Country Club or Brand Values?

Today we muse upon the supposed relation between cars and their countries of origin.

1999 Dodge Neon. Image: zemotor

Many years ago, in a British car magazine, I read an interview with an American car company executive about his employer’s attempts to crack the European car market (this was back in the days of efforts like Chrysler’s Neon sub-brand) in which he waxed lyrical on the subject of typically American virtues such as spaciousness in cars. Given that, certainly at the time, my primary association with the concept American car was the TARDIS-in-reverse quality of a typical land-yacht cabin, it wasn’t a terribly convincing argument. Nor did the executive in question seem to have much else up his sleeve in terms of qualities that are typically American in cars.

The association of car manufacturers, or rather their products’ typical qualities, with their country of origin is so common that it almost goes unnoticed as a sort of self-evident truth. It’s worth asking, however, if this is really true at all. The idea has an obvious intuitive appeal: Cars hailing from a country with poorly surfaced roads, for example, will surely tend to have compliant, long-travel suspension, won’t they? Well probably, if they are being built primarily for the domestic market, but that’s a pretty big assumption, certainly in our present globalised world.

Often the associations between cars and their countries of origin are more to do with supposed character-traits: French cars are quirky and comfortable, Italian cars are sporty, British cars are traditional and so on. As intuitively appealing as such associations may be, one doesn’t have to look particularly hard to find counterexamples: A Fiat Multipla is about as sporty as most of Issigonis’ creations were traditional – as quintessentially British as some of them may have become in the decades since their creation.

Perhaps we need to narrow our scope a little to look at certain marques that represent their countries’ automotive values better. A Citroen DS19 would seem to fit the description of quirky and comfortable rather well. The Rover 75, a car of which regular readers may know I am peculiarly fond, certainly evinces a sort of tradition. I can’t think of a Ferrari that couldn’t reasonably be described as sporty.

Author’s image

Perhaps the geographical associations that we naturally make are valid for countries’ iconic car manufacturers, rather than the grey masses with which they must condescend to share the marketplace? Here again, a healthy dose of scepticism might be wisely prescribed.

Let us take, for the sake of the argument I am busily constructing, three marques (all of which are regular visitors to DTW’s virtual pages) that could be said to be both iconic and closely associated with their countries of origin: Citroën, Lancia and Rover.

In addition to being already tragically dead or slowly dying, these brands also tend to be strongly identified with certain engineering and design principles. One of them is famous for its pioneering work with advanced self-levelling and roll-resistant suspension systems (I am thinking of course of Rover and their remarkable P7 prototypes), whilst another is known for its commitment to modern high-performance engines (Citroën were an early investor in rotary technology and even went as far as buying Maserati to gain access to superior engines). Lancia, meanwhile…

Image: l’automobileancienne

Before this all gets too tendentious, let me state my case explicitly: All three brands shared, in their heyday, the characteristic of pursuing a degree of excellence and modernity (in a broad sense) that engendered the exploration of radical engineering solutions that others would only get round to copying many years later: Front-wheel drive, independent suspension, rotary and gas turbine engines, self-levelling and anti-roll mechanisms, advanced construction techniques…

Our three heroes were early to arrive to such technologically advanced parties and did much to advance the investigation and adoption of these innovations. This, I would argue, indicates they have more in common with one another than they do with most of their geographically-bound contemporaries.

As with any argument based upon examples, counterexamples will be easy to find and I have no doubt the commentariat could (and hopefully will) fire some well-aimed rhetorical arrows at my feet themselves. Besides, what company are we actually talking about when we discuss ‘Rover’? Was Lancia under Fiat’s ownership still Lancia? When did Citroën cease to be recognisable as Citroën?

Image: DTW

Whilst many such criticisms may be valid, I believe that for every supposedly national characteristic shared by car makers hailing from the same country, one will be able to find both counterexamples and examples of characteristics shared with car companies in different countries. I would further posit that the latter commonalities are more fundamental than the former. In the interests of (civilised) debate, would anyone care to pick up the gauntlet and argue the opposite case?

