The simple value of Silver Ghost quality

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The Independent Online
THIS is inspired by Alan Clark's diaries: not the off-to-the-Ritz bits, or the rude references to his colleagues, but an evening in June 1987 when he starts up his near 80- year-old Silver Ghost. The car, untouched since the previous November, starts first time.

'No modern car would have done this. Because the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost has - except for the magneto which sparks on a turn - not one single piece of electrical equipment . . . There are 21 separate actions, all of them involving beautifully crafted mechanical linkages, from turning on the gravity petrol feed to actually cranking the starting handle. And after they have been completed in the correct sequence it will - infallibly - start on first compression.'

The point is simple: well- designed mechanical technology is often both more reliable and more satisfying than the complicated modern electrical equivalent. We cannot all afford Silver Ghosts, but we can afford VW Beetles or Morris Minors. It has just been announced that production of the Beetle is to be restarted in Europe, while according to a survey yesterday by Stoy Benefit Consulting, reconditioned Morris Minors are now being sought as company cars. Also in the motor world, a new version of the MGB is being built, using the original dies, while limited numbers of the Hindustan Ambassador, the pre- Farina Morris Oxford built in India, are being imported to the UK.

If it were just a question of nostalgia for the past, the attraction of old technology would quickly fade. But there appears to be an increasing sense that, while much modern technology is a vast improvement on what preceded it, some is too complex for the function it is required to perform. No one needs electrical motors to adjust the driving seat of a car when a well-balanced lever will do the job just as well - the electrics are just one more thing to go wrong. We may similarly prefer the sensible British-built toaster with a clockwork timer and a lever to lift the toast to the ones made in Taiwan which boast a microchip and fall to bits after six months.

Of course, there are many modern consumer products which are, by their very nature, based on electronic technology and work much better as a result. People may be fed up with the latest Euro-hatchbacks, which look the same and are differentiated principally by their advertising, but if they are objectively better than Morris Minors, and they are, then they will sell. A video camcorder is a materially better technology than an eight- millimetre movie camera: it is vastly easier to use, and cheaper too.

With some products, though, manufacturers seem to have lost sight of what their customers actually want. And, alarmingly for manufacturers, consumers seem now to be rebelling against 'product churning' - the expression used to describe the proliferation of new variants of a product, often with quite spurious changes of design. This year Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant, slashed the number of its product lines because Japanese consumers were refusing to buy the new and more expensive versions and wanted simple ones instead. (This, in a country where 20 per cent of the loo seats sold have heaters, is revolution indeed.)

The most striking example of product development running ahead of the ability to use it is video cassette recorders. Roughly half the owners of VCRs are unable to pre-programme them correctly - some recorders are so complicated that even children cannot work them - which has forced manufacturers to try to make more user-friendly ones. At last they are coming with large no-nonsense buttons which, in theory at least, do what they say.

We live in a market economy, and competition will eventually force manufacturers to produce products that people want, rather than those their boffins think people want. But one might ask why they have been so tardy, why they have tended to produce complicated low-quality products instead of simple high- quality ones. The answer is that, until recently, that was what people did indeed want. Consumer demand has undergone a sea-change and manufacturers have yet to adjust.

Two particular features distinguished the Seventies and the Eighties from the Nineties in all industrial countries: spending power was concentrated among the young, and inflation and interest rates were relatively high.

The effect of the first is obvious. The ageing of the population in every industrial country is inexorably shifting the balance of demand from the young to the middle-aged. There are nearly one-third fewer 16-year-olds now in Britain than there were 15 years ago. Because the shift is so gradual few people notice in any one year, but the effect is that the money is increasingly with the middle-aged, who tend to be less impressed by newness and more by quality.

The change in the inflation and interest rates is perhaps even more important. In a high-inflation world, it is difficult to sell quality products because people cannot afford to borrow to pay for them. In a low-inflation (and hence low interest rate) environment, it makes financial sense to borrow and buy things made to last, because the cost of the capital - relative to other costs - is much less. The Victorians built to last because they could afford to: money was cheap. In the Seventies and early Eighties, it was difficult to justify the expense of quality because high interest rates forced the producer to go for a quick pay-back.

Interest rates may not yet be back to the levels of the last century, but once again financial conditions are starting to reinforce an attitudinal change: it is starting to make financial sense to buy things that will last.

There is, perhaps, a further element to this change in attitudes: worries about the environmental costs of a throwaway society. From an environmental point of view, it is vastly better to design products that last and which, if they do go wrong, can be repaired. A product that is both so cheap and so complicated that it is cheaper to bin it and buy another when it goes wrong, is one more unnecessary item going into landfill.

If, as to some extent is happening, manufacturers are forced to accept responsibility for their products through their entire life-cycle, taking them back when their useful life is over, they will be forced to make things that both last longer and are easier to repair. BMW trumpets its green credentials, saying that 80 per cent of its cars can be recycled. Rolls-Royce simply say that its cars don't need to be recycled, for three-quarters of the Rolls- Royces ever built are still on the roads.

Including, evidently, Mr Clark's Silver Ghost.