I never used to notice cars much. I grew up in the days of Cortinas and Cavaliers and never took much interest. I do remember when Ford replaced the Cortina with the Sierra. It looked odd. People nicknamed it “the jellymould” and yet, looking at it now, it’s not so strange. And I visited America in the 80s and recall being surprised that the boxy old cars I’d seen on Kojak had been replaced.
More surprising still was returning to England in the late 90s after 4 years away and suddenly everyone was driveling like they’d swallowed a scrabble set. The Mercedes SLK or the C class or the BMW M. I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about especially when the most important thing seemed to be the “new shape”. Then I started work at a car company and all this nonsense started to make sense.
Cars have become fashion items just like clothes or watches and the marketing is closely tied to the look of the vehicle. Not only do new models need to be functionally better, they need to look different too. But not different enough to alienate the punters. When Ford released the aerodynamic Sierra in 1982 they took a risk but the risk paid off. These days all car shapes are dictated by aerodynamics. This is why they broadly all look the same.
But manufacturers still need to differentiate their models from the competitors and so now this is achieved in the same way as the rag trade; by small adjustments to detail. Small lapels, big lapels. High waist, baggy arse. With cars this meant fiddling with various lines, wheel arches and especially radiators.
As with most car companies, the staff where I worked were induced to drive the companies vehicles. At lunch time we would take a stroll around the car park and inevitably this was a chance to browse new models. The IT Director was trying out the new prestige SUV. An auditor had picked up the new hybrid. We’d look them over and pass judgement. The seats look cheap. The front looks great but the back is ugly. The wheels are too small. That new radiator grill is awesome!
Regularly each model would get a “face lift” for no good reason other than to keep the punters interested. We became adept at identifying the various cosmetic changes. Probably the biggest fashion change I noticed was the radiator grills. I think it may have been Audi that started the race for the most aggressive radiator culminating in the fabulous Lexus “spindle” grill. Interestingly, BMW seem to have opted for a more refined little German moustache.
After the success of the new Mini, VW released the new Beetle. It was pants. It looked like an airport travel pod. It looked like a hair dressers car. It had all the sex appeal of a pair of carpet slippers. So, the designers got to work on a facelift and eventually produced the fantastic 2012 Volkswagen Beetle 2-door Coupe DSG 2.0T Black Turbo Launch Edition. Wow!
The differences are subtle. They raised the rear, they made the windows more shallow, they used low profile tires and they added a little “Grrrrr” to the radiator grill. So why is it much better? I guess it’s better because the VW designers had a better grasp of the current fashion this time around or perhaps this time they’re promoting it to people like me.
Since people first started wearing clothes we have followed the style of the charismatic members of the tribe. Pop music used to exemplify this. But Soul and Punk were not designed in offices by teams of graduates. They were authentic trends emerging from the gut reaction of millions of people.
In the 21st century the mechanisms that lie behind trends and pop culture are well understood and are used by corporations with nothing in mind but sales. Maybe that’s OK for cars but it seems to be happening with everything. An excellent podcast by Thoughty2 explains how “music is getting worse every year”. A report by the Spanish National Research Council shows how attributes such as the harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness have become homogenised. Indeed, according to Thoughty2, the vast majority of chart topping music was written by just two people: Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald. Britney Spears, Jesse J, Katie Perry, Justin Timberlake, Pink, Westlife, N-Sync and many others, all have songs created by one or both of these two men. Max Martin alone is responsible for two dozen number one singles and thousands of songs in the top 100 over the past decades.
Design and marketing are powerful tools. They adjust our perception and change our opinions. Probably the daftest thing about fashion is that people frequently say they follow fashion to express their individuality. And there is fashion in politics too. Political ideas are marketed just the same as everything else. Yesterday it was solidarity, now it’s diversity and what will it be tomorrow? Remember that awesome suit that you had in your youth that that now makes you cringe? Was it you who changed your opinion or was it fashion?