Author: Chris Elvin

Appreciator of dead and dying marques. Drowns his sorrows with good wine.

34 thoughts on “Country Club or Brand Values?”

  1. Good morning Chris. That is indeed a thought-provoking topic. The three marques you highlight all suffered from a similar dilution or abandonment of their traditional qualities and characteristics, which led directly or indirectly to Rover’s demise, Lancia’s present near-extinction and Citroen’s current identity crisis.

    Rover, as the least damaged and discredited of the former BL marques, was stretched to cover a full range of models, and this was successful, for a time at least . The R8 200/400, the 600 and R17 800 were pretty credible, if not outstanding. The 75 was an excellent modern reinterpretation of Rover’s traditional values. It is a great shame that BMW abandoned Rover shortly after the launch of its best car in decades, and we all know what happened afterwards.

    Pre FCA-era Lancias did largely retain recognisable marque characteristics, but the cynical and crude rebranding of the Chrysler 200 and 300 models as the Lancia Flavia and Thema was a stupid misstep which hastened the marque’s decline. Rebranding the Ypsilon and Delta as Chryslers in the UK was similarly misguided.

    Citroën was a company with a dual identity, encompassing simple but well engineered utility models (2CV, Dyane and Ami) with more prestigious and technically complex cars (GS, DS/CX and SM). That may no longer work today in a brand-values obsessed market. That said, Peugeot’s reinvention of Citroën as solely a ‘value’ brand positioned beneath its own was a mean-spirited act of sabotage that ignored the company’s history of technical innovation. The DS sub-brand was an attempt to resurrect the virtues of the 1955 DS, but was really badly executed.

    The lesson to be learnt is that manufacturers abandon the characteristics that distinguish their marques at their peril.

    1. Thinking about cars that espoused characteristics not usually associated with the marque, the 1978 Fiat Ritmo (Strada in the UK) comes to mind. It had long-travel softly sprung suspension and was completely different dynamically than its predecessor, the 128 (and the rest of the Fiat range at that time). I recall one reviewer saying that is was more typically French than Italian in character.

      At the risking of causing a storm, I think that the Alfa Romeo 159, although a fine car and well built (for an Alfa!), was more Germanic than Italian in character, thanks to its heavy GM-derived platform.

      Now, where did I put my tin hat?..

    2. I absolutely agree with your point of view regarding the 159.
      When let loose with tons of money and a GM-biased specification they created less of an Alfa than when they had to derive the 156 from a Fiat platform.
      What does this say about Fiat’s stewardship of the marque?

    3. That’s a very interesting point about Citroën’s dual identity Daniel. I pity the marketeer that would try to ‘position’ that in the contemporary marketplace and think it would likely not work at all, which underlines just how difficult a case Citroën has now become. It’s not impossible that DS-as-a-brand was an incompetent attempt at squaring that particular circle.

    4. I always rather resented the fact that the 159 ended up being a non-Alfaish Alfa, when the same platform could have yielded a rather Saabish Saab instead…

    5. Hi Daniel, I agree. Given there’s quite a bit of GM (Opel) in the 159, its slightly Germanic bent is not too far fetched. I always thought it a good candidate for an AMG-style version: big engine, ridiculous power output, put up with the iffy dynamics. Not necessarily very “Alfa”, but brands change and grow.

      Mind you, the last Punto was built on the Opel Corsa platform and that has little Germanic about it. Such a waste of a great-looking (if not necessarily driving) car and accompanying market position that it was left to wither on the vine for so many years. Fiat threw away its credibility in the market all by itself. I’d be interested to know if that has been a similar story to BL: many mistakes, certainly, but by and large just a failure to grow sufficiently (both hampered by an inability to grow beyond the home market), a resulting lack of funds for new car development leading to underdeveloped product, accompanying damage to reputation, even fewer funds, etc.

    6. Phew! I thought my observation regarding the 159 might have raised heckles amongst the Alfisti, but apparently not. I liked the 159 and Brera a lot, but both looked rather better than they drove:

    7. Ah yes, the Brera.

      Actually the perfect vehicle for a “only-one-car-in-this-household” policy.

