micro-niches, now offer ranges that are truly bewildering in their breadth. Your first task is to trawl through the 38 different models and bodystyles (Mercedes’ current UK tally) and choose the one that best suits your needs and pocket.

Then you enter the configurator, an Aladdin’s cave of seemingly endless options with which to personalise your prospective purchase – all at a price, naturally. With iron will, you resist all its blandishments and settle on a nice, sensible set of footwell mats for £75. But wait, the computer says no: the mats are only available as part of the Comfort Pack, yours for £650! All this stress, and that’s before you submit to the oily embrace of the sales ‘executive’. (We’ll return to that word later.)

Half a century ago, life was so much simpler. Mainstream manufacturers typically offered saloons, hatchbacks and/or estates in S/M/L and, occasionally, XL sizes (with the odd coupé thrown in for men of a certain age who might otherwise have had an affair). The computer-driven automation that today enables factories to build models on a production line that are precisely tailored to an individual configuration simply didn’t exist. Mass production was still exactly that and Henry Ford’s “as long as it’s black” maxim still applied, to almost everything but the colour, ironically enough.

The corollary of this was that there was far less variety on the roads, certainly in the UK where domestic marques still dominated. However, manufacturers realised that potential buyers were individuals who wanted their cars to reflect both their taste and their status: Gavin, the newly promoted regional sales manager, didn’t want to drive a car that was indistinguishable from the one driven by Nigel, the work-shy and slightly dim new recruit to his team.

The solution to this dilemma was to offer a range of manufacturer-determined trim and specification levels, coupled with different engine sizes, that satisfied a wide range of buyers, from the impecunious scraping together enough money for a base model, to those flush enough to afford the top of the range version with all its bells and whistles.

Ford was expert at this, and the Mk3 Cortina was one of its finest pieces of work in this regard (if no other). It originally came in base, L, XL, GT, and GXL trim levels, with a range of engines from 1.3 to 2.0 litres. Each trim level was advertised with a prominent badge on the boot lid. (Apart from the poverty-spec base model, of course.) Engine sizes, even the lowly 1.3 litre, were proudly displayed in cod-heraldic shields on the lower front wings.

It was, of course, vital that casual observers should be able to distinguish Gavin’s Cortina positively from Nigel’s, even at a glance. There was no room for subtlety or understatement here, so Gavin’s GXL came with twin headlamps, a chrome bodyside rubbing strip with rubber inserts, chrome wheel arch trims, sporty steel wheels, a silver and black finisher panel between the tail lights and, most noticeably, a vinyl roof. Nigel’s L model came with none of the above and looked distinctly dowdy in comparison, which was precisely the intention.

In absolute terms, Gavin’s GXL was essentially the same car as Nigel’s L and the differentiation between different trim levels often amounted to little more than differently patterned upholstery and a push-button rather than manually tuned radio.

At one stage, Ford offered the Mk2 Escort in Popular, Popular Plus, L, GL, S and Ghia trims. The distinction between the first two is long forgotten, but was miniscule. In fact, when Ford reintroduced the Popular moniker for its base model in 1975, it distinguished the car from the L by painting the window frames and bumpers black and, bizarrely, fitting full chromed “saucepan lid” wheel covers instead of the plastic “yoghurt pot” hub caps on the L model. In other words, they spent extra money to make it look cheaper!

1975 Escort Popular. (c) Ford UK

In any event, the die was cast and other manufacturers followed suit. There was a surprising degree of conformity to the alphabetic characters chosen by different manufacturers for trim levels, presumably because the letters were chosen for their (English) word associations. The hierarchy typically went something like the following:

Foreign manufacturers followed a similar model hierarchy, albeit with some different letters to reflect local flavours. C for Comfort was a designation used by Fiat, VW and Ford (the latter not in the UK or Ireland, for some reason) in conjunction with the letters above. Renault had its L, TL, TS, and TX hierarchy, sometimes prefixed with a G.

Audi and Opel used LS and GL for their lesser trim levels, but topped out with CD. One can only assume that this stood for Corps Diplomatique and offered levels of luxury and sophistication such as were enjoyed at the ambassador’s reception when they brought out the Ferrero Rocher. The alphabetic trim level badging was often prefixed or suffixed with the engine size, in litres or cubic centimetres, for added bragging rights.

Those still paying attention will have noticed that E appears twice, at either end of the table. Ford cannot have been too pleased when Vauxhall repurposed this letter for its base model Viva and Chevette. That said, Executive was fast becoming one of the most debased and meaningless words in the English language, so it was time to move on, in Ford’s case to Ghia.

