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Nationalism on Four Wheels

Cars have national attributes and GM wants their luxury line to grab the glitz of New York instead of the grime of Detroit.

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Some time in a world of long ago I was invited, as a reporter, to take a test drive in the latest model Cadillac, on a General Motors track in Detroit. Cadillac! The most exquisite expression of automotive luxury as conceived in America and designed to express the American principles of hedonism. This model, the Eldorado Biarritz convertible, had tailfins like a jet fighter, whitewall tires, leather upholstery with real stitches, a cream paint job and it rode like a true land yacht should—as though cushioned on pillows with only a low rumble to denote its massive 365 cubic inch engine under a steel hood.

Impertinently I asked the GM executive in the passenger seat if he had seen a new small car from Germany that was about to make its North American debut, the original Volkswagen Beetle (barely altered from the Nazi-decreed people’s car of the 1930s).

“Americans will never drive a small car,” said the man from GM with glacial confidence.

The Beetle was launched with a series of television commercials unlike any before them. My favorite began with a grainy black and white shot of a large snowdrift. From a point concealed by the snow came the sound of a car engine starting—firing up flawlessly at the first turn of the key. Cut to close-up of Beetle intrepidly gliding forth into the blizzard as the voice-over says: “Ever wondered how the guy who drives the snow plow gets to the snow plow?”

In reality the Beetle was about as basic as an object with four wheels can be, like an upturned bathtub with a tiny trunk at the front and a 1.2 liter engine in the rear—because the engine was air-cooled, not water cooled, there was no radiator to freeze up in the snow. Hence the first-time start. Heating? Forget it.

By 1968 more than 400,000 Beetles were being sold a year in the U.S., but it took a lot longer for GM to acknowledge that small foreign cars were here to stay

Indeed, GM’s decision to relocate Cadillac’s top management and marketing division to lower Manhattan next year is yet another stage in its belated response to foreign competition. Cadillac has lost its mojo: sales are down 1.2 percent this year and nowhere near the share of the luxury market that GM would like. The Germans and Japanese have snatched their customers away in North America.

But there is a larger point behind the move: Car brands are inextricable from national stereotypes. Cadillac’s appeal when it turned out models like that magnificent Eldorado convertible was inimitably American. Those models were much prized in Europe by the few who could import them, like movie stars and playboys. They made favored props for glamour shots on the Promenade de la Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, even if the ride was a tad too squishy for the curves of the Corniche.

But in the brain-dead boardrooms of General Motors over several decades Cadillac was allowed to slide from identity to nonentity among all the other GM brands, seeming to be not much more than a collection of Chevy parts reassembled within an upscale skin and more insulation in the cabin. In other words, its identity became American by the standards of a Motown in rapid decline rather than by the standards of what had been an iconic American brand.

The move from Detroit to New York is, in essence, a move to another country. Not just to New York, but a loft in Soho! An urgent cultural transfusion is hoped for. Cadillac’s new boss, whose idea this was, is Johann de Nysschen, a South African who was recruited from Nissan’s luxury brand Infiniti but made his name with Audi in North America, elevating it to equal status with Mercedes and BMW.

Announcing the move with scant regard for what the residents of Detroit might think he said, “There is no city in the world where the inhabitants are more immersed in a premium lifestyle than in New York. It allows our team to share experiences with premium-brand consumers and develop attitudes in common with our audience.”

Of course, Cadillacs won’t actually be built in Soho. Production remains in Detroit. But when it comes to developing successful luxury car brands there is a new game going on that could be called cultural impersonation.

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Car brands are frequently positioned as extensions of national stereotypes = if it’s red, low and fast it has to be Italian; if it’s understated and as crash-resistant as a tank, it’s Swedish; if it’s politely unobtrusive and devoid of any perceivable flaws, it’s Japanese; if it’s a masterpiece of efficient but over-complex engineering, it’s German; if it’s absolutely and unashamedly very posh, it has to be British.