      The template was pretty good. I don’t know which department screwed up the result.
      We ended up with an overweight vehicle that could only be driven with the biggest engine, with fuel consumption like we were stuck in the low 60s.
      You’d think someone in Milan would have noticed this mess. In any case, there was enough time to notice.

      In Germany, it was also only available in what the solvent buyer class of the time thought was appropriate. Exterior colour in 3 shades of black and – of course – “Italian-sports-car-must-be-red” red. The interior was available in two different colours: charcoal mien dark and charcoal mien all dark. For an outrageous extra charge, there were some Italian-red appliqués and upholstery.

      I would have liked to have one, but the features on offer – as well as the weight and fuel consumption – just didn’t fit.

      The Brera could have been a great car.

      Are the people who screwed up the Brera still on the Stellantis payroll?
      If so, I don’t expect any more pleasing results from DS, Lancia et.al.

    8. Well, well, well. The Brera. The car I so wanted when I was starting my PhD… And then got back to my senses and hung on to the Clio until August 2008, when I ordered the Delta. I had test-driven the Brera (the initial version, with the less supportive seats) and the 159, both in 2.2 JTS guise, back in 2007. Although it’s been fourteen years, I have a strong recollection of what they were like to drive.

      The Brera was a fine grand tourer, surprisingly well-built for an Italian car, and the dashboard fit the nature of the car well. As I said, though, it was a grand tourer, not a balls-out, fire-burping monster. So, its ride quality was perfectly decent – in fact, less crashy than the Delta’s. The seats were very comfortable, too. As far as its road manners were concerned, I remember it rolled a bit, but not alarmingly so, no matter how hard I pushed it. It was very well-planted on the road. Unsettling it seemed almost impossible, and this felt strange. It felt like, if it got out of shape, it’d do so at a ridiculous speed, yet, at the same time, it made you feel that, should the deculture happen, its chassis and electronics would somehow pull you out of trouble. Unlike my Delta III, it didn’t roll first and then turn to where you told it to; you pointed, it turned. End of story. No fuss. No drama. It felt together, but it was heavy. Its acceleration was on par with most 2-liter D-segment cars, but the engine needed to be worked relatively hard, and 2.2 liters was asking for trouble, tax-wise. As far as fuel economy is concerned, a friend of mine who bought one told me that, when you put your foot down, it consumes fuel about as fast as a neoliberal with government connections for no-bid contracts eats up taxpayer money.

      Would I buy it now? Hmm. If I could afford a gas-guzzling “weekend car” whose sole purpose would be to take me to places that wouldn’t punish a low-slung car with low-profile tires (so, no unpaved roads to secluded beaches for this one), maybe. As for whether I like its looks now, for the most part I do. From the front and the rear, it looks great. Same goes for 3/4 views. But the side view is less resolved, as in the Audi Sport Quattro: short wheelbase, huge front doors, small rear windows, huge C-pillar, and big overhangs. This doesn’t help the car’s visual balance.

      As for the 159, it felt like the Brera, but a characteristic that the Brera kept well under control was more pronounced, just as it is on the Delta: if you enter a bend faster than you should without applying any force to the accelerator, the car will run wide. Very wide. If you keep applying a little pressure on the throttle, the car will take the bend in its stride. Other than that, I never understood why, on an expensive family car like the 159, things like a folding rear seat were optional equipment. And the usage of interior space was mediocre; it didn’t feel significantly more spacious than its predecessor.

  2. There’s one fundamental difference between those three marques.
    Citroen as well as Rover in theory earned money.
    Citroen threw it out of the window with experiments like rotary engines, Projet F and the Maserati takeover and Rover was absorbed and ruined by whatever it was called at the time but the P6 surely was profitable.
    Opposed ot them Lancia did not have a sustainable business model because the way they made the cars, the numbers produced and the prices they could achieve never ligned up. Letting loose their version of Greek Al in form of Dottore Fessia surely didn’t help in that.
    Had Peugeot simply stopped the waste of money at Citroen but otherwise left them alone Citroen could have survived as it was. Had Rover been able to produce the SD1 in numbers and with acceptable quality it would have been a sound business case. Lancia could not survive as it was and initially at least Fiat tried to change what needed to change and even allowed them the Gamma and that’s a contrast to Peugeot who never had any real interest in Citroen as it was.

