I’ve just bought a new car. As I picked it up at the garage, an old Renault advert came into my mind. Not Thierry Henry and his ‘va-va-voom’, but two decades earlier when Renault had a campaign that focused on the ways that buyers personalised their cars: ‘what’s yours called?’ was the slogan. To a soundtrack of classic songs, people appeared on screen with their Renault 5 to reveal the often quirky names that they had given to their cars. Not only was this a novel attempt to make mass produced vehicles appear more customised, but it was also tapping into the notion of a community of people who were drawn together by their association with a particular brand.
Cars, like clothing and smartphones, are worn in public and provide social and cultural markers. Whether Apple, BMW or Chanel, it is unsurprising that people should be drawn to others who value the brands that they themselves choose. The Bugatti Owners Club was founded in 1929 and still holds regular meets, whilst in NI you often see dozens of ancient Massey Fergusons tootling along in file on rural roads.
Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, had little interest in consumer behaviour: ‘any colour you like, as long as it’s black.’ Nowadays we take it for granted that people are choosing to purchase pieces of identity and meaning through the products that they consume. Our screens are full of knowing ads that display and celebrate particular identities, with the brand itself often appearing at the end of a series of lifestyle images as an almost ironic statement. Ads for mobile devices are perhaps the most iconic of this type and people have queued up for days to be the first to buy a new Apple Iphone upon its release.
For the past decade I’ve had an old Ford Focus, manufactured in 2003. I bought it in 2005 and have driven it most days since. The car has been reliable and has done me very well for over 100,000 miles. But last week I was told by my local garage that it had just about reached the end of its days. Reluctantly, I was forced to look for another. Since then I’ve been reading reviews of cars and trying them out at different dealers. I found this a strangely dispiriting exercise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve ended up buying a new Focus, the 2012 model, a turbo-diesel this time.
I’ve no desire to join a Ford car club. And I can’t stand Top Gear in general and Jeremy Clarkson in particular. I think I plumped for a newer example of the same model because it was a car that was tried and trusted. I was also offered a good deal in part-exchange on my loyal old motor. The controls and switches are in the same places, there are just more of them, so it makes the changeover to the new car much easier. I suppose I could have chosen a Bugatti or a Massey Ferguson. But I ended up with the Focus; I’m calling him Erik, after the famous Viking explorer.