Peter York On Ads: Vauxhall Zafira

Like Old El Paso tortilla dinners but a lot less fun

Vauxhall was once the most gorgeously tatty name. Starting with Vauxhall Gardens, the 18th-century place of parade, somewhere to meet a raving beauty with rotten teeth and catch the pox. A setting for one of those High Concept middlebrow novels, half Peter Ackroyd, half Louis de Bernières. Then there's Vauxhall Bridge Road, as richly evocative as old Camden Town, with its rows of cafes pickled in the 1960s and 1970s. Independent, pre-fast food places with modestly priced three-course lunches somewhere between £5 and £10. Meat boiled to bits and then tastily brown-sauced up. With two veg. Crème caramel to follow. Coffee featuring a variety of plant extracts. Tiny, non-specific waitresses from Latin Europe, or elderly men in old suits. Amazingly there's still a fair bit of VBR left.

My 1980s art-school friends felt similarly attracted to the wonderfully tacky recent history of the Vauxhall motor marque. They were drawn to the styles and names of those Vauxhall 1960s dream cars, which were scaled-down versions of what Vauxhall's owner, General Motors, was doing in Detroit. The early 1960s Vauxhall Cresta with its low, wide radiator mouth, its elegant fins with their elongated oval rear lights and its two-tone colour scheme - art-school people particularly treasured the pink and white colourway - echoed the late epic period of Harley Earl.

Harley Earl was head of styling at GM for decades. He was responsible for all those giant American dream-car looks; those utterly astonishing creatures which made Brits with aspirations but no prospects think there was a God and he'd made another better place over there. (IoS contributor Stephen Bayley wrote the key book about Earl - it's sat by my bed for years. The cars are so impossibly beautiful it doesn't matter that they were environmentally wicked and technically hopeless.)

But in the 1970s and 1980s, Vauxhall of Luton - like Ford of Dagenham, a mighty engine of working-class aspiration and employment - became part of the terrible competitive game of global volume car-making. The Vauxhall Something would be the Opal Something-Else. Engines from Germany, transmissions from Timbuktu, all stuck together in Bedfordshire. Global cars like the Vectra and the Corsa, invented in computers and wind-tunnels and cost engineered to minimum risk shapes. Even their mothers couldn't love them.

Vauxhall, re-organised to high heaven by GM, developed a talent for severely under-estimating the market's changing tastes in the 1990s and became a cruel national joke, an aside in new comedians' patter ("There I was in me Corsa, just turning up Fairview Close...") and a thoroughly devalued brand. Vauxhall ownership became embarrassing.

Things could only get worse, and they have. The latest Vauxhall commercial is for a small car that is so unmemorable you instantly forget both its name and look.

It's Zorro. A Zorro-flavoured commercial, a Zorro tie-in when most sensible marketers would want a Zorro Total Exclusion Zone. The brand values of Zorro are a bit like Old El Paso tortilla dinners, but not nearly such fun. And it's Zorro Two, with Mrs Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas (did the Hispanic box-office underwrite the sequel?)

And although it's a tie-in, presumably with joint financing, it's actually a pastiche of the film, not the real thing. A pastiche of a part deux of a second-rate off-message film. We're all off to the Mexican town square, with masked men on flying ladders, the flaming Zorro logo and a gravy-dark American voice-over who urges people to make their escapes in a Vauxhall from the new Special-Edition something range. An ugly little dark silver car dashes away, then you see four of them lined up, Essex car dealer forecourt style. It's actually called the Zafira - silly name - there's 0 per cent financing and, ominously, there's a website with offers.

Have I missed something here? Is there a salient sub-text or an ironic one? Does Zorro connect with a key UK target audience? Or is it just a much better film than the reviewers have said - a sleeper, a cult in the making? Help me out here, I don't like to kick a brand when it's down.

peter@sru.co.uk

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