    1. Was Lancia, then, the one that took the ‘excellence at any cost’ philosophy to its logical (and commercially untenable) conclusion? Certainly the SD1 was far more pragmatic in its engineering than its predecessors.

    2. Chris, the “excellence at any cost” philosophy that we now think was the slogan at Lancia wasn’t really its slogan. The impression I get was that the overrated Fessia treated the company as his playground – at any cost. He forced the company to produce three completely different and incompatible with each other engine architectures, three entirely different floorpans, and he didn’t care if the company could make money out of it all. Incidentally, there was nothing innovative or admirable about leaf-sprung cart axles in the rear – even with a Panhard rod. Eventually, of course, Lancia was losing so much money that Pesenti got sick of it all and decided to cut his losses and bail out.

  3. Having now got my tin hat within easy arm’s reach, I feel obliged to provide a diversion for some of the flak which Daniel expects.
    Chris has me wondering about where Jaguar fits into the picture…. In the beginning the firm applied its skills in building fragile but decorative motor-cycle side-cars to clothe other manufacturers’ chassis. The results were distinctive and and highly appealing to those who delight in drawing attention to themselves; an added bonus was a relatively low price.
    Building down to a price, however good-looking the product is (and by the outbreak of WW2 Jaguars were very good-looking) is all very well so long as your customers don’t expect the goods to last. By the time I was first noticing motor cars, Jaguars had an image problem. Old ones (ie: pre-war) were decrepit heaps often abandoned on the roadside and new ones attracted an air of not being quite respectable. In the popular opinion of the times, an XK120 driver was probably the wastrel son of the landed gentry (and certainly a cad) and the bloated Mk VII was a classic example of “all fur coat and no knickers” (they didn’t bother to paint the bare metal on the inner surfaces of doors, for example), doubtless owned by a night-club owner or similar villain.
    I know that such comment will be very upsetting for some, and for that I apologise, but the fact remains that Jaguar quality was never anywhere near where the outward appearance would lead one to expect – and that was long before the British Leyland era. But it explains why I have difficulty in getting very excited about the current crop bearing the badge.

    1. Perhaps the quality issues were the reason John Fowles’ narrator in ‘The Magus’ (most certainly a cad) bought an old MG rather than a Jag when he was back in London and almost on his uppers? Forgive me, a literary obsession that your comment triggered…

      I have come to the realisation that, as iconic as it may be, Jaguar is a marque I do not understand at all.

    2. Chris: I have been studying the subject at length for over 40 years and I still haven’t got a clue. I would posit the view that only one person really understood Jaguar, and he now lies in eternal repose in a quiet churchyard in Wappenbury, Warwickshire.

      The Jaguar as cad’s vehicle is, largely a British (and to a much lesser extent), Irish construct. Elsewhere, Jaguar was viewed rather differently. Context matters, as does landscape – as fellow DTW-ite, R. Herriot pointed out previously. Today, I viewed a piece on a US website of an X200 S-Type photographed in Californian sunshine, and it looked, well, vaguely acceptable. (It’s still a definitive no from me). The Lawson-era Jags (in particular) do tend to gain something in other climes than drear old Albion. But location must be a factor as much as nationality, I would contend.

    3. Hi John. I’ll share some of the flak by suggesting that, while it led Jaguar straight back into the stylistic dead-end the XJ40 had attempted to escape, the X300 was a handsome looking thing, with build-quality and reliability that was far superior to anything Jaguar had previously achieved.

      An acquaintance of mine has one and, after a quarter of a century, it still looks was good as new. That’s not solely down to it being well cared for (although it undoubtedly has been). The inherent quality must have been there in the first place. Walking around and sitting in it is a delightful experience, as it looks and feels like a ‘proper’ old-school British Jaguar, in the best sense.

