So this month, instead of wittering on about the recession, lack of finance options or why the media’s barely concealed delight at the next round of job losses is really starting to wind me up (these are real people, guys, with real families and mortgages, not just statistics to boost your viewing figures), I’m going to talk about cars.
Or more specifically, crap cars, and how they simply don’t exist anymore. Back in the 1970s, I worked as a sales manager for a Midlands-based Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo dealer. For those of you well-versed in the anomalies of Seventies Italian tin, you’ll know that selling such cars was as easy as convincing political commentators that George W Bush was the best-ever US president. Welding up corroded jacking points was pretty much part of the pre-delivery inspection.
After my spell with Italian metal, or whatever material it was that the Italians tried in vain to hold together with paint and plastic trim, I worked for British Leyland as it underwent its transmogrification to Austin-Rover (‘Now We’re Motoring’…remember?), followed by a stint with Lada, that led to a job flogging pre-VW Group Skodas at the height of the Blackpool comedians’ Skoda joke heyday. So, for a good 15 years of my career, I spent time knowing and learning to love automotive rubbish.
If you’re a good salesman you’ll rapidly start to love the things you sell regardless of how rubbish they are. This is largely because, for the entire time my family was growing up, it was Lancia Betas and Morris Itals that paid my mortgage. Believe in what you sell, and it will sell itself.
I know I must sound like The Office character David Brent, but it really is true. And the good thing about crap cars is that you can always promote their good points, as the rest of the car makes them look, well, really good. With an Alfa or a Lancia it was quite easy. The customer came into the showroom armed with the Daily Mirror’s latest rant about build quality, knowing it would hook them a discount.
I’d tell them that this meant they’d be getting a cracking, thoroughbred car for next to nothing and take them out for a drive. A quick spin around the block would convince them that an Alfasud, for all its rorty exhaust note and cat-like handling, was a far better proposition than their clunky old Hillman Avenger, with its live rear axle and pushrod engine, and by the time they’d handed over the foldies they were past caring that by its third birthday the Sud’s undercarriage would feature more patches than a small-town dog show.
With such automotive delights as the Austin Maestro, it was a little trickier. The phrase ‘Volkswagen Golf gearbox’ made a regular departure from my lips in reference to the HLE version, but talking dashboard aside, the Maestro’s single biggest selling point was its bendy ignition key.
You could slip this into your pocket without fear of it becoming a threat to procreation. For anyone fortunate or unfortunate enough to have testicles (this largely depends on your birth gender I suppose, or possibly how big they are) it really was a breakthrough, and one that meant that you might suffer the indignity of arriving at your next sales meeting in an Elastoplast beige Maestro, but at least you didn’t have to politely sit through it with a car key trying to puncture your left gonad.
As for the Lada Riva, well its one saving grace was that, agricultural as it was to drive, it was based on a 1960s Fiat and that meant it was quite pretty. I know it’s easy to laugh at one now, but tell me honestly that a Lada Riva isn’t well proportioned. A bonnet 10 per cent longer than the bootlid and a neat cabin with a large glass area are still craved by car designers today.
Which brings me neatly to today’s cars. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a Kia Cerato or a Toyota Auris, but tell me the one thing that each of them has that any other car doesn’t.
You can’t, can you? It’s because they’re not crap, that’s why, and for that reason you’ll struggle to find a unique selling point. And as good old David Brent would tell you, everything needs a USP, otherwise nobody would buy one at all. Maestro Turbo, anyone?