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
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?
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
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
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
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
Contents | Editorial
Your feedback is welcome