    4. This era is a little before my time, but someone who was around then once observed something to the effect of, the kind of person who drove a Jag in the 1940s and 1950s was the kind of chap you expect did well in black-market sausage casings during the war. Even if this characterisation wasn’t universally true, it is sufficiently resonant as to connote a generalised image for Jags that has persisted (Arfur Daley, Roy James, cads, etc). And it’s certainly true that apart from the, let’s say, less than entirely rigorous build standards back then, the other way Lyons got the prices as low as he did was by ruthlessly screwing suppliers down to the last penny, which probably didn’t encourage them to send top-quality merchandise in return.

    5. Having done a lot of preventative maintenance and servicing on my own x300 XJR, i can attest to the fact that it is built to last, with almost everything made out of steel, and really good quality all around.
      No brittle plastic to break apart in the engine bay, and except for the fact that the supercharger bits take up a lot of space and blocks access to some parts, it’s overall a great pleasure to work on.

    6. Unpopular opinion here: I never liked the S2 and S3 series XJs anywhere near as much as the S1. To me, they looked like hasty, low-budget restyles of the original. I thought the XJ40 was a far more accomplished design, despite the numerous limitations its brief dictated.

    7. I don’t know about unpopular, Konstantinos – it’s your opinion, and as such, wholly valid. For what it’s worth, I would concur with regard to Series 2. I was never all that fond of the visual changes, none of which I felt improved upon the original car. (A Browns Lane insider I spoke to about it begged to differ on that one). However, there were a lot of worthwhile technical changes. Hasty and low-budget? Probably. As for SIII, it should never have been necessary, yes, but I still believe it was a masterful reworking. We’ll agree to disagree on that one, no?

    8. Εóin: absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the S3. However, I think it should have been launched in 1973 or 1974 instead of 1979.

  4. I know Jaguars were “cheap” in some senses, but I still remember my shock when I realised they had gone to the trouble of putting grease nipples on the door hinges of my Mk2. To me, that said ‘class’ !

    1. Why do grease nipples on old Jaguars that make me think of Leslie Phillips (or Sid James) and Barbara Windsor?

      Time for a lie-down…

  5. Individual countries’ laws played a big part in determining cars’ characters and still do, to some extent (Japan being a good example).

    So, in Britain, our taxation system favoured small cylinder bore, long-stroke engines. These had good low-down torque, but couldn’t managed sustained high-speed cruising. Goodbye to US export sales.

    Staying with British cars, our mild climate made things like effective heating, ventilation and air conditioning less essential, and our once smooth roads meant ruggedness of construction was also secondary. Goodbye to Colonial export sales.

    When countries were more insular, differences between markets were more marked. That said, in many countries there were and are leaders and followers; those who don’t innovate, but also don’t lag behind too much seem to do best. Those who start off as innovators often fail to keep up the pace, or to make a profit, and are taken over and forced to become more mainstream.

  6. When there was less focus on exports outside the domestic market some national characteristics were apparent. For the last 20 years, at least, any national characteristics one might detect are the result of conscious efforts on the part of design and marketing. Or they could merely be the result of a self-fulfilling conception of national characteristics. What do I mean? I mean that for many the characteristics we think of as being indicative of a nation are the result of us looking at the cars from those countries. If you want to find a better test of national characteristics maybe look at Ford and GM´s UK and German cars. If there is such a thing as a national character, maybe you´d find by comparing UK Ford´s (pre-1970s) and German Fords. I think Italy´s national character is, without looking at the cars, about warmth and spontaneity at all price levels. German national character is reflected not superficial details but in the focus on quality (over dynamics) which has its roots in Kant´s philosophy (or Kant just expressed German ethics). Given Germany´s highly varied regional culture, BMW, Mercedes and Audi were more rooted in their Länder than in the federal, legal concept of Germany. Britain´s cars are or were the product of geography, Ango-Saxon pragmatism and class (hence the way wood and leather seemed so essential though quality less so – step forward oh, children of Coventry). And France? Economy and idiosyncratic rationality.
    We covered some of these themes in the dawning days of Driventowrite, by the way.
    https://driventowrite.com/2016/05/24/theme-values-britain/
    https://driventowrite.com/2016/05/28/theme-values-germany/

