Men and motors: A story of obsession

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The Independent Online

It may be five minutes before midnight in the long day of the car industry, but you wouldn't believe it if you visited Birmingham's NEC this week. At Motor Show time, Shakespeare's Country is a Midlands Babylon: a small part of Warwickshire transformed into an orgy of luxury, tyranny and excess. Press Day brings even whoring into disrepute. The larky theming would fatigue an extra-hyper Disney executive. A Spanish motor company might offer paella, one of the Americans might offer hot dogs. This to seduce jaded journalists. Once they had women with cowboy boots and contra-rotating tassels in the obvious places that contra-rotating tassels might be attached to a woman.

It may be five minutes before midnight in the long day of the car industry, but you wouldn't believe it if you visited Birmingham's NEC this week. At Motor Show time, Shakespeare's Country is a Midlands Babylon: a small part of Warwickshire transformed into an orgy of luxury, tyranny and excess. Press Day brings even whoring into disrepute. The larky theming would fatigue an extra-hyper Disney executive. A Spanish motor company might offer paella, one of the Americans might offer hot dogs. This to seduce jaded journalists. Once they had women with cowboy boots and contra-rotating tassels in the obvious places that contra-rotating tassels might be attached to a woman.

These days, the women remain, but the tassels have gone. Now they are dressed in tasteful sub-Armani trouser suits, have mobiles permanently attached to ears while they talk - about green issues, media relations, brand values. The Press Days at the circuit of motor shows - Detroit, Birmingham (or London, on alternate years), Tokyo, Paris, Turin, Geneva, Frankfurt - set a benchmark for international schmoozing that few other industries can rival. Globally speaking, the industry may be sickening unto death, but it still has lots and lots - as in tons - of money. And at the same time, it has all that money to lose. Thinking of Rome at the trough of its decadence, John Ruskin spoke of the arrogance of wealth. In his own day he was sniffy about Birmingham; he'd be positively tubercular about it now.

If Press Days at the Motor Show have a bibulous knowing blah-blah about them, powered by too many people who have spent too much time spending too much of other people's money, the public days have a touching innocence. But there's a high-gloss, dollar-driven frenzy about the Motor Show: the mania, while hidden under bad suits, is as intense as an FA Cup Final. And as I watch yet another paunchy man lovingly taking digital pictures of a nondescript new Suzuki, the thought occurs that one essential truth about consumer behaviour is that it ain't rational.

We hear a lot today about old technology versus new. Manufacturing cars is a paradigm of the old sort, with all its unfashionable components of Himalayan levels of investment, Alpine fixed costs, geologically long lead times, oceanic wage bills, sluggish demand and conservative consumers. Put it this way, if you arrived from outer space and wanted to invest a few hundred billion in an Earthling company, you would not choose one that designed and manufactured cars. Not, that is, if you wanted to make a buck. It is a stupid way to try to make money, so it is an instructive exercise to see how the diminishing number of global businesses committed to it by history and circumstance are coping with their obligations to destiny and to shareholders.

And yet, you go to Birmingham, and only the dullest person would not notice the primitive energy. It's as though the industry, so late in the day, had noticed it was getting Deep Vein Thrombosis from sitting on its hands too long and, like the sequinned old slapper it is, has got up to perform one more trick. While not renouncing the glitter or the vroom, remnants of the tassel era, the most thoughtful manufacturers now realise that their access to increasingly savvy consumers is via the world of ideas, or at least a version of it. Thus, Renault, a conservative company with a long tradition of fascinating innovation, will next year start selling a fabulous piece of bizarrerie called - in an heroic spasm of Franglais - the Avantime. Which you have to admit reads better than Beforetemps, even if no one has a clue how to pronounce it.

This Avantime - on show in Birmingham - is a seriously odd design, carrying elements of '59 Ford Anglia, Louis Vuitton steamer trunk, La Défense and Nikita. It is very much an expression of the taste of Patrick Le Quement, Renault's genial Franco-Anglais chef du design. An advertising campaign, running a full year before the launch of the car itself, describes Renault not as a Frog tin-basher, but as a "createur d'automobiles". Artistically, the ads puts the new Avantime somewhere between haute couture and Picasso. I dare say market research has indicated this is a good place to be.