There was some logic to this hierarchy: generally, the more letters a manufacturer used, and the further down the alphabet it went to find them, the more upscale the trim level. Some manufacturers had the temerity to challenge this convention: when Chrysler launched the Alpine in 1975, they used GL for the base model and S for the larger engined but virtually indistinguishable more expensive version. People were confused. What did S stand for? Hardly Sport, given the tappety, asthmatic old 1,442cc Simca engine that was its Achilles’ heel. The manufacturer, in later Talbot guise, finally saw sense and introduced a GLS range topper instead.

Some manufacturers even tried the ruse of using different model names for the same car, to broaden further the prospective market. Ford had the Zephyr and Zodiac, followed by the Consul and Granada twins. Vauxhall had Viva and Magnum, Cresta and Viscount, and the Victor, Ventora and VX4/90 triplets. The more upmarket sibling was typically distinguished by extra external brightwork, twin headlamps and that ubiquitous signifier of luxury, the vinyl roof.

 (c) stormweels

All was proceeding smoothly and (relatively) logically until those idiosyncratic individualists at Citroën decided to throw a spanner in the works. Unlike the majority of manufacturers, Citroën chose names rather than letters to denote trim levels, presumably to avoid the confusion of having a Citroën GS GLS or a CX CL in its range. It already had the Pallas and Prestige monikers for their top of the range and LWB saloons, but when it rejigged the CX range in 1979, Citroën introduced Reflex and Athena to designate two lower rung models, replacing the more descriptive Comfort and Super.

Little did Citroën know it, but that fateful decision would, in subsequent years, open the floodgates to a deluge of pleasant sounding but essentially meaningless words rather than letters for different trim levels: Ambiente, Avantgarde, Business Edition, Design, Elegance, Elite, Iconic, Initiale, Tech Line and a host of others. Who could now understand the pecking order, the relative position of Avantgarde versus Elegance? Who even cares anymore?

To make matters worse, these designations are no longer writ large across the car’s rump but, if they appear at all, are confined to discreet little badges on the front wing, so owners are denied the car park or driveway bragging rights they once enjoyed.

There are still badges that raise the pulse of keen drivers, AMG and M being two that come readily to mind, but even these have been debased with suffixes such as -Line and -Sport, reducing them to mere trim levels without any of the expected mechanical upgrades. Couple that with numerical descriptors that no longer bear any relationship to the engine capacity or power output, and these designations are just as meaningless as the whimsical names.

All of which takes us neatly back to the present day. You’re still struggling with the configurator, but decide ‘Stuff their Comfort Pack, I’ll nip down to the auto parts discount store for my floormats instead.‘ Good for you!

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

27 thoughts on “Differential Calculus”

  1. If I recall Cortina MK3 had a trim level L Decor which sat above L and below XL too at one point

    1. Good morning James. You may well be correct, although I remember it slightly differently: I thought “L Decor” only ever appeared on the twee little badge on the boot lid they and the model was still referred to as “L” otherwise, but I may well be wrong. I have tried to be factually accurate in the piece, but no guarantees are offered!

  2. Nice post, Daniel. As a car-spotting young boy I could have recited to you from memory the precise differences between the 1982 Sierra Saloon, L, GL and Ghia.

    Does anyone else remember the wonderful early 1990s’ BBC2 documentary “From A to B: Tales of Modern Motoring”? The whole series had people talking about their cars whilst driving them.

    There was a great episode about company car drivers that was all Cavalier drivers on the motorway saying they weren’t moving over for the car behind because it was only an L and they were driving a GL etc. This is was the infamous episode where it was revealed that some companies punished wayward staff by giving them a (pre-VAG) Skoda to drive for a week! https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00j4d3l

    Worth seeking out on YouTube!

    1. Thank you, John. I do remember the documentary, and the infamous Cavalier driver’s comment, now that you’ve reminded me. Thanks for the heads-up.

    2. Remember it well. The chap who moaned cause he got given a Maestro and the chap that said you had to yield to a Cavalier if it had headlamp wipers cause that indicated it was a GLi Not a GL And could outrun your 1.6.
      Also, from memory, fantastic demonstration of pager use at the wheel. Due care and attention? Naah mate.
      Ah, simpler times………

  3. The sociology of the trim-designations is where the fascination lies. The mystery for me is that in the much-less socially stratified society of the 1970s, clear social hierarchies flourished on car boot lids. Today, there is so much less overt distinction between models in the same range. I accept now that there are for more models to choose from yet I don´t feel this goes all the way to explaining why only the most over-specced Audi looks much different to the standard one. The car world is a lot flatter now even if broader in extent.

    We ought to note that Ford is still playing the hierarchy game a little bit with its Vignale line. Last night I saw what I think was a Vignale S-Max – and it does look pretty regal to me. And Skoda have the Laurent & Klement (spelling?) line for their top models. Again, I think these are super broughamy and very appealing. Renault have their Initiale Paris line (not so much in evidence). What do Opel do in this regard? I went to Opel Denmark and found the Insignia with a rich tan interiors and, oddly, it is sold under the “coupe” name. That´s just gilding the lily.