  7. An intriguing question – and one I think you can argue the toss either way. The short answer is that I think there is a chicken-and-egg effect at play – I believe national characteristics do exist to some extent (although this is probably overplayed by lazy hacks, for certain countries in particular), but it runs the other way too – in the more modern era, when ‘brands’ have overtaken ‘marques’, there has been a hearkening back to perceived national characteristics – but more on this later.

    To focus on a prominent example when it comes to ‘national characteristic’ debates, it does seem to me that generally speaking, Italian and Italian-influenced/adjacent cars place a higher priority (‘values’ by any other name) on strict aesthetics than others. This doesn’t mean that Fiat or Alfa Romeo designs spend more time in the studio than ones from VW or Mercedes or Ford – but you could mount a convincing case that Italian products are more likely to have stylistic flourishes that reflect the prioritisation of pleasing appearance at the possible expense of other, more utilitarian, factors. (Need it be said, this is merely a generalisation, not a universal truth, as ably demonstrated by the current Tipo.)

    But beyond this and a few other examples, it gets muddy quickly – a point that Chris makes above. The motoring-presenter-turned-amateur-farmer whose name causes conniptions in some here referenced this problem when talking about Saab years ago. In having so many conflicting identities that could be attached to it over the years, he contended that Saab’s image was that of a “high-tech, low-tech, fast, slow, safe, sporty, bus-truck-jet-car” – in other words, an image that was totally confused.

    Partially for this reason, I’m not sure the examples chosen above are the most representative. For me, the thing that unites Citroen, Lancia and Rover (and Saab) is that all struggle or struggled to delineate their so-called brand identity in anything under a page. Citroen’s iconic models for many years represented a split between the 2CV and the high-end stuff – DS, CX and SM. How do you simplify that set of values down to a sentence? Lancia had a constant tension between its patrician roots, the status of the cars built under Gianni Lancia as probably the finest all-round GTs of the 1950s, and the later focus on more mass-market cars and factory-backed competition, subsequently abandoned in favour of the idea that customers can be herded at the touch of a PowerPoint slide that defines ‘brand characteristics’.

    And as for Rover, this perhaps most exemplifies the dangers of management wholesale buying into the idea that a company’s output predominantly reflects ‘national characteristics’. I have always suspected that after the BL/ARG melee, that for the most part didn’t leave any positive memories to conjure with, Rover management was desperate to establish an identity in the brand-conscious 1990s. Reasonable in the circumstances, I suppose, but having decreed it a bad idea (for obvious reasons) to remind prospective customers of anything after the P5, they were left with the task of bridging that gap in one model generation – while playing the superficial wood/leather/chrome/relaxation angle for all they were worth. And it was indeed superficial, because cars like anything else are particular to place and time, and what is relevant and pertinent in one era is not necessarily in another. So while broad-brush qualities like a focus on aesthetics, or utilitarian practicality, can be reasonably described, pinning this down to a handful of totemic items in my opinion is foolish and misguided.

    With all of this said, sometimes a car is so representative of its time and place it is literally impossible to conceive of it emerging from anywhere other than whence it came. It’s hard to conceive of a Hummer, or a ’59 Cadillac, emerging from any country other than the US. This isn’t because the designs capture all of the American ‘national psyche’, or even necessarily a particularly significant slice of it – but the characteristics they do embody are, for better or worse, unequivocally aligned in the popular imagination with America. Similarly, there is something about, say, a Daihatsu Cuore TR-XX Avanzato R4 that unequivocally connotes it as being a Made In Japan item. It’s hard to see a car like the Cisitalia 202 coming from anywhere other than it did (notwithstanding that France had a glorious coachbuilding tradition in the inter-war era). And these notions about time and place are also somehow applicable not merely when discussing the gestation of the car. A Ypsilon looks terrific in sunny Positano. Somehow, it does not work at all in rainy Birmingham.

