When I was told everyone was going to be writing New Year’s Day posts about the possible and maybe likely coming recession, I can’t say that I was thrilled with the idea. This is how we want to start the year? No wonder we don’t get invited to more parties. Well, the last thing I want is to incur the wrath of a likely still-drunk and belligerent New Year’s Day editor-in-chief, so I’m going to find an upside to all this. And I think I have one: a recession may be just the thing we need to free cars from the cruel, alacantra-slathered grip of the concept of “premium.”
Let me explain. Since around the mid-to-late 1990s, there’s been a trend in automotive design and marketing, one that anyone who’s worked in product planning for a car company can confirm for you. It’s a sort of vague, general notion, this concept that’s sometimes called “aspirational” or “premium,” and it applies mostly to cars that aren’t technically “premium” or expensive or luxurious—but the rule is everything—and I mean everything—now has to at least pretend to be “premium.”
Keep in mind, this also during a period when most Americans already really can’t afford a new car, no matter what they get.
What this means in practice is something you can see by looking out any window: no real color, just “premium” colors like deep metallic grays or silver or black or white, and a definite loss of the elusive concept of “fun” for most entry-level cars, with a shift to all cars trying to be like what they think a BMW is probably like.
A great example of this is the Nissan Versa. The Versa is one of the cheapest cars you can buy, and they generally look like this:
A safe, four-door sedan that looks sort of like Nissan’s other, higher-end products, just sort of shrunken and with less pleasing proportions. It feels like a car that’s trying to look like a more expensive car than it is, which is precisely how it was designed. There’s something inherently unpleasant about that fundamental idea, because it means the car is just not happy, deep down, with who it is.
Now, if we go back into the past to look at what Nissan/Datsun once made for this same segment, we see something entirely different:
In the late ‘70s, this was the cheapest car in Datsun’s lineup: The Datsun B210 Honey Bee. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than what it was: a good, inexpensive car that was cheap to run and surprisingly fun to drive. It came in fun bright colors and with a black stripe and a cartoon bee because, fuck it, just because you didn’t have much money doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good, cheap car.
It wasn’t ashamed of what it was, and it wasn’t trying to be a Mercedes-Benz. It was what it was, and people would drive these fun bright green and red and blue little Honey Bees, getting great gas mileage and being proud of their humble little cars, pretension free, and without trying to fool anyone into thinking they were loaded.
It wasn’t just Datsun. Look at these options for Ford’s cheap car, the Pinto:
For a moment just forget that part of why the Pinto was so cheap was because it was a fiery deathtrap, and just delight at all these wonderful options. Lots of good colors and stripes and RALLYE lettering and, yes, bubble windows on little crazy wagons.
Someone’s mom could have been driving that sleek grey one with the RALLYE stripe or a bright orange one, and driving it without shame. Because we didn’t always think everything had to look like it was expensive.
Fake-Premium design hobbles car designers. It means that only cars at the extreme low (think Mirage) or high end (think 911 or Aventador) of the market can be too poor or too rich to worry about driving something that’s not black, white, or gray, it means that most of the non-retro-design affordable cars will take no chances, and will all be designed with the goal of trying to seem like something they’re not, which is sad.
Let cheap cars be cheap cars. Let them be good cars, but no one should be ashamed of driving something affordable, and have a good time doing it.
So, maybe if this coming downturn knocks us all back a bit, money-wise, maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop trying so hard to be something many of us are not, and realize that, fundamentally, that shit just doesn’t matter. Cheap cars can be as great as expensive ones, and people who judge you by the price of the badge on your grille are garbage people, anyway.
So, bring it on, recession. Slap us around a bit and make us wise up. Give us back our proud, colorful shitboxes, happy to be exactly what they are.