Ford is another mass-market manufacturer busily re-inventing itself. The enormous Ford stand at the NEC pays homage to a concept car called the 24.7, named to suggest the all-hours utility of a convenience store. For the first time since Henry F launched his sputtering gasoline buggy down a Michigan dirt road, here is a car which defies conventional notions of beauty and decorum. Instead, the 24.7 interprets a future where the car is simply a mobile platform for e-activity. J Mays, Ford's design boss, says "we are in the entertainment business" - a more-or-less conscious take on something which the primary genius of car design, General Motors' Harley Earl, said in the Fifties: "When you get into a car, it should be like going on vacation."

Of course, there's pleasure still to be had in cars, but the industry as a whole has perhaps more problems than opportunities. In terms of distribution, the car industry is prehistoric. E-commerce might have its shortcomings, but anything beats going to a filling station on the North Circular Road to part with 20 grand. But then you think about it for a moment and you realise that they still have a book fair in Frankfurt, when nothing lends itself more to down-the-tube techno-entrepreneurialism than publishing. So, natch, they still have a motor show in Birmingham. It's a sort of new variant Babylon. People enjoy the seeing and the touching: maybe, you think, this is how cars are best enjoyed. Yes, of course, we all know about the new psychological realities. Cars are no longer a primary expression of self-image, especially in the opinion-forming capitals of New York, Paris or London. See someone driving a car in these cities and you assume they are bewildered visitors or out on day release. At the same time, most advertising perpetuates a vision of the car so quaint it might as well include doilies and anti-macassars. No one drives cars through watery surf or in tandem with wild horses nowadays. Even the glorious Upper Corniche between Nice and Monaco (where they shoot so many car ads) is choc-a-bloc with creaking Polish camper vans painted the colour of a stale digestive biscuit.

And yet, the machines themselves retain a magical quality. Anyone not feeling a twinge of cupidity at a Motor Show must have had his or her pleasure receptors surgically removed. From Roland Barthes to Tom Wolfe, the poets of our age have acknowledged the power of cars to move the soul as well as the luggage. A new car is as close to perfection as many of us get. Heathcote Williams said that, viewed from afar, an innocent observer would assume that the intelligent life on Earth was the car, picking-up ambulant fuel cells at the beginning of its journey and spitting them out at its conclusion.

The car industry is a cruel barometer of economic pressure drops, thus no Rover at Birmingham. Probably no Rover anywhere, any more. The company simply cannot afford it. The future of the car is an enormous game involving huge players. They know that the quest now is to appear intelligent while retaining traditional elements of sex, power and prestige. Thus, a handful of people were asked to design an ideal car for Birmingham. Carol Vorderman did something gorgeous, a MagicMarker rendering full of consumerist optimism. David Ginola and Alan Titchmarsh did things more jokey. When they asked me, I thought that while the car has a future, there's more interest in its past. So I did a composite: a Renault 4 to represent French vernacular chic, a Jaguar XKSS for English handsomeness, a Porsche 904 for German Technik, a '57 Ford Fairlane for American style and a Fiat Cinquecento for Italian cuteness.

This conceit was based on the belief that anything that is made betrays the beliefs and ideals of the people who made it. That is why the Motor Show fascinates. It's a museum of contemporary values and future hopes. Maybe cars are best seen this way: free of the clutter of number plates and tax discs, buffed and polished to the last micron, uncontaminated by fuel spills or road dirt, as dreams before they acquire responsibilities.

So what does the public make of it all? Well, here's a thing. These brave concept cars, with their audacious shapes and Play-Doh palette, attract as much popular interest as a dead cat. Instead, people flocked to the stand that showed the direct descendant of the gasoline buggy. You couldn't get near the new Ford Mondeo for eager customers peering, stroking, poking and admiring. The citizens of Babylon, it seems, have a vision of the future that contains long motorway journeys.

Motor Show 2000 is on till Sunday. For tickets call 0870 464 2000

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