    In the context of national characteristics, Japan presents an interesting case. I imagine that when this subject is raised for most car people, their mind probably goes to slightly chintzy or overwrought detailing, speed-warming chimes, kei cars and techno-fests like the GT-R. I look at it slightly differently.

    Many moons ago, during the height of the mid-1990s retrenchment, I read a line by some journo or other to the effect of, “The collective appearance of Japanese cars is so bland as to be almost uniform.” I am not one who really goes in for descriptions of Japanese cars as universally dull/bland/boring etc, but this particular comment did strike a chord because at that time (and also for a while in the mid-1980s especially) there were some designs that did look remarkably similar, to the point that if you debadged them it really would have been a struggle for me to say which one came from which manufacturer. While there was no question of overt five-year plans and a diktat to Toyota to build 336,000 Camrys by December 31 1985, it was also abundantly clear that there was heavy pressure applied to ensure that a co-ordinated and effective strategy contingent on exports, stringent benchmarking and continual improvement was being put in place. Hence the uncanny similarities in a number of cases.

    Australia is another interesting example. In mainstream terms, there is pretty much nothing ever built down under that you could hand-on-heart point to and say, “That could only have come from Australia.” There’s no fundamental reason to believe, for instance, that any given generation of Falcon couldn’t have come straight from Detroit. And if an ‘Australian’ car wasn’t derivative of Detroit, it was derivative of Longbridge, or later Tokyo. And yet – the straight transplants that were brought over wholesale invariably failed in the marketplace to one degree or another. So there were clear market preferences driving the development of particular tendencies (for the benefit of those readers not in the Antipodes, this loosely boils down to: spacious body, decent output six-cylinder or V8, fairly rudimentary suspension, and traditionally rear-drive until the arrival of the Japstralian hybrids).

    There are other factors at work too, quite apart from things like the nature of the roads and geography in a given country. Political-economic factors, for instance – legislation like Italy’s over-two-litre taxation rules, for example, had a particular set of reasons for being implemented, but were in any event integral to the development of the country’s industry in the manner it did. A similar principle in reverse applies for America’s refusal to significantly tax petrol and the effects of that on its own cars.

    Finally, the importance of individuals shouldn’t be underestimated. I know this is not really currently a trendy approach in history or historiography, but it is interesting to consider the influence of names like Greek Al, Giacosa, Lampredi, Opron, Harley Earl, Giugiaro and Pininfarina on national identities – both their own, and others.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful response, which raises many interesting points and provides some solid counterexamples. I find myself now pondering the distinction between that which is popular in a country and that which is typical of said country, along with the possibility of culturally-bound misinterpretation of countries’ products (e.g. fine lacquered Japanese wood, which, to a casual Western glance, might be mistaken for plastic).

      Your closing paragraph could provide the foundation of a really interesting article.

    2. That’s quite a lot to unpack. I agree about Lancia, Rover (in its gas turbine and clever suspension days), Citroën and Saab not being all that representative for their (perceived) national characteristics: they were avant-garde, which is a pan-European phenomenon. In that sense I think you can say that they are quintessentially European.

      National circumstances and habits do influence national car industries: unlimited Autobahn cruising and a relatively high standard of living in Germany; low fuel prices, vast distances and a more prosaic (or throw-away) attitude to cars for the US; (compared to northern Europe) relatively lower standards of living but “easier” climates (on rust proofing) in southern Europe.

      The Ute might qualify as a typically Australian vehicle (although the Chevy El Camino preceded it, the Australians embraced it with zeal). Even Austin had a go with the 1800 (I suppose nobody told Issigonis)…

      The dull appearance of Japanese cars in the (late) ’80s and ’90s might have to do with what they chose to export. JDM models are almost always more varied than those offered abroad.

    3. The cars developed in Australia were done so for a reason, even if partly fostered by import barriers. The 1948 Holden was a key development apart from its full local production – it was a good compromise between larger American and smaller British cars, while being cheaper than 6-cylinder British cars such as the Ford Zephyr or Vauxhall Cresta.