Let’s begin at the top. The Rolls Royce Phantom, sticker price starting at around half a million dollars, was called “a necessary indulgence for the super-rich” by the road testers of the BBC’s Top Gear show. This famously ungracious crew, given to gleefully brutal reviews, could barely suppress their awe: “You’re surrounded by impeccable craftsmanship and ensconced in sumptuous luxury…don’t drop anything on the carpets if you ever want to see it again, the wool is so deep and thick it’s like luxury quicksand.”

Roll Royce—you would expect nothing less from such a British archetype, right?

Small problem: it’s not strictly British. Rolls Royce Motor Cars is a subsidiary of BMW, who make the engines. To be sure, the cars are assembled in England and remain crafted to a level expected of the brand. Oligarchs, kleptocrats of all stripes and titans of industry the world over love the British-type details—like the RR logo on the wheel hubs that remains vertical on its own independent axis no matter how fast the wheels spin.

BMW certainly don’t want you to think of the “roller” as German, even though it can’t roll an inch without its German engine. It’s like they won the war but want to keep that under the hood.

But the runaway best example of the game is another cluster of British luxury vehicles—Range Rover, Land Rover and Jaguar. Like most of the British car industry, these brands tanked in the 1980s and looked set for extinction, even though they had each been ground-breakers in their day.

Jaguar rested for too long on the legend of a truly sexy beast, the 1960s E-type two-seater described by no less an illustrious authority as Enzo Ferrari as “the most beautiful car ever made.” But the cars were never known for reliability—a flaw deftly captured in an episode of Mad Men where the bent financial director, Layne Pryce, played by Jared Harris, attempts to kill himself with the exhaust gases of a Jaguar sedan but fails because the engine won’t start.

Land Rover was launched as an all-but-indestructible off-roader and migrated from British farms to jungles and deserts the world over. Range Rover was the world’s first upscale SUV long before the term SUV was coined. Jaguar scored epic wins at the grueling Le Mans 24-hour race. You’d think it would be hard to allow brands as strong as these to atrophy but, like the guys at Cadillac, the British managers pulled it off by dereliction and incompetence.

In 1989 Ford bought all three and attempted to use them to build a global luxury niche market, but never really understood how to do that. Then in 2008 along came the Indian group Tata, based in Mumbai, which bought them from Ford for $2.3bn. The Indians have proved able to do British posh a lot better than the Brits: in 2013 the three brands sold more than 400,000 vehicles and made a profit of$3.9 billion.

To get there Tata poured capital into British plants and research and hired thousands of workers. But their greatest contribution has been to take each brand back to its British roots, putting the growl back under the hood of Jaguar with the new F-type which reincarnates the libido of the E-type but adds dependability, and by positioning Land Rover and Range Rover as essential accessories for people who own large country estates and the many more who wish they did. They have become lifestyle signals rather than just works of engineering, tied to a world of what the Brits call “mud on the wellies” (green Hunter brand Wellington boots) along with Burberry trench coats, Hermes scarves, and Rolex watches.

This kind of auto-suggestion works just as well beyond Britain: Jaguar and Range Rover sales in China, for example, are up 30 percent, and Range Rovers are ubiquitous in Moscow.

While the Indians have had such spectacular success by channeling the manners and taste of British toffs, the Germans have pulled off an equally lucrative sleight of hand by taking the spirit of 1960s Swinging London and re-wrapping it in new metal. In doing so they were betting on a movie as much as a car.

The 1969 heist caper The Italian Job starred Michael Caine but also made a star of the Mini Cooper, the sexed-up version of a very basic British small car, the Austin Mini. In the movie the Mini Coopers, stacked with stolen gold bars, tear through the streets, alleys and piazzas of Turin during a deliberately planned traffic gridlock and finally escape by driving through a sewer (a stunt that actually wrecked the cars being used).

The chase scenes made an otherwise so-so movie a cult favorite. And the Mini became so potent in its appeal that it almost created a culture unto itself, a completely classless object of desire able to seem simultaneously utilitarian and dashingly stylish. (That other movie-made car fantasy, James Bond’s Aston Martin, was and is an exquisite hand-made boy toy attainable only by the very rich.)

