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Business Above: The 2002 Ford Thunderbird in the Neiman-Marcus edition (top) and the Chrysler PT Cruiser (above)—America's first classless car?—make sense in California where the SUV and Toyota Camry are the order of the day. But what of their successors?


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    The parodic postmodern car

    Postmodernism is well and truly here, but what does that mean for the automobile? Jack Yan writes of his Californian experiences


    POSTMODERNISM lives as Vitruvius’s architectural definitions no longer suit us and we have illogically designed structures popping up. We’re told it’s in cars, too: with greater commonality between them, companies have come to rely on a blend of brand values to create surface differences.
       Yet values come from the past. We seem to be seeing a collection of automobiles that do not take the more subtle manifestations of their manufacturer’s identity. Instead, they serve up these elements in droves: chromed grilles on Rovers, oval grilles on Fords (and now semi-oval with the Focus and 2001 Mondeo), the porthole window on the 2002 Thunderbird, and circular rooflines and other elements on the Volkswagen Beetle and Passat. This week it was the Mini’s turn: once the BMC Mini, now the BMW Mini, but you’ll have to wait as the Müncheners move the production line to Cowley to even begin building the car.
       In postmodernism, there is no such thing as history: it’s all in the present and it’s all mixed. If you expected iconoclasm or reductionism as part of automotive industrial postmodernism, look elsewhere.
       That’s all very well for arty types, but to the rest of us, here’s the kicker: if you weren’t spending a five- or six-figure sum, it’d all be labelled a pisstake.
       The postmodern crop of automobiles pays less attention to the principles of their predecessors. The Mini is a good example. Why does BMW need to innovate? After all, they pay attention to the look and that’s what gets buyers. Never mind that the Mini was innovative, or that Issigonis’s stillborn 9X replacement was 10 years ahead of its time. The new Mini looks like the old one. Is it German humour again as defined by a Fawlty Towers fan?
       Hardly.
       The press was all abuzz in the United States last month about the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, a car which Ford’s chief designer J Mays refuses to label as "retro". This is a common trait: the late Geoff Lawson on the Jaguar S-type and XJ8 (the latter being ‘retrolutionary’ in Fordspeak), Volkswagen (repeatedly) on the New Labour New Beetle, numerous BMW and Rover staff on the 75, and Tom Gale on the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
       But let’s face it: these cars are retro. A Rover SD1 still had Rover brand values, in sexy (though unreliable) metal clothing. The P6 was a departure from the P5 but still looked like a Rover, if a little Italianate. If it were not for a spirit of adventurism we would never have had the Jaguar XJ6 in 1968 (still recognizably a Jag) or the E-type. Smarter designers have placed advancement alongside branding, such as Peter Horbury and his trio of Volvos (S80, V70, S60), following a pre-Ford strategy that captures not only the safety theme but the sporty reputation that the Volvo Amazon once had. The result: 2000s cars that do not feel like travesties.
       Contrast this to Saab, which used to mention its reputation of making awkwardly styled automobiles (though I always thought the original Saab automobile to be a fine automotive design). Now that they are building on Opel Vectra platforms, the self-pitying uglyducklingness of Saab brand values is preserved with a flagship model called the Nine to the Power of Five, an illogical, postmodern name for an incoherent-looking car. (Mathematically, nine to the fifth works out to be 59,049, which I thought lacked the ring of 92, 99, 900 and 9000.)
       It may be very trendy just to credit postmodern movements and the demise of fine art exclusively. For having spent September in California, the origins of cars such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser—once meant to be a Plymouth—and the Volkswagen Beetle become more evident.
       This is a state that is over-legislated, believing that people are too dumb to look after themselves. I saw signs such as ‘Safety belt law strictly enforced’, which implied at first glance to me that on other stretches of road you could unbuckle to aid a drive-by shooting. No, that didn’t happen while I was there but there was a murder-suicide on the road after, allegedly, a couple got into an argument while en route somewhere.
       With murders being perpetrated in cars, then it’s fair to say that the car rules. San Rafael had banks on many of its streets plus the obligatory drive-thru ATM. In one north bay town I saw a seriously obese police officer, the poster boy for bench seats, who looked like he had spent his life in his ‘Ford Police Interceptor’, a police-spec Crown Vic.