    If I ran a car magazine I´d make a point of testing all these Grande De Luxe models to see who made the best fist of it.

    Ah, van den Plas.

    1. Good morning Richard. Yes, the psychology surrounding all this “tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence” stratification is fascinating, and beautifully encapsulated in the Cavalier driver’s mindset John mentions above

      Regarding Skoda’s top-level trim, it’s Laurin & Klement, the founders of the company:

      Very Brougham-ish indeed, even the script used for the badge.

      Oh, and sorry to be pedantic, but it’s Vanden Plas.

    2. Correct, Daniel. I am a bit out of practice.
      John: I saw the film about the woman driving the Mini. I was surprised how sparse the world was in 1990. And also the odd comment that she considered herself old. She can´t have been much more than 40 at the time the film was made.

    3. The L&K Octavia just about to be replaced is a bit of a disappointment. It’s very obvious how some of the ‘luxury’ add-ons have been bolted on – example the engine ‘start’ button. Also, the cut of cloth on the seats (actually, it’s a kind of alcantara) is the same as the SE-L, but with the L&K script monogrammed onto the seatback. The doorcards are similar no different to the lower car – and looks horribly like plastic-vinyl. I wouldn’t bother with the extra cost.

      VdP Metros, Maestros and Montegos were much more differentiated – with a lovely woven wool ‘Jacquard’ cloth trim on the seats and door cards, and wood-capped door tops. Very nice!

  4. Citroen did a double somersault with the CX. It started as 2200 Super, became Athéna and ended as 22 TRS.
    Citroen didn’t want to sell the Continental BX TRD to UK customers where it was named BX DTR.
    Toyota’s MR2 was not great saless success in France where it was an “emmerdeur”…

    Richard Herriott’s diagnosis of a flat car world now is right.
    Remember the time when customers could select between Fiat 128, Citroen GS, Alfasud, VW Typ 3, Opel Kadett which were fundamentally different true alternatives.

    1. And Lancia had something to offer as well. The big change is the demise of the ICE. The e-replacements will all be pretty similar mechanically. Would you be surprised if I said I had a fountain pen, a fine-liner and a capillary pen? I do like analogue (but I am too young to be a vinyl record person).

    2. “Toyota’s MR2 was not great saless success in France where it was an “emmerdeur” ”

      Actually it sounds like “merdeux” in French, which is either a noun and means a brat, or an adjective in which case it means sh*t/sh*tty.

  5. When it comes to trim levels, there have really never been a need for more than two or three, the rest are minor variations that shouldn’t even have been differentiated, if not for the need of snob factor within the minor plebian ranks. What you need is one base level, and in some cases of austerity, a strippo version. Then you need a sportier version, and a more luxurious version. Base level, sport, comfort. There you have it.

    I would also like to point to the fact that the default car for the last sixty years, the four door sedan, never really was that practicle of a proposition in the first place. I would say the high sitting CUVs of today fill the needs of the people in more and better ways than any Cortina or Cavalier ever did. The “Longer, lower, wider” mantra of the fifties was a dead end in car design and good riddance to it. They may have had grace, but space and every day practicality was severely lacking.

    I would like to point to a different kind of car, and a car which for some reason I never knew existed until a few months ago. Look at the Renault Colorale and tell me it isn’t a proto-CUV from the fifties? It has a form factor that went a dead end in the fifties, but which makes it oh so practical today. It’s a car that must be within millimetres of the same dimension as any grocery getter you can get from Skoda or Peugeot or Dacia of today. I find it absolutely mindboggling it has a form and shape that wouldn’t look alien in suburb today, it really is a car which you enter instead of stepping down into. And somehow it only makes sense we’re going back to a more sensible kind of engineering, where the focus is on what people really need instead of what they think they want.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renault_Colorale

    1. Thanks for the reference to the Colorale. It´s a kind of estate car, isn´t it?

      I have to disagree about the four-door saloon. I drive one of these and only very rarely do I wish I had the bonus of a hatchback (my other car). There is room and comfortable seating; the handling is satisfactory and I feel like I have a good view out. If it is not as able to carry flat panels from the hardware store I do not think that make it severely lacking in practicality. A Fiat Barchetta or Smart ForTwo would be closer to that description.

      As to trim levels, three is not enough. Sport is not an extra thing but an alternative thing. So, there would be a basic line with normal performance which gets more luxurious and a Sport line, again starting at Spartan and getting more and more well-equipped. I might even have room for “cool” and “warm” versions (Titanium and Ghia would be analoogues to this).

