Years back, you'd only buy a family Ford if you couldn't afford something better. A Mercedes, for instance, was not only vastly more expensive, it was vastly superior. Better made, better handling, safer, more comfortable. The Ford was a roof over your head; the Mercedes was a palace.
The meat-and-two-veg of British motoring of the Seventies - the Cortina - was a reliable car. But it had as much style and depth of character as a piece of overcooked pork. There was something reassuring about its ubiquity, and something pleasing about its cheapness and its honest, get- you-home nature. But those who ever had the chance to drive a Mercedes or a BMW or even a Peugeot were suddenly to experience a whole new world of quality and dynamic excellence: Blackpool one minute, Barbados the next.
Further back, the differences were even greater. The Model T Ford of pre-war years put the world on wheels. But the well-heeled stuck to their Rollses and their Benzes and their Packards and were glad they did.
Now, things are different. The middle classes demand parity with peers and plutocrats, which is why you can get a fine restaurant meal for pounds 20 a head and buy a good quality and well-cut suit from the High Street. And it's why, in most ways, a Mondeo is now as good as a Mercedes.
Compared with a Mercedes C-class, a car of similar size but substantially higher price, a humble Ford Mondeo is as roomy, as comfortable, as fast, as good to drive, handles as well, rides as well, steers as well, and has a higher level of luxury unless you resort to expensive Mercedes options.
Apart from slightly finer-quality materials and slightly better assembly - to the advantage of longevity - the C-class has no advantages. In sum, people buy the Mercedes for style and statement, not substance or sense. Move up the Mercedes range, and the differences compared with mainstream Fords start to magnify. An E-class is a better car all-round than a Mondeo. But then so it should be, for double the money.
This modern-day near-parity of the prestige and mass makers is not just true of Fords or Mercedes, although these serve as fine examples (Fords have improved more than most mass-made cars, just as Mercedes, mindful of turning in better profits, has started to cut back on the thoroughness and obsessiveness of its once-legendary build quality). Generally, any late Western European or Japanese family car will do as good a job as a prestige brand. In some ways - especially in roominess and luxury features - better.
The reason is simple: cars, especially the cheaper ones, just keep on getting better. Thanks to the wonders of low-cost volume production, allied to our increasing affluence, we can now afford cars that offer luxury car quality and features at mass-produced prices. As an upshot, luxury makers have to become more cost effective to compete - thus they resort more to mass production, reducing their high-class qualities. The result is increasing convergence.
Yet, ironically, we covet luxury brand names more and more. While sales of mid- and particularly upper-range Fords suffer, sales of Mercedes and BMW and Audis are booming - especially their lower priced offerings which, although still pricier, are targeted at the mass makers. It seems that, as we become more affluent, so we wish to advertise that achievement - even though we may be wasting our money.
Never mind: the good news for those disinclined to pay the badge game is that you're now getting more car for your money than ever before.