Forget newcomers like laptops and smartphones, the technology which has dominated life on this planet for the last 100 years is the motor car. It may have been huge shifts in politics and prosperity that made the 20th century the age of the common man; but it was the car that brought that idea to life. It was not so much the car itself that was life-changing, but the freedom it bestowed. Suddenly travel was a personal pleasure not a public burden, with the timetable and the route controlled by you, not the railway company.
But the car was much more than a better means of transport, it was a means of self-expression. The car captured the spirit of the age: the fins of a post-war Cadillac carried signals of confidence and glamour as surely as the classless insouciance of the first Mini announced a cheekier and more democratic spirit in the ‘60s. Above all the car came to symbolise an extraordinary triangulation between power, romance and personal control. You were in charge; you could unleash those horsepower on the open road; and you decided where you wanted to go.
Car-makers were quick to capitalise on this. Jaguar gave you ‘Grace, Space, Pace’, while BMW was ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’. Both these brands skilfully designed the cockpit with a plethora of crisp round dials to make you feel as if you were landing Concorde. Why do you need a rev counter on an automatic car? To make you feel better, that’s why, to make you feel in control.
Every car commercial seemed to be shot at dusk in some remote and glorious part of the Scottish Highlands. In our lives we go to Tesco, but in our dreams we go to Cape Wrath.
The design and the marketing of the modern car has deliberately played to our deepest fantasies of power and control. But that is suddenly seeming much less relevant. Of course, there’s always a gap between fantasy and reality; and if that gap is as wide as the Thames, you might get away with it. But when the gap seems as wide as the Atlantic Ocean, the fantasy starts to implode. In today’s reality, we have speed limits, speed bumps, speed cameras, parking fines, congestion charging, exponential leaps in fuel prices, and – above all – far more cars. Which means far more traffic. I drive a Mini Cooper S, a car which symbolises performance as well as practicality. With its turbo-charged engine it’s capable of 140 mph: yet most of my driving hours are spent in London traffic where I’m pleased to be doing 20 mph.
How can the car-makers of today cope with this? If their designers and marketeers turn their back on the romance of the car, they put their magic ingredient at risk. Yet somehow that romance has to be re-articulated in a language that makes sense in today’s over-crowded over-regulated world.
Those lovely, old commercials in the isolation of the Scottish Highlands just don’t wash any more. The new generation of car commercials, showing a car practically leap-frogging through an urban world, is equally implausible. I think the answer is to think of the car less as transport, more as cocoon. Being in your car is being in your own private world, and that can be a pleasure in itself. If you tell me my journey is going to be quick and traffic-free, I simply won’t believe you. But if you tell me my journey, however irksome, will be made a joy by the elegant design of my cocoon, with its luxurious leather seats, its hands-free phone, its i-pod ready stereo, then I might start to believe you.
Of course, that idea needs to be developed beyond doing the existing stuff well to doing something quite new in my cocoon. But it is the right direction. How else can you explain the success of the SUV? We all know that off-roaders never go off road, and the only range which Range Rovers rove upon is the run from home to the nearest private school. But these behemoths are the ultimate cocoon. They are, literally, above the traffic. Their hugeness emphasises the isolation of the occupants from the stressful world outside. Of course, their cumbrous nature makes them much less fun to drive than my Mini-Cooper, but since we’re both in a queue at 20 mph, that doesn’t matter.
Driving today is much less about the pleasure of speed and much more about the pleasure of seclusion. Car-makers and their designers need to recognize that: their customers already know.
Roger Mavity, CEO, The Conran Group