Gavin Green: Motoring column
Older buyers are being swept aside in the car makers' quest to be seen as young and trendy
Saturday 30 January 1999
The over 50s - the Saga set - have the highest disposable incomes, the greatest amount of leisure time, are the least likely to haggle and complain, will pay more for good service, and are usually the most loyal customers. And yet, in all their ads and their public utterances, car makers seem obsessed with winning ever-younger customers. Ageism is rife. Older buyers are being swept aside, in the car makers' quest to be seen as young and trendy.
Even Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, past champions of the silver-haired set, are trying to be cool. At the recent press launch of the Mercedes S-class, the world's greatest car - usually bought by those on the wrong side of 50 - the talk was of trying to court a younger clientele. (Mercedes' boss did refer to "youthful customers" as being 40-45, which is not how Doc Martens, Dolce & Gabbana and Boyzone's publicists would define youth.)
Volvo, once the seminal sensible car for sensible people, now has ad campaigns which promote style and high performance - characteristics which traditional Volvo buyers have long eschewed. Sensible people, usually more mature people, put safety, reliability and comfort ahead of sex appeal and the 0-60 figures. Volvo, apparently, no longer does so.
Both Volvo and Mercedes are trying to enjoy the same success as BMW and Audi in opening the wallets of young professionals. This seems wholly misguided, given that 50-pluses are better customers, in just about every way, than the 25-45s. Besides, the Zimmers don't like Bimmers because BMW has a flash, trendy image, which is complete anathema to many thinking people. Driving a BMW (especially a red one) is still a little bit like wearing a Versace tie or a sweat-shirt with "Polo" emblazoned across it. It just isn't a very gentlemanly thing to do.
The quest to win young customers is usually misbegotten, anyhow. Renault put great emphasis on how the Twingo baby car, sold throughout Europe but not in the UK, would win over the under-30s. Here was a car that had brightly coloured seats, chunky Fisher Price switchgear, and Toytown styling. It had all the hallmarks of "Youth Appeal". It has also proved a great success, particularly in France. But guess who bought it? In the first year, most customers were over 50.
"It was a huge surprise," a Renault marketing boss told me. "Old people were attracted to the Twingo's freshness. But young people, subsequent research showed, regard buying a car as a serious thing to do, so they tend to prefer sober, sensible cars."
Honda is another maker that finds itself in a dilemma. It is desperate to win an image as a manufacturer of trendy cars for trendy people. It built the NSX supercar, which was better than any Ferrari of the time, even if it didn't sell well. It has done Formula One successfully. And yet, in Britain at any rate, its saloon and hatch models are the consummate Eastbourne Expresses - sweet, well-made cars for old people who value reliability over everything else. "We'd love a younger audience in Britain, but we can't desert our key customers," the marketing manager told me somewhat ruefully a year or so ago.
But why try to have a younger audience? I'm desperate for one car maker to break ranks, see over-50s as desirable customers instead of profitable embarrassments, and admit grey is good. How about a limited-edition Volvo (maybe called the V40 Viagra) with woollen blanket upholstery, M&S cardie colours, check-patterned roof lining and - the piece de resistance - a bifocal windscreen?
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