Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Culture wars

Photo: BMW AG
So the 1988-91 BMW M3 is this year's It Car. All of a sudden everyone seems to have either remembered or realized how it was such a pure and true driving machine, any number of accolades have recently been written or recorded, and consequently - or in league with this - prices for good examples have been jumping by eye-opening amounts.

Trying to parse the logic of the collector market at this level is a fool's errand, and betting on which former cult darling will be the next to catch fire is a bit like searching for meaning in a four-year-old's finger paintings. I've seen this happen before to certain cars - big Healeys and longhood 911s most notably - where something just comes to the attention of people with a good bit of available cash for no real reason and suddenly we're all reminded about prior exemplars of greatness as prices start climbing.

I have no reason or desire to deny the E30 M3's credentials as a fine-handling car, but I do find its reassessment as an all-time great to be a bit amusing. People love it now, but it was received with very mixed emotions by the automotive press of the day. Most considered it harsh and buzzy and peaky and not appreciably faster or better than a standard 325is; all considered it outrageously expensive at its $35,000ish MSRP - equal to well over sixty large today - which is probably the main reason it was a soft seller in America. (That unenthusiastic reception made Munich ponder the necessity of selling the E36 M3 here, and even when it did show up - well after the rest of the world got it - we received one with a simpler powerplant variant to keep costs down. Reaction to that car from both press and buyers was immediate and overwhelmingly positive, however, and the rest is easily traced.)

Much of the legend comes after this, of course, with the innumerable race victories and the developing appreciation from within owner's clubs and the like. Attrition from race conversions and general hard use has pushed available numbers down from an already scant base, which induces a latent appreciation (and lifts up prices even higher). We also have to factor in the drift of the market in general (and BMW in particular) away from offering anything like a hardcore Group A homologation special in a modern showroom, so this does serve as something of a signifier for a lost faith and as such has a certain pure cachet.
Photo: Martin Pettitt
I've never really wanted one. I certainly understand the appeal; I respect the opinions of those who love them for the right reasons; I'll admire one if I see it on the street. However, it's one of those cars that just doesn't light off my synapses in the right way. (The rapidly appreciating price situation dampens this even further.)

Maybe it's the sort of silly boy-racer looks coupled with the weirdly undersized wheels that were standard in the US. (The not-for-us Evo III is the only one that got the look right from the factory.) Maybe it's that harshness, the kind that doesn't matter for a half-hour blast but wears badly on a cross-country run; in that respect the M3's unduly neglected rival, the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16, is a far better machine. Maybe there's always just been something that I found more desirable at or around that range. On a more recent note, I wonder if the recent flood of accolades about its supreme drivability and nimbleness is a bit groupthink-ish; I'd love to know how an M3 compares back-to-back with something like a Porsche 944 or 944S, which was broadly regarded as the best-handling car in the world at that time.

Maybe it's because it is, after all, an E30 - if a pretty special one - and for some of us of a certain age that model has a very unpleasant connotation. E30s will indisputably forever be associated with that deeply despisable and wretchedly dominant group that so defined all that was wrong and uncomfortable about the 1980s: yuppies. The yuppie stink clings to E30s like radiation to Chernobyl. That car was in there with Polo shirts and expensive tennis rackets and power ties and business-success books on tape as an indisputable signifier of that whole social class.
Photo: Dubber
It's odd to even reflect on this; no one really talks about yuppies anymore, and I fear I know why. It's not because they aren't remembered for what they were so much as that their defining traits - their reflexive selfishness, their free-market (a)morality, their incessant grasping for status symbols as driver for peer approval - have become the constant norm. Their attitudes bought out or took over everything else. They won, which was all that ever really mattered to a yuppie. (The attitude even conquered the counterculture; what's a hipster except a yuppie with different signifiers?)

For people who are either younger than I or who are less a victim of persistent tribal memories, E30s are admittedly pretty sweet cars. They're popular and well-loved for some very good reasons: handling balance, build quality, involvement without irritation. Stick to the later cars - the post-eta sixes or the four-valve 318s - and you've got what may be the last of the classic sports sedans.

Emphasis on that. I wonder if the popularity of the E30s isn't at least partly due to the subliminal but very real sense that they're the last of their kind, the swan song of the simple, quick, classy three-box rear-drive sedan, best represented by the E30's 2002tii grandfather but also including the Alfa Romeo Giulia coupes and four-doors, Ford Cortinas, and even Fiat 124s and Datsun 510s. Consider the E36 in comparison; when it bowed it was hailed as a massive improvement over the antiquated E30, immediately making BMW more competitive and relevant at that market point than it had been in a long time, but in retrospect it seems that something desirable was lost in the transition.

And when it was lost there, it essentially became extinct. Yes, there were still sports sedans of a sort - most of them front-wheel-drive, all of them infused with control electronics, growing ever heavier and larger and more complex and less lighthearted. But there is still, somehow, a longing for that kind of basic but elegant machine. The appreciation of E30s is representative of this; it exists in correlation with other cars, too, if in ways that are almost more intuitive than anything.

