Watching eight-year-old boys play the game you lot insist on calling soccer is a peculiar pastime. As a spectator you are vaguely aware that the humanlings are governed by some sort of laws and rules, but it is hard to decipher what those are. Furthermore, despite each child being regularly reminded that they have a role to play, a specific space to occupy on the field, they cannot resist simply running after the inflated pigs bladder. They simply swarm after the ball as it gets hacked around the field.
Recently I watched a game and underwent an epiphany: it dawned on me that children's football (it isn't bloody soccer, it never was) exists as a metaphor for the modern motor industry. Want to know why?
Isn't it obvious? Because Jaguar is making an SUV, that's why. Eight-year-olds, soccer – no, NO, football – SUVs, Jaguars. That's what we're talking about here.
Specifically: why is it brands who were once specialists and synonymous with a particular type of car (the young football players) now simply follow the latest market trends (the ball) with scant regard for their reputations or historical brand values? Ergo: why is Jaguar, a company owned by the same people who own Land Rover, the pre-eminent exponents of the Luxury Sports Utility Vehicle, now making a luxury sports utility vehicle? I've been pondering this for a while and it makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it also makes all the sense in the world. If I sound confused today, it's because I am.
Once upon a time, there were specialists. If you wanted a sports car, you went to a Corvette shop, or a Porsche shop. If you wanted a fast sedan you went to BMW and if you wanted to let the neighbors think you actually had a few more pennies than they initially assumed you had, you bought a Mercedes E-Class. So. Fucking. Simple.
The age of the specialist was innocent, exciting and, for many of those companies, financially ruinous. So, many of them were bought by larger car companies or they ceased to exist.
And then came the complications, and the age we now live in, the age of the generalist. In this new world the pressures of global success have manifested themselves as a quest for volume and this means everyone has to do everything. Porsche has to make SUVs and BMW has to make front-wheel-drive hatchbacks and Ferrari has to sell T-shirts. And, in the most part, I don't like the world of the generalist.
This can partly be attributed to a personal aversion to generalists – because the ultimate expression of such a creature is a politician, and I don't much like them. It's a terribly over-used idiom, but being jack-of-all-trades and master of none is a most depressing epitaph. Many car companies are being sucked into this potentially dangerous vortex of trying being everything to everyone.
Every CFO on the planet will now laugh at my naiveté, but would it really be impossible for a company like BMW to make 500,000 cars a year, cars it wanted to produce and which squared with the brand image it has carefully cultivated for decades, and still make good money? I can't see why it would be impossible.
The car-maker lexicon of big-business is littered with the language of constant expansion: synergies, economies-of-scale, eighteen new models before next month, Q1 this and Q4 that. The only way any company can justify itself or make itself look good is to tell the world that it is getting bigger and making more money, and in the land of cars that means you need to enter more market segments. So Jaguar makes an SUV. Did I tell you Jaguar is making an SUV?
Which, of course brings us to the Bentley Continental GT3 R. Keep up at the back there: where else would it lead us? Bentley, the company that is so obsessed with low crank speeds it made a pushrod V8 sail through Euro 6 engine legislation, has decided that it needs to appeal to a more pelvis-forward audience. Bentley does after all have a stunning pre-war racing heritage, and at the start of the last decade it won Le Mans again. But the modern Bentley image, the one that is currently making oodles of money is about as sporting as a pair of brogues.
But the Bentley marketeers, or someone on the Politburo at VW has decided that it needs to be more sporting, so it begins an FIA GT3 campaign and they release a road car to build the link. And, shazzam, it has a white car with decals and a spoiler and it's sat outside my house and I'm wondering what the fuck is going on. It looks ridiculous. Bentley doesn't need this. This isn't Bentley.
And then I cross my WO's and summon the courage to be seen in public in the spearmint wonder stripe and, once I've found calmness it dawns on me that the GT3 R is a brilliant road car. It displays all of Bentley's core values: comfort, speed, that aura of general massiveness and wanting to crush poor people – and it's just more fun than the other cars Crewe makes. And it doesn't have to be white and you aren't forced into taking the stickers. So the silly Bentley that many of us think is a niche too far is actually a brilliant Bentley. Hmmmmm.
And here lies the big problem with my views on specialists and generalists. Yes, the specialists have become generalists – but then those generalists are within organizations that have become so huge that they have fragmented (still with me?) back into smaller groups of specialists in their fields. And that's why the Porsche Cayenne Turbo is so damn amazing. I don't want a 190 mph SUV, but if I did, I'd like it to be built by Porsche.
It is weird that JLR needs a Jaguar SUV, but you just know it'll be good. And as long as Porsche releases an RS once in a while, I'll just shut up and keep watching. Not sure how I'd feel a about a Land Rover luxury saloon though. That might twist my melon right out of shape.
Illustration by Sam Woolley