Following the pattern of the decline and fall of the British car industry, by 2000 the original Mini had become obsolete and production ended. However, BMW then owned the brand and an American designer, Frank Stephenson, reconceived it. He kept the stubby, compact shape notable for its agility. But with a BMW engine under the hood and a plusher interior the new Mini created a new category: The luxury compact—a very small car with a big sticker price. Last year sales of the Mini in the U.S. were a record 66,500, selling at prices according to the model and trimmings well north of $20,000.

What these examples show is that even moribund brands can be revived. However, they have to have intrinsic and distinctive qualities. Each of these cars was a legend. The elements that made them legendary were partly physical, the engineering and the styling, and partly psychological, how to a buyer they represented an extension of themselves, their perceived status or, at least, of their dreams. To the legacy qualities were added another: a higher standard of dependability.

Nationality doesn’t matter any more. When an American designer working for a German company can take a quintessentially British machine and make it competitive in a global market the circle is complete. There’s salutary proof of this right in Detroit: the comeback of Jeep.

Nothing on wheels could be more American than the Jeep. Its original form was hard-baked for duty in World War II as a virtually indestructible four-wheel drive scout car that could take on almost any terrain. It was the forerunner of every off-road vehicle. (The prototype Land Rover was designed by a Jeep owner and built on a Jeep chassis.)

Since 1945 the Jeep brand passed through five owners. Calling the Jeep an early Sport Utility Vehicle is really an insult to its DNA because it was sui generis and in its own rugged way impossible to imitate—as much a part of the Big Sky country as John Wayne but, alas, in danger of seeming to be as out of its time as he was. Jeep steadily gave up a market it had created to rivals, particularly Toyota and Range Rover.

By the time Fiat took over Chrysler in 2009 Jeep was a seriously neglected asset. In the seven years that Daimler ran Chrysler the Germans didn’t seem to have a clue about what to do with Jeep. It was different with Fiat. Jeep finally fell under the eye of one of the world’s most astute car marketers, Fiat’s Canadian-Italian boss Sergio Marchionne. Jeep sales for the first nine months of this year are up by 45 per cent on 2013 and as part of a plan to release 30 new models by 2018 Marchionne is committing more resources to putting Jeep back at the top of the category it once dominated—and, thereby, making it worthy of its legend.

That, too, is the test for Cadillac—to resuscitate a legend. It’s not that long ago that Cadillac epitomized unashamed American swank, an essential underpinning of the legend. There is, for example, the Seinfeld episode where Jerry, feeling flush with cash, buys his parents a Caddy. But this upsets his parents’ neighbors in their Florida condo because they see it as a display of gratuitous wealth. These days, to make the joke work, it would have to be a Porsche.

Can the new guys at Cadillac pull off the same trick—reassert the core American appeal of the brand? On the face of it moving the talent to Soho can seem fatuous. Will breakfast at Balthazar bring sudden revelations about Millennials and Gen Xers and their taste in wheels? Will asking for a barrel-aged Negroni help to nurture some European class?

The problem is the nature of the competition, which can be summed up in a single phrase, “German engineering.” That serves as shorthand for Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche. In truth, the engineering and technology of modern cars is so refined and advanced that it differs little across all brands and price levels. Yet by equating their engineering with Teutonic rigor the Germans have created the impression of an exclusive proprietary quality.

Porsche apart, the German sedans have another German quality: Boring. Nobody ever said the classic Cadillacs were boring but lately their styling has been so busy trying to synthesize a kind of global fusion of Japanese and German tastes in constrained luxury that the inimitable Cadillac panache has been purged. Perhaps, after a few long nights in the company of Soho Millenials it’s just possible that the guys from Detroit could discover what panache is. But how do you put that in a bottle?

By the way, a mint condition 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible can now sell for as much as $350,000. A new Cadillac CTS-V sedan costs around $70,000—but it just ain’t the same, baby.