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