      Since most cars are very comfortable as a matter of course these days, perhaps we can have Comfort/Warm and Comfort/Cool and Sport/Warm and Sport/Cool. And then there is the All-Road variant. So there is ample scope for the trim-level letter arrangers to have fun with options matrices!

    2. I wonder if there was a certain element of snobbery to having a saloon, rather than a more utilitarian hatchback or estate? It says to the world, “I don’t carry stuff around. I pay people to do that!”

      It puts in mind one (of very many) great lines from the comedy, Frasier, when Niles said something like, “They’re so upscale , even their people have people!”

    3. Even though manufacturers like to pretend their cars are more customizable than ever before, what would really be novel is a genuine choice of body colour, engine, trim and options – any combination you like and no imposed selection as is too often the case today.

  6. The Colorale is a really really interesting car. It caught my mind, because I had such problems at first differentiating its scale. It looked as a much smaller car at first, because it has that antropomorphic “cute” small car look to it, but its size and scale is really that of a quite large car in every dimension, it’s comparable in size to the Jeep Willys Station Wagon, only somewhat shorter. The pictures of the car don’t do it justice, because the scale and shape is so unfamiliar in the landscape, but I had much use of YouTube finding clips about it, I can really recommend looking at live pictures to make sense of it. It’s such a remarkable artifact I’m surprised it’s so unknown, somebody in this congregation should really do it justice with an article of its own.

    1. Hi Ingvar, you’re right, the Colorale is actually much bigger than it looks and difficult to scale from photos. Its height at 1.75m is very much in SUV territory, being taller than a VW Tourag. The closest vehicle in size that is familiar to UK readers is the classic FX4 London Taxi (although the latter is almost a foot longer) and it looks not dissimilar either.

  7. Configurators are frequently infuriating. I was using Renault’s the other day, checking out the new Zoe. You can add the Technology Pack and/or the Winter Pack for £500 each. The Technology Pack comprises front and rear parking sensors, a reverse parking camera (y’know, in the case the beeping sensors weren’t enough) and a bigger touch screen. The Winter Pack has no description. Presumably this means that not even Renault know what it is.

    The Zoe configurator also has a fun feature (bug) whereby the indicated price is after the £3,500 UK government EV grant throughout, apart from on one screen when it suddenly leaps up by the same amount, only to drop again on the subsequent screen!

    Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine what a configurator would be like for a Mk3 Cortina…sparse, really. Would sir or madam like a passenger door mirror? Front seat head restraints? How about a nice vinyl roof? Perhaps a radio? Nowadays choosing between model variants is more akin to shopping for a smartphone.

    1. If you want to see an example of a really limited and cheap configurator, take a look at the one for the C-Elysée on http://www.citroen.es. I was curious to see just how much you could spend to up-spec one when writing my recent review. As I recall, Sat-Nav was €500, but everything else (not that there was a lot) cost buttons.

    2. I would love it if someone could make a retro-styled configurator for a 1970s Ford. Surely not such a hard thing to do once the CAD model is made. Or could it be 2D and use photographs?

    3. On that topic, Audi’s configurator around 1980 would have been entertaining. My now brother-in-law bought a new 80LS in that year and, when he went to collect it, he noticed that the 12V socket in the centre console had no cigarette lighter, nor even a blanking plug or cover flap, just an open hole. Assuming it had just been removed for some reason and not replaced, he asked the salesman, who told him “Only the GL comes with that as standard, sir.” Despite not being a smoker and never allowing smoking in his car, he shelled out a tenner or so, just to fill the hole!

      Nice car though:

    4. Never believe a sales rep. There was no Audi 80 that officially came with a hole in the dashboard and no cigarette/cigar lighter. The lighters are stolen very frequently from new cars or cars in the showroom, Audi even has a fake lighter for use in dealer showrooms that’s functionless and doesn’t get stolen.

    5. Hi Dave. What you say doesn’t surprise me in the least. I better watch what I else I might say about Irish car salesmen, so as not to risk causing offence!

      I’ll let my brother-in-law know, although it’s probably too late for him to ask for his money back…

  8. Hi Daniel,

    A really great article of an often ignored subject (has it even been adressed before ?).

    The base model of the 208 is called ‘Like’ and it came out at the height of Facebook’s fame and was obviously inspired by the social media site’s button of the same name which I always thought was a bit naff. The previous 208 even had this weird logo vaguely reminiscent of Facebook.

    1. ….and to me ‘Volcane’ (of Citroen ZX’s fame) was such a good trim name for a sporty version. One of my favourite trim name perhaps. but then again I loved the ZX Volcane’s look back in the days…….

  9. Thanks, NRJ. It was fun to write, particularly given my weirdly encyclopaedic memory for trivia such as this. Agreed about Volcane: it’s a great name for a sporty version. I liked the three-door ZX’s unusual DLO with that uptick either side of the B-Pillar too:

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