       Yet if the car is king, His Majesty has not fared well in this most sought-after state for manufacturers. Because California is also where Dick and Mac McDonald had their newfangled hamburger restaurant, catering for the American on the move. The temporary, fleeting culture of the disposable Big Mac paper box is apparent in everything, with the possible exception of the Rodin sculptures and the Hoover Memorial at Stanford University on one end, and Bloomingdale’s historically inclined Big Brown Bag on the other. Everything, from Office Max to Walgren’s Pharmacy, is part of the wipe-clean Procter & Gamble universe. Cars are terribly appointed—you wouldn’t think so for a place where competition is meant to be strong and the antitrust departments actually have some balls. There were plasticky interiors, even on highly specified models. I had a Ford Contour V6 SE in its final model year but with a claytons’ interior that a modern Skoda Octavia would put to shame—compare this to the luxury of the equivalent Mondeo ST24 sold here. The only perks in the US model were two cupholders, air con and cruise control: a necessity in the land of the freeway and three-hour journeys.
       Coupled with the throwaway culture are cars that appeal to it. They lack imagination, but, they sell. The Toyota Camry is America’s top-selling passenger car. Honda Accords are more plentiful than fog over the Golden Gate in summer. Sitting in a restaurant in San Rafael, where I could have sworn I was the youngest person amongst its many retired, my informal poll of 50 cars showed that 24 were Japanese tin boxes. If I were not counting SUVs as well, the home team would have lost even more—and as it stood American cars were being represented by 1982 Buick Centurys and Chevrolet Caprices.
       It doesn’t take a genius to work out, as Bronson Pinchot did in Beverly Hills Cop 3, that one would never risk one’s life for a Camry when being carjacked. A Porsche, maybe. But never a Camry. Yet the marketing push and the real stake that the Japanese automakers have in America mean that people buy them as though they were going out of fashion, when in fact they are already out of fashion. Many Americans are affluent enough—there were new cars galore on the freeways—but there seems to be no consideration of design integrity.
       The only way to get noticed design-wise and to tell people that it’s cool to be daring there is to shock, and that is what the bright new Beetle and the Chrysler PT Cruiser set out to do—perhaps like the Renault Twingo in the early 1990s’ Europe. There were already plenty of Beetles, while the Cruiser was coming on stream. The Beetle is noticeable in Californian freeway soup, where square SUVs and minivans stick out like croutons.
       This hot rod, Levi jean of cars—the PT Cruiser—showed that we’ve come some way since Nissan launched its mini-MPV, the Prairie, in 1982, beating both Chrysler and Renault with their minivans. Americans love it. Why? It combines beauty and functionality with a dose of myth. California is more spiritual and New Age so let’s throw a bit of that in, too. Exciting machines to foreign eyes, such as the Chrysler 300M, Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Corvette, are barely noticeable. The flat surfaces of Camryland, California aren’t used to the round, chunky shapes of the Beetle or the sculpting of the Cruiser. Postmodernism aside, this is as much down to good ol’ marketing differentiation, generating brand awareness and cutting down on advertising costs. The dollar wins again.
       More evidence: J. D. Power & Associates this week announced that the Beetle and PT Cruiser are the two cars that generate the most awareness. It’s doing wonders for the rest of the ranges, lowering Chrysler’s median age. Chrysler is now the first buying choice for 4·4 per cent of consumers, up from 1·9 per cent in 1997. Even Tom Hanks and Cher have been sucked in, so the Cruiser may be America’s classless car, like the Mini was in Britain.
       This is very well in the short term yet it poses a problem for future designers. Regardless of the motive being design movement or profit motive, the cars are using semantics that are effectively parodies. The more companies spoof their own design language, what sort of over-the-top, self-praising, brand-valuing and kitsch machine will we be driving in 2010? Is it possible for those of us who aren’t Tony Blair to do a parody of a parody? Or a myth of a myth? If the car of 2005 winds up looking like a 1972 Buick Electra 225, we might be in trouble. Jack Yan

    This article also appears in eMale. Jack Yan is editor of CAP and the chief executive of Jack Yan & Associates. He holds a master's degree in marketing, specializing in identity and branding, and their connections to business performance. He can be reached via the Feedback link below.

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