Anecdotal evidence: One of my other presences online is a Tumblr page with a slightly impolite name which focuses on, yes, street-legal race cars of some sort or another. Of all the pictures that I've posted (read: ripped off from various external sources), the ones that have gotten the best responses are consistently Alfa Romeos, especially 105 GTVs. My all-time most popular post is a picture of a happy couple in a gorgeous metallic-blue 2000GTV participating in some kind of a rally. How many of those reposters know anything about Alfa GTVs, and how many just innately get a really good-looking car that's probably a lot of fun when they see one?
Che bella. Photo: Stefan Baging
If we can extrapolate a bit and make some assumptions about the demographics of Tumblr users, it's fair to say that at least a few of those reposts - and the endorsement that said action implies - come from twentysomethings or even high schoolers. On one level it's a bit strange that these folks would react so favorably to a car not of their time or experience, but then again maybe it's a compulsion generated by something that somehow feels desirable but is very much not here anymore.

The GTV is also very visibly something of an upmarket product. It may not have ever been profoundly expensive, but it was positioned well above the average econobox. So was the 2002tii, so was the E30.

That upper-class, if still somewhat attainable, appeal is part of the desirability for all three of those cars and several others besides, such as BMW's own E9s and maybe even the Mercedes W123. Even the kids recognize that.

Which brings us forcefully back to the whole idea about Millennials and the pursuit of modern vehicle sales.

I made one major mistake, or more accurately omitted one major social influence, when I wrote up my consideration of the youth-car market debacle a few months back. I still fully stand by the core of my conclusions - the world needs more decently-priced, fun-to-drive, easy-to-own cars - but that's not enough. What's missing from this is the lesson of the embrace of the E30 and the GTV, and by extension the influence of those despised yuppies and their status symbols and the subsequent label-heavy materialism that pervades modern consumer commerce: a successful youth-market car must be perceived to be a premium product.

I wish I knew where I saw or heard it, but an offhand comment from somewhere recently has stuck with me: kids only want upscale stuff. Either they'll buy the populist high fashion of TV and gossip mags or they won't buy at all. They only want the best, however that may be defined by them and their peers. The rules of young-adult marketing revolve around those aspirations to match popular portrayals of the upscale. (This is maybe most visible among young women, but guys are hardly exempt from the same forces.)

Which leads to a massive quandary for product planners: How do you create something that can be perceived as an upscale product at price affordable to an economically underachieving market segment, especially given the less-than-fashionable image of most major automotive brands? How do you design and engineer a car that is decently priced, fun to drive, easy to own, AND makes the owner's friends envious?

Take something that scores very well on the first three of those but misses hard on the fourth: the Mazda2. It's eminently affordable. It's said to retain something of the spirit of the Honda CRX in its nimbleness and eagerness. It's the epitome of everyday practicality. And it does absolutely nothing to titillate anyone's senses of fashion or glamour, and sales haven't been very good at all. Which is a shame, but it's also a harsh reality.

The one that does it closest to right - at least most of the time - is probably Mini. The standard Mini hatchback really does work as a very good normal car at a likable price that also comes across as an upscale accessory. It may not be what everyone wants for one reason or another, but it definitely works within these parameters.
Photo: BMW NA
I'm at something of a loss after that, though. I'm not sure how any carmaker arrives at a magic combination of high quality, low cost, and major social cachet in the current setting. Decontented luxury lines rarely work (see the BMW 318ti or its Mercedes C230 hatch analogue), although the Civic-in-a-nice-suit Acura ILX has been showing up here. Popular images of mainstream automakers range from acceptable at best (Volkswagen) to tolerable (Honda, Nissan) to revolting (the domestics, to some degree or another). Expecting some paradigm shift away from those ingrained upscale preferences is unlikely in the long term and folly in the short term, regardless of how many thrift shops Macklemore and his crew visit or how much pop-country openly advertises its working-class ancestry; neither of those nor anything like them can hope to induce enough of a shift in what is already so very much in place.

So yeah, it's a hard situation right now for anyone trying to sell to the youth market. Kids are snobby and picky, and most companies are not operating with strong favorable perceptions on their side. Probably not too much that can be done except constant product refinement and the implementation of a few serious lessons in upscale design while maintaining a steady aversion to stupid pandering.

Someone putting the E30 or 1750 GTV back into production wouldn't hurt, though.


  1. Quality!

    Nice post.

    I think that as a Millennial who is also an exception to your analysis (which is expected and ok) It's interesting to see why these kids feel this way about cars. and it makes sense.

    I personally own very different cars from what the rest of Gen Y might want (well maybe not)

    A 1985 300D - good ol' W123 diesel. easy to drive, "upscale" (but also rusting), not really easy to own though. I find it fun to drive but that doesn't mean everyone has to agree with me. The Benz does require a lot of work though. Although part of that might be the 12k mile valve clearance adjustment interval...

    A 1991 Mazda Miata - It's got the easy to drive, easy to take care of and affordable part handled. It's just not crazy upscale.

    however I bought both cars for under $4000 combined.

    I'm pretty happy with my stable.

    1. That is a great combo of cars, got all your bases covered nicely there. My friend had a W123 240D and there is something about those cars that is just so classy, big and slow, but very enjoyable to just cruise around in.

      Out of curiosity, how old are you? I'm 32, so I'm technically part of Gen Y/Millenials but I've never identified myself with them.


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