MOTORING / The wheels of fashion: The Bugatti suited the bright young things of the '20s; the Citroen 2CV was for growing beards in. Cars are as much symbols of an era as ostrich feathers and earth shoes

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The Independent Culture
CLIMBING into a car is like putting on clothes: the car dresses us, wraps us in metal couture. Many people like to say: 'Oh, the car is just a means of getting from A to B, from Sainsbury's to our cul-de-sac, from the Fulham Road flat in London to weekend Gloucestershire; the car is no more than a certain arrangement of tin, rubber, plastic and cloth that, fed with oil and petrol, allows us freedom of movement, balanced - we have to admit - by a degree of environmental destruction.'

Yet those who say this often drive cars that reveal their way of life as readily as if they had given their secret diary to a tabloid newshound. Here's someone who says, 'I'm not bothered about cars; anything on wheels will do me,' yet scours the pages of Exchange & Mart for a mock-Tudor Morris Minor or a Citroen 2CV rather than snapping up that pounds 350 Morris Ital or Lada Riva on the newsagent's noticeboard.

Here's another who says, 'My car has to be fast, reliable and comfortable as we use it to hack backwards and forwards to the country every weekend, and drive it to work in town,' and chooses a Golf GTi rather than a Ford Escort or Toyota Corolla which, in a land of speed restrictions and dense traffic, will do the job just as well.

The truth is, we choose cars the way we choose clothes; and we choose clothes not just because they cover our nakedness and keep us warm, but because we like the way they feel and look and because they allow us to present ourselves in the way we want to be seen. We are not satisfied with any old pair of jeans: we might insist on Levi 501s rather than a pair from Gap. We choose, if we can, a grey jumper from Nicole Farhi rather than Marks & Spencer, even though both do the same job.

For designers, manufacturers and showrooms, the 'couture' car is a mixed blessing. If you were selling Porsches, BMWs or VW GTi's in the late Eighties, you would have been delighted that these cars were considered essential lifestyle accessories. Why should you care that your latest models are labelled 'Yuppiemobiles' and held in derision by those who find the whole Wall-Street-meets-City-of-London way of life despicable?

As recession set in, however, sales of this generation of thoroughly engineered charismatic cars plunged, and the machines themselves were etched into the British psyche as the follies of get-rich-quick young twits. It is difficult to stare a Porsche in the headlamps today and not feel a thrill of schadenfreude.

More than the 0-60 acceleration figures, Cd-factors and jet-fighter-like top speeds beloved by specialist motoring magazines, what sells certain cars at certain times to fashionable people is their fashion value. This was as true of Morris Minors and Citroen 2CVs in the mid-Seventies (cars to grow beards in and save whales by) as it was of the sporting German Technikwagen of the late Eighties. It is also, in many ways, the story of the car.

While Henry Ford and William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) strove to make the motor car available to the masses, dozens of early car manufacturers pandered to what another William Morris liked to call 'the swinish luxury of the rich'. Specific makes of car soon became identified with certain lifestyles. In the Twenties you were either a Bentley or a Bugatti girl or boy even though you could just afford a 20hp AC or an MG.

Look at those pictures of Brooklands, the Surrey motor racing track, in its heyday in the Twenties. Among the young and rich and the young and ambitious, Brooklands was a far classier place to hang out on race days than boring old Epsom. Here they are, the bright young things that peopled Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, cheering the chaps and chapesses (women raced here too) wrestling blue Bugattis and green Bentleys around the great track, the smell of palm oil and high-octane petrol mixed with that of Chanel and Turkish cigarettes. Here's Bunty in that perfectly ridiculous hat, there's too too dreadful Totty, all agog at the rasping Bugattis and roaring Bentleys and more than a little drunk.

But far more than Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley was the most fashionable novelist of the Brooklands era (this was long before the Aldous Huxley of California and lysergic acid), and he rode in a scarlet touring Bugatti with dove-grey leather upholstery. (Maria, his wife, piloted this red Bug because Huxley's eyesight was so poor that he would have been unable to spot a 'Stop' sign until he had wrapped his beautiful car around it.)

A Bugatti was for touring through southern France as an MG was for buzzing between one house-party and another in Gloucestershire, or having a bash and making a bodge of a motoring hill trial. Between the two world wars, and assuming you had the money, you were - if fashion-conscious - either a British or continental sports car fan, choosing perhaps between a rugged and immensely quick Lagonda or an exquisite if apparently more delicate exotic such as an Alfa Romeo.