      The Holden always had an element of toughness that lead it to market dominance in Australia from the 50s until it was replaced by the Commodore – and that needed extensive work to make it strong enough: Opel engineers couldn’t believe the body strain gauge readings, and one of the early prototypes had the strut towers tear out in outback testing. My brother-in-law has been involved with those type of tests in more recent years and I remember him telling me about a car that hit a wash-out hard enough to send it airborne and burst both front tyres. I can think of a ‘short-cut’ road I used to use with a pretty terrible surface that a Corolla would give some pretty bad bottoming-out hits at a much lower speed of travel than what I’d previously done in Falcons with no concern at all.

      As time has progressed the amount of time spent on unsealed roads by most people has declined so this aspect has become less important, along with the rise of SUVs particularly once they did away with leaf springs and became more civilised. The rate of car ownership increasing has changed the market too – back in the 60s more than one car to a family was not common – which allows more specialisation or diversification of vehicle type you own. Even in the 90s when Ford tried the Taurus, the vast majority of Falcons & Commodores had tow bars.

      Tom V – the first Aussie coupe utility aka ute was in 1934, a good deal before the 1957 Ranchero or 1959 El Camino. It seems that the spiritual successors (car-based utility) now mainly exist in South America. As with SUVs becoming more civilised, pickups have made similar advances in more recent years and I suppose the US half-tons are probably ‘there’ already – but cost too much (including to run).

  8. Chris’ point about lacquered Japanese wood reminding casual Western observers of plastic reminds me of another way in which cars could – at one time at least – be said to vary according to their culture of origin: how they sound. One sometimes sees it argued that the first Japanese cars to be sold in America and Europe were perceived as “tinny” because Oriental culture regards sounds with higher frequency components (i.e. with a higher timbre) as more appealing than those with lower ones, whereas in the west it’s the other way around. I actually believe this is true: just listen to the difference between a Kawai and a Steinway or (if money really is no object, a Fazioli!). Kawai and Yamaha do sound a little lighter and sharper. Steinway still dominate the concert hall market, although one sometimes feels that this is because no-one ever got fired for buying IBM…
    (I don’t think the fact that many jazz performers actually prefer this “faster attack” characteristic of the Japanese pianos undermines my argument, but please feel free to disagree!)

    1. The influence of individuals and sound frequencies – another example of what is so wonderful about DTW, especially at the weekend. And Michael, haven’t we come a long way from sticking drawing pins in the tips of the hammers?

  9. Good afternoon to all! it is the first comment (applause) on your site, that makes me a little nervous. i would like to speak now as a consumer, not as a driver. there are car companies that keep a regular time-cycle of new models, i remember the 4-year japanese new model cycle of the 80s and 90s as an example. it is psychologically reassuring to the customer, in a sense that in any time he will want to purchase a new car, there will be a new ‘fresh’ vehicle available. in the contrary, i would not buy the Fiat Group Lancia Delta, as it (1980-1993 the Mk1 and 1993-1999 the Mk2) rested many years on offer. and this is a car i enjoy looking at.

    1. gpant: Welcome to the BTL comments. Please don’t be nervous, we’re welcome to all.

      For myself, I always felt a four-year model cycle a little too abrupt, but one can also understand the commercial logic. I think some cars lend themselves to short runs and others to longer ones. But how that is decided is somewhat arbitrary; often it’s simply happenstance.

      I can imagine a first-series Delta owner feeling a little impatient for something fresh, given its long run but I’m not entirely convinced that the 1993 replacement would have been entirely the new Delta they might have hoped for.

    2. Good afternoon gpant and welcome to DTW. No reason to be nervous, we are an affable bunch here! Yes, the Japanese four-year model cycle was very reliable. I think it might have tied in somewhat with the country’s very rigorous testing regime that kicked in when a car was four years old, if I recall correctly.

      I wonder if it discouraged sales of models that were approaching the end of their life-cycle, or were there financial incentives to keep buying such cars? Perhaps one of our readers familiar with that market might care to comment?

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