Roland Barthes memorably said that 'cars are our cathedrals'. The high priest of semiotics meant that like the great monuments of medieval Europe, the automobile is at once familiar yet magical. Like the cathedrals, cars are the collective work of anonymous artisans but are dense with emotional power, which we either accept or reject. And always with passion.
Cathedrals and cars have personalities - and geography. None more so than Volvo.
Volvo cliches may be wearily familiar but cliches are only established on a foundation of truth. The geography of Volvo is suburbia: Westchester or Weybridge, it doesn't matter which continent. The psychic address is the same. Its historic appeal has been to responsible middle classes, their families, pets and luggage. Never mind that for a few years in the 80s, the last of the cart-sprung 240 wagons had an idiosyncratic appeal for groovy Milanese architects (who perhaps admired its mighty tectonic proportions, medieval handling and quaint detailing). Volvo means school runs, dentists, antique dealers, headmasters. Volvo means wagons.
A stage army of decent humanity was mobilised by the persuasive offer of capacious volume, personal safety and environmental responsibility that Volvo made its own. The readers of the trade press knew Volvo sometimes overplayed the safety hand, its US agency scandalously faking some ads, but dentists in New York State and Surrey do not subscribe to Advertising Age. In any case, Volvo's safety proposition was mostly genuine: all other things being equal, the passenger cell of a big car surrounded by lots of forgiving air and well-made metal is probably a safer place to have an accident than one surrounded by a smaller amount of impact-absorbing structure. It was not rocket science. Then the rest of the motor industry got safety too and Volvo's selling proposition was no longer unique. Not only was Volvo's lunch eaten, its cupboard was bare. Without the myth and reality of safety, Volvo meant dull styling, unresolved handling, and quality that was in fact no better than so-so. The brand issue was confused further by an aborted merger with Renault, which got as far as bilingual notices in Renault's offices. Anyone who has done comparative dining out in, say, Goteborg and Beaulieu-sur-mer could see that here were two cultures not easy to integrate.
Now Volvo belongs to Ford. Cynics say that what Americans call globalisation, the globe calls Americanisation, but there's something more interesting here than a mere avaricious takeover. On its way to building up a portfolio of world brands, Dearborn recognised that the struggling Volvo fitted neatly between the most expensive Ford and the cheapest Jaguar. Volvo had no engineering that Ford needed, but it did have image capital in spades. Along with this, Ford acquired a pretty new coupe called the C70 - an attempt by Volvo, between calling off the French wedding and eloping with Ford, to find a new trajectory. It is as if mother pierced her nose and went clubbing: not necessarily unwelcome but surprising.
The C70 is a beautiful car of understated, handsome lines - the work of Ian Callum, the designer who works for specialist engineers TWR and who drew the Aston Martin DB7. You do not have to squint too hard to see the inherited characteristics.
Immaculately assembled, the elegant C70 clunks and whirrs in watchmaker style, but also drives with a pleasantly athletic gravitas. The style is adult and polite, not adolescent; handling is well-mannered but can't cope with hard acceleration. While the cabin is a very pleasant place to be (with absolutely the best sound system on the road), there's always something about any Volvo that makes me drive badly and, in this case, it's the visibility - a vital function compromised by the fine lines.
In a performance car, there's nothing so important.
The world is a more pleasant and interesting place because of the C70 but it's an anomaly in the Volvo universe and my guess is it won't survive into a second generation. It's a good shot in the wrong direction. Ford knows where Volvo man is going. All that precious image capital so patiently accumulated after years patrolling surburbia means one thing: wagons, and variations on a theme. Designers are working on them now. Volvo will be back where it belongs. The difference is, Weybridge and Westchester are now going global.