Fashionable British cars were clothed for the most part in square-rigged bodies, the equivalent of a well-cut country suit for weekending (a contemporary Rolls-Royce - not a car for bright young things - was got up in the equivalent of a staid dinner jacket).

Continental cars were decked out in the equivalent of Pierot, Chanel or Schiaparelli. When you bought an immensely chic, 100mph-plus Alfa Romeo 29B, what you got from the Turin manufacturer was the chassis and the running gear; you then commissioned an automotive couturier to dress the naked machine in the latest fashions. You might well visit the catwalks of the coachbuilders Figoni and Falaschi in Paris, who would dress your car in voluptuous layers of curvaceous metal.

The Second World War put an end to this golden age of the couture car, to Brooklands and to Bugatti itself (the company, apart from one or two unsuccessful attempts to make cars after the war, became a producer of machine tools; today's 212mph Bugatti E110B is made by an altogether new company in northern Italy).

Post-war cars were nearly all manufactured entirely in-house, and if you think about European cars of the late Forties and Fifties, most seem rather upright and drab. In fact, you might call them uniform. And uniform is an appropriate word, because if you look at British car advertising at the time, it was very much concerned with attracting chaps who had served with the armed services and were now settling themselves in jobs, families and homes in civvy street.

Jaguars, Rovers, Humbers and top-line Austins were sold much the same way. Men with moustaches and Burberry macs, often portrayed as pilots (ex-Lancaster men, don't you know), march across adverts to meet their ever-so-English mechanical mounts.

A Jaguar was often considered a bit of a cad's car (it was fast and racy), but it was also a symbol of the dynamic but well-mannered Fifties professional. A Rover was for the more established professional - a doctor's car if there ever was one - while Austins, for some bizarre reason, seemed to appeal most to bishops and owners of funeral parlours.

This post-war staidness went for a burton when the words 'Mini', 'Pop' and 'swinging' drove their way into the English language, and Lady Chatterley, the Pill and Beatles LPs were propelled into what had been a world of tweed hats, pipes and Aunty Rovers. Pop went the Mini, a car that spoke of classless freedom and fun; in came the E-type - sex on wire wheels - and Rolls-Royces painted the colours of looking-glass ties. Dressing up cars in fancy dress was as voguish as the Sergeant Pepper album in the mid-Sixties.

John Lennon owned a pyschedelic Rolls-Royce and George Harrison an equally zany Mini Cooper, while Peter Sellers's Cooper was transformed into a tiny limousine by Radford the coachbuilders. The Batmobile and the Monkeemobile, two more customised cars, made it on to the TV screen, while 007's Aston Martin DB5 was packed with the kind of gadgets that a Porsche-driving Yuppie of the Eighties could only dream of.

This was the decade when middle-class cars wore very different clothes from working-class cars. Minis with their baby-doll looks sold almost exclusively - and unprofitably - to middle-class buyers, while American-influenced Fords - the Cortina chief among them - were the working man's choice and manufacturer's cream.

So, too, in the Seventies - when Ecology replaced Pop as the prime fashionable concern - the working man went for the Cortina and Marina, while middle-class trendies opted for a renovated Morris Minor Countryman or a Citroen 2CV. Early adverts for the 2CV (returning to the British market in 1974 after a long gap) showed the car in 'natural' settings (woods and so on), invariably in the company of young men and women dressed in flares, jumpers and Kickers.

The Eighties saw the return of the Vile Bodies, the triumph of money and of German sports and sporting cars that were a perfect accompaniment to the besuited money culture of the latest generation of bright young things. Their cars matched the hi-tech homes they aspired to, and the matt and chrome consumer fashionables they threw their credit cards at.

This was also the short-lived era of the classic car boom, a time when it was fashionable to spend ludicrous sums of money on weekend posing cars (MGs and Mini Coopers bought from Christie's, as if they were Van Goghs or Warhols) which became impossible to sell just three years later when recession and common sense hit home.

Now there are two types of car that make fashionable sense; the lovely, stylish old car you have run for years and plan to run until it can only crawl (or until Autogeddon gets us); or one of the new generation of European and Japanese mini-cars, such as the Renault Twingo. Even better is the smart new Fiat 500 which arrives in British showrooms in May.

The former is the automotive equivalent of the classic clothing you invested heavily in when you had dosh to spare, and which promises to look good for years to come; the latter is the equivalent of high-quality casuals. And as for those powersuits on wheels - all those neat, ordered GTi-type machines - they are about as fashionable and glamorous as last year's suit from Next or Hugo Boss.-

(Photographs omitted)