Your weekly guide to all that’s rotten about car ownership, plus some good bits
Audi – the car maker whose one-time boss described it in good old Ratner fashion as a “Volkswagen in a dinner suit” and promptly lost his job for telling the truth, (Audio uses the same mechanicals but a higher grade of plastics) is about to stick an even bigger grille than at present on its saloons and SUVs.
In the Eighties so many cars looked similar – motorised jelly moulds – that designers began to worry a badge on the nose wasn’t enough to differentiate a brand one from another. The change in attitude coincided with brand awareness. Product psychologists – yes, there is such a breed – reckoned people will pay more for a brand that appears to have a high status value, think of Louis Vuitton luggage, or Patek Philippe watches, or Mont Blanc pens.
Now, all three of those companies have a long lustrous history of producing high quality goods. They guard their reputation jealously. Some smart ass decided you can fake history and therefore quality with carefully illustrated labels as on a bottle of cheap wine, or a pair of jeans that are no different from other jeans but have a label that says Harvey Nichols. That way you can charge three times the cost to produce them, or more. Making your car’s grille bigger than all other marques is one way of achieving a similar result – appeal to the consumer’s vanity and need for social status.
In designer parlance the front end of a car is categorised as ‘down road graphics’; the more distinctive you can make grille and lights the quicker it will be recognised at a distance … down the road.
Back in the day the entire car’s shape made it standout. Most Jaguars had that visual quality, the XK120 and 140, and of course the famous E-Type. Volkswagen had it with the Beetle. The VW didn’t need a grille for radiator cooling. It’s engine was in the back.
Some manufacturers particularly the Japanese struggled to find an identity outside offering cheap cars that included lots of extras. They didn’t cotton on to the benefit of a strong and consistent grille shape for a long time. Toyota, for example, had a variety of grille styles dependent on the model. In recent years the company has reshaped its badge to make it bigger and brighter, as has Mercedes Benz whose badge has surely reached epic proportions. I expect the next to be neon-lit, all singing and dancing.
With the advent of LED lights the constraint on headlight shape to enclose a light bulb and reflector cup has all but disappeared. Designers are freed to create all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes. More and more manufacturers are shifting to slits rather than circles. For a while car identity rested on headlight and sidelight design, but today they tend to be an adjunct to the grille.
The best known grille in automotive history is Roll’s-Royce’s Gates of Kiev grille, now whittled down to a more reasonable size in keeping with their fashion for low saloons just as long and heavy as before. After that there’s the unmistakeable double grille of BMW’s kidney-shape, something BMW designers are allowed to change in proportion but no more than that.
The search for ever more in-yer-face chrome covered plastic has brought Lexus to a preposterous stage where its grille has all the hallmarks of an iron snow plough on a locomotive. There’s no way you can look at it and think it elegant and restraint. It’s an abomination. Like the off-centre registration plate on an Alfa Romeo that destroys symmetry while paying homage to the marque’s racing history, a grille as clunky as the Lexus is an affront to good taste.
All this search for the biggest, fattest, puffed up grille in the world is in vain. Soon as electric cars are commonplace designers are in a quandary. Electric cars need no grille, well, other than for interior and battery systems, but then a grille can be minimal. They will have to go back to the drawing board. How in hell can they make their cars looks highly individual, a mark above the other brands, without a grille? I predict badges will get bigger and glow at night.
GROUSEY’S FOOTWELL FINDS
European commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska has branded diesel cars “the technology of the past”, and has predicted that they will “completely disappear” in the near future. Bienkowska said that the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal has caused public sentiment to shift towards cleaner cars and a greater awareness of emissions. “People have realised that we will never have completely clean, without NOx, diesel cars,” she states. She has a point. Manufacturers such as Volvo and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have laid out plans to abandon diesel power and governments everywhere stick a deadline on its demise.
Armed and alarmed
A decade after it “revolutionised” the motorcycle security scene, AutoTrac is taking on the classic car market with their tracking device starting from £299. “Boasting high-level Thatcham Category 6 and Category 7 ratings, the device utilises GPS, GPRS and RF functions: this means both the Police and the AutoTrac monitoring team [which never sleeps or has a day off, says the firm] can very precisely locate a vehicle that’s been stolen.] “An owner can see their vehicle’s location real-time on desktop or app, monitor battery voltage, view recent journeys and even download and share routes.
If you own a Chrysler Jeep or Wrangler here in the UK, built between 2014-2018, the company’s US recall might apply to your vehicle. In total Chrysler is recalling 4.8 million over a defect that could prevent drivers from turning off cruise control. It warns owners not to use the function until they get software upgrades. Drivers can stop their car by putting on the brakes or by shifting into neutral gear and braking. Terrific.