You can tell it's a Swede

Cars still reveal the nationality of their makers, says Gavin Green
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In these days of Rover-modified Hondas, Dutch-built Volvos, American Hondas and Polish Fiats, it is good to know most cars on the market still give you an insight into the foibles and idiosyncrasies of their nations of origin. Cars, more than modern architecture, and probably even more than dress or food, still show the national priorities and cultural backgrounds of their makers.

Where else could the new Coupe Fiat hail from than Italy? It goes on sale in Britain this month, a year or so after mainland Europe was wowed by it. It is an extravagant car, full of little fripperies and lovely detailing, long features of modern Italian fashion and ancient Italian architecture.

But Italians are renowned for other automotive traits, too. They design the best of small cars, nowadays the Fiat Cinquecento. Italy's small-car expertise (or, more particularly, Fiat's: in motoring, it is the same thing) is a corollary of its narrow medieval streets and the large impecunious population that once lived in them.

While it may be true that Italian townfolk and peasantry have lost their appetites for small, spartan cars (they can now afford something bigger, if not necessarily better), Fiat certainly has not lost the knack of designing them. The company chose to build its latest tot in Poland, partly because the labour is cheaper, but also because Eastern Europeans are, in many ways, like the Italians 30 years ago: poor, living in cramped accommodation, and desperate for mobility.

Pigeon-holing the Germans is a little harder because, unlike Italy - whose motor industry is concentrated in a triangle bordered by Turin, Milan and Bologna - the German car industry stretches from the industrial north, where they build dull, dependable, heavy-handed cars such as Volkswagens, down into Stuttgart (more design flair, but still fairly stolid: witness Mercedes-Benz), and south to Bavaria, where they are not typical Germans at all.

Which is why BMW is unlike any other German car maker. You can see the blend of southern European design flair mixed with German thoroughness in the Munich-based company. It is a compelling combination, and it is probably the reason why BMW is now the world's most accomplished car maker.

Swedes are like Germans but without the sense of humour(would the Swedes ever have invented the Porsche 911 or the Volkswagen?). There is something utterly unemotional about a Volvo - it is a transport appliance whose sole virtue is that it is usually safe to crash.

The French still build the best suspensions in the world - and the best diesel engines,partly because they discovered that biasing taxation towards diesel was a good way of dissuading the locals from buying petrol- powered foreign cars, particularly from Japanese makers, who have no diesel history: they are far too intelligent.

The Japanese are the world's finest builders of petrol engines, but are poor car stylists, being far too obsessed by messy ornamentation. The conformity of Japanese culture makes for great assembly quality, at least in the short term, for the first rule of good mass production is consistency. New Japanese cars are the world's most reliable.

Once they age, they are not so good. The Japanese are not used to long- term ownership and, since their sad post-war cultural Americanisation, they have adapted the same "planned obsolesence" mentality. Japanese car models have especially short model lives, before they are replaced by cars almost mechanically identical, but with different styling.

The Americans gave the world this marketing trick. Just design a new body, dream up a new ad campaign, make a minor technical tweak and watch sales boom. General Motors, spurred on by a Californian custom car-building huckster called Harley Earl, invented the concept back in the Twenties and nearly ruined rival Henry Ford and his never-changing Model T.

There has been a big renaissance in American car design recently. Mind you, Yank cars are still pretty awful away from home.

The best are their big cars, designed for a land with space and petrol costing a dollar a gallon. American cars are also fantastically cheap. In a car dependency culture, woe betide the politician who taxes an American's right to drive.

The British inherited the Americans' model differentiation programme, whereby a set of initials on the rump of your car (L, GL, GLX etc) denotes wealth or, even more important to the British, social standing. Our cars have traditionally been genteel, often frumpy, conservative and, in keeping with our house fixation, have often used lounge-room- type comforts such as leather, wood and deep-pile carpet to imbue perceived luxury. There have been some brilliant exceptions (the Mini), some technically minimalist sales successes (the Cortina) and, on the top of the pyramid, Rolls-Royce - once the best car in the world, now merely the most regal.

Of all world's car building nations, our cars have changed most in character, just as the identity of those building cars here have altered. How do you culturally define Hondas bearing British badges and associated brightwork, which is what modern-day Rovers have become? Or Fords built in Dagenham but partly designed in Germany and America?

Perhaps it merely reflects a multi-faceted melting pot of cultures - rather like modern-day Britain, in fact.

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