Nice car, shame about the logo

Why do motor makers spruce up their cars with silly names and vomit-patterned upholstery? Michael Booth finds out
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We Live In the Limited Edition age. The Yuppie's worship of exclusivity has, 10 years on, spawned a species of voracious, cachet-obsessed consumers bewitched by bog standard products given a Gotta-Have twist: Vivienne Westwood Swatches; the first few thousand of a new CD; and, the ultimate Gotta Have's dilemma, limited-edition mint-flavoured Kit-Kats (do you eat them, or put them on display?). The worst offender is the car industry, from whose twisted, malevolent womb have over the years sprung countless special edition "Muziks", "Park Lanes", "Hawaiis", "Vibes" and "Tempt- ations" - tarted up shopping trolleys replete with heinous decals and metallic paint. And it is at this time of year that their pupa, like those of the equally irritating flying ant, hatch, launching these Richard and Judy make-over motors into an unsuspecting world.

What have we done to deserve this annual August onslaught? How do grown men in marketing departments justify these absurd monikers and "special upholstery" designs, identical in pattern and colour to the pavement outside a pub at closing time? And, more to the point, why do we buy them? I decided to ask the Dr Frankensteins of the motor industry, the men responsible for these horrors. Their responses were cagey ...

"Everybody has special editions in the summer," Peugeot's public relations manager, Colin Lewis, told me evasively. "They offer a new colour, a bit of style, you know." Do they represent good value compared with the standard models? "Comparisons can be complicated because they're obviously very like their fellow cars." Any regrets? That old Eighties favourite, the 205 "Lacoste" perhaps? "Well, it was fashionable then," said Colin, lamely. It was foolish, I realised, to expect contrition from a company still shamelessly pedalling 2,000 examples of the 106 called "Miami" and "Independence" (for those moments "When you feel the need to express a different aspect of yourself ... The inner you," according to the brochure). So I rang Citroen, the company once responsible for the "Charleston" and "Dolly" 2CVs, who are currently offering "Mischief" and "Desire" versions of their Saxo range.

"The names hint at a little bit of fun, if you like," Citroen"s head of public affairs, Mark Raven, told me. "Our research shows that customers want a car that's slightly different." Would he buy one? "Well, its not aimed at me, it's for 20 to 28 year olds - people buying their first new car. We put a lot of effort into choosing the fabrics and the right name, you know. It's not just a question of slapping on a bit of paint." What about the AX Salsa (their italics)? "Well, our special editions on the AX were very popular." (Ah, that old argument, he'll be claiming he was "only obeying orders" next.) "Some of our old special editions can be very much sought after," Mark insisted, "Which ones?" "Um ... You'd have to look in the guides."

I went one better and rang Adrian Rushmore, one of the editors of Glasses Guide, the second-hand car dealer's bible. "Several special editions are actually worth less than comparative models", says Adrian. "There was a Peugeot 106 "Jeans" with denim trim that I believe is worth less than the standard model. And the Scirocco Scala with white carpets; you can imagine what they looked like after a couple of weeks."

According to Adrian, there are two types of special editions: the entry level model - a stripped-down version allowing manufacturers to quote an unusually low start price for the range to entice buyers (few buy these cars once they see how spartan they are); and the "fully loaded" specials with, typically, metallic paint, all-important themed badging, a CD player and, increasingly popular, air conditioning. There is a caveat for both when it comes to the trade-in: "The image of the limited edition is not good in the motor trade", he explained. "They tend to be undervalued because of their reputation in the Eighties when manufacturers just stuck a sticker on. Anything which makes a fashion statement is potentially a problem too, but the stripped out specials are the ones to watch - buyers want extras these days. Check the value of the extras you're getting. Ask yourself, do you actually need air conditioning?" And, more to the point, are you prepared to broadcast your lack of taste in exchange for it?

