My dream car has evolved many times over the years but for the first time in living memory I don’t know what I’m going to buy when I win the lottery. The choices used to be limited which made it easy, and then the kids came along which wrote off any chances of a two seater. But I think the hardest part has been realizing that modern cars aren’t cool any more.
The top car makers have watered down their brand and exclusivity to sell more. Ferrari sold 8,400 cars worldwide in 2017, over 3 times as many as they did in the mid 90’s. Even more telling is Lamborghini that sold 3,800 in 2017 compared to around 200 in the mid 1990’s. These extra sales haven’t all gone to middle aged car enthusiasts who have worked hard to enjoy the fruits of their success. The average age of Ferrari owners has been steadily dropping, helped by the average owner in China being 32 years old! (I would wager its even lower in my hometown of Vancouver, the so-called supercar capital of North America; many of the supercars I see are driven by spotty teenagers with an N or even L sticker on the back. Sorry, but a car just isn’t cool if a novice driver has one).
Marketing has shifted to focus on being a luxury good instead of an exclusive or specialty good. Gone is the raw minimalist machine built for drivers and the open road. Air con, sat nav, heated seats and paddle shift gearboxes are order of the day so drivers can get from the Prada store to the golf club in perfect comfort. To anyone who has made the perfect downshift with a heavy manual gearbox, you will know this is utter sacrilege.
Iconic brands get even more watered down when they don’t actually make the parts themselves. Lamborghini, now owned by Audi, uses hundreds of parts from its parent. Jaguar unashamedly uses Ford engines. Aston Martin recently switched from using Ford engines and electronics to Mercedes. Toyota recently announced the reintroduction of their 90s classic the Supra which is… basically a BMW Z4 in disguise. Gone are the dreams of ever having a car that is purpose built to satisfy the driver.
By sourcing off the shelf parts, they can offer several different models at the same time and bring in new models more quickly. Ferrari currently offer no less than 8 different models, and a new limited edition comes out with such increasing regularity that no one can keep track. When I was a kid my pride and joy was a scale model of the F40; its hard to imagine such enthusiasm for a GTC4Lusso T which doesn’t even roll off the tongue let alone look unique.
Smaller manufacturers have been squeezed out by safety standards amongst other things. These smaller manufacturers had the ability to design for the driver instead of the bottom line of a big multinational. Don’t get me wrong, safety is important, but one has to question – is the main purpose of these regulatory changes simply to create a monopoly for repairs and disposable parts like airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners? I’m sure that big auto lobbyists in Brussels have not been pushing safety regulations for the drivers benefit (my unfortunate cynicism on big auto lobbying is really borne out when one looks at the VW’s diesel gate scandal). Without a government relations department, small groups of engineers can no longer build and sell uncompromising cars out of a garden shed.
To some owners the appeal of a sports car is fiddling with it in your own garden shed. A screwdriver, couple of spanners and the trusty Haynes manual should be all that is needed to change an alternator or replace a set of spark plugs. But big business manufacturers have made it next to impossible for owners or small independent mechanics to tinker. Proprietary electronic systems and specialist tools are order of the day. Fixing things is not only satisfying, it also helps appreciate the engineering and form a bond that is hard to describe unless you have done it yourself. It’s impossible to get that same feeling from dropping something off at a spotless workshop then coming back in the afternoon to collect the keys.
So there you have it – big auto has corrupted the appeal of sports cars. New models might be faster, but they are designed for 18 year olds to drive. They might be safer but they are more expensive to maintain and repair. They might be more comfortable to drive but they are far less enjoyable. They might be more expensive to buy, but they are also much more common. They might be better designed, but only through plagiarism and mass production. They might be easy to love, but they’re hard to fall in love with.
Im not sure where that leaves me, all I know is I’m still not ready to admit defeat and buy a minivan quite yet!