I'd assumed that the likes of BMW and Audi eschewed these fripperies on grounds of taste, but their lack of fancy names and graphics has more to do with their fleet-car status. "Those sort of companies don't rely on the retail market as much as the likes of Vauxhall and Ford. Generally retail customers don't spend more than pounds 12,000 on a new car." August sales are predominantly retail and, therefore, special edition-led; fleet buyers avoid special editions because company structures discourage individuality - the boss won't want his standard Mondeo upstaged by your flashy green Mondeo "Verona". So, as well as being used to spruce up an ageing model (beware), special editions are now the most important tool manufacturers have to milk the August sales for every last penny.

"Once one manufacturer had offered a special edition for the August peak, the rest had to follow or be left out," says Adrian. "It began in earnest about 17 or 18 years ago." In fact, the trainspotter in me would argue that the early Seventies VW "Jeans" Beetle, an orange horror with black decals, was probably the precursor to the mass tart up of the Eighties.

So the 106 "Jeans" isn't quite the pioneering creative triumph it appears and, according to Citroen's Mark Raven (though he certainly didn't phrase it this way), the reason special edition names are increasingly pathetic is that they are simply running out of choices. It's official: there is a dumb car name drought.

"We've been through the Greek gods, the meteorological office, the planets," laughed Ford's Escort brand manager, Bryan Newman. "We currently have the 'Silhouette', for people who are price limited. The name came when we were looking at customer profiles, we did a bit of brainstorming and said: what's a profile? A silhouette!" That same inspi-rational maelstrom also brought us the "Fusion", "Flight" and "Chicane" addendum to the current Ford range, though we should be thankful for these minor offences: Ford once had the gall to inflict the Sierra "Chasseur" on an unsuspecting public. "We used to quite unashamedly give cars metallic paint and badge, and that was it: a Fiesta 'Plus'!" says Bryan.

In these days of endless choice, a special edition seems to bring on a giddying rush of blood to the head. But why do people still fall for their forced typographical cheeriness and colour-coded ashtray lids? Disturbingly, it turned out that people are pretty indifferent to their car's tarty art. On the pretext of being interested in buying a car like theirs, I engaged a few drivers in conversation (though one woman in a Lada Niva "Hussar" did drive off hastily). Did the Polo "Genesis" driver like Phil Collins? A firm "No." Did the Renault Clio "Night and Day" owner buy her car because of the white piping on the seats and the wacky logo? "No, it came with a CD." And no, the Peugeot 106 "Graduate" owner was not a graduate and "didn't really think about the name", when she purchased it. Would these people put up with kaleidoscopic carpeting in their living rooms? I assume not, but it seemed most car buyers are uninterested in their car's appearance, or at least the detailing.

Martin Clarke, professor of geography at Leeds University, disagrees. Using the DVLA's 27 million car records, his team has carried out an exhaustive study of the UK's car buying behaviour. He believes that such details make a statement. "I think that within each class segment there's a different kind of snobbishness," he explained. "For a male C2, semi-skilled worker, a four-year-old XR4i with a body kit might be something to aspire to. But as you move up classes, the way that people try to differentiate themselves and prove themselves to their peers gets more subtle. The upper middle classes de-badge their cars so that you can't work out if it's a BMW 316 or a 328." Special editions, it would seem, are a further subtlety. "I'm not just a Clio owner," the people who drive these cars are saying to anyone who'll listen, "I'm a Clio 'Versailles' owner."

Maybe we in the UK should be grateful that we only see the "Sprees", "Cascades" and Micra "Waves" (with its logo fresh from the Club 18-30 reject bin). In Japan there are cars with names like "Bongo Friend Auto Free Top" and Honda "Today Humming". Little consolation perhaps, but if you can't beat them, there is still one way you can join them. Coffee makers Blend 37 are currently running a competition for customers to suggest a name (up to three words) for a special edition Land Rover Discovery, which you can then win. Stick in a couple of pint glass holders and some ubiquitous puke-patterned upholstery and I've got just the concept: endless capacity, invariably ends up on all fours, rolls disconcertingly round corners - it's the Discovery Dipsomaniac. !