THE MT GUIDE TO COMPANY CAR KUDOS FOR ALL BUDGETS: Tyred and Emotional - From Bentley to BMW, from Cortina to Mondeo, Brit execs from the mighty to the humble have had a 40-year love affair with their company cars. And it's as passionate as ever, despite

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

From Bentley to BMW, from Cortina to Mondeo, Brit execs from the mighty to the humble have had a 40-year love affair with their company cars. And it's as passionate as ever, despite the fact that the semantics of choosing the right one have never been more complex, says Stephen Bayley.

When I was a boy, there was a strict delineation, a clear hierarchy, a common culture that all respected and observed. The roads of Britain had their own caste system. Maharajahs, the chairmen of very large public companies or very successful entrepreneurs might have a Rolls Royce. Brahmins or managing directors, a Jaguar; the merchant classes or general managers, a Humber or a Rover; and the Harijans, untouchable salesmen or technicians, a Ford Cortina.

Mind you, this is going back a bit: when I was a boy people also said 'sir' and 'mister'. And this same hierarchy worked its influential magic on the roads as well as the car parks. Overtaking was merely a matter of prestige, road positioning and visibility. On the motorway, in a cascade of respectful automobile forelock-tugging, the Cortina would give way to the Rover, as the Rover would to the Jaguar, as the Jag would defer to the Roycer.

This system, with a nice and undisputed clarity, accurately reflected the technical merits and dynamic potential of the vehicles cited. Now that a base model Peugeot 106 can cruise at 100mph, modern overtaking is more a matter of applied psychosis than observed politesse. The fast lane has become classless. Or, more honestly, it has become almost completely proletarian. Reflecting a more general disintegration of manners, the roads are now a democratised but ugly scrum, not a quaintly pleasing diagram of a feudal social order.

John Betjeman wrote: 'I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner; I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.' But ours is a monde a l'envers. In 2003, a man in a car wearing a tie or owning a slimline briefcase is as likely to be a chauffeur or 'security' as an 'executive'. The man sitting in the back is likely to have an open-necked shirt expressive of his small fortune and an iPAQ expressive of his wired condition. A man driving a saloon car in central London is probably an out-of-towner: although car availability (measured by household) is highest in the south-east, it is lowest in the capital. Yet still, even in our liberated, politically correct, multi-cultural, polyvalent, relativist society, the company car remains a volatile and provocative symbol of an individual's status.

Of course, no device ever made by man has been better adapted to social competition and cultural modelling than the automobile. Every nuance of detail and specification lends itself to interpretation. It's rubbish to say that the British are 'visually illiterate'. On the contrary, the British consumer is admirably equipped to make extremely fine discriminations in the demonography of taste: Company Car Culture is unique to Britain and admirably suited to our acute sensibilities of exclusion. We are, after all, the people who invented snobbery.

The Government's recent National Travel Survey provides an interesting framework. It says 'people in low income groups are more likely to travel in larger parties'. So that does it for people movers, then. No, Company Car Man is a solitary romantic, a radial-riding knight of the M4 corridor. On average, we spend 216 hours every year in a car. And since the average trip is a mere 8.6 miles, that means Company Car Man is spending a very great deal more time behind the wheel. Hence his sensitivity, both ergonomically in the butt and socially on the world stage. I know a designer who says he simply has to use a BMW because it enhances his credibility when he arrives at a client's.

Perhaps because 85% of company cars have a male driver, competitiveness is acute, even aggressive. Cars are costumes, and jostling in traffic has become a form of sexual display. The old buy-British policy of Humber Super Snipe days has been made irrelevant by the disappearance of British manufacturers, the appearance of Japanese imports and EU legislation. So you can now have an Alfa-Romeo or an Audi. This opening-up of the market has hit Ford and Vauxhall, the traditional fleet suppliers. Still today 40% of Fords are sold as company cars, but the association between the blue oval and trade is now so firmly fixed in the popular imagination that Ford has increasing difficulty selling its own brand to private individuals. Hence its acquisition of Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. Hence, also, the lonely social plight of Mondeo Man, despite the fact that his car is in many respects superior to a C-Class Mercedes.

Yet since Betjeman's Cortina, Ford has understood what it calls 'series differentials' better than anybody. This calibration of professional desire suited the makers because, with the fixed costs of manufacturing being much the same, Ford could charge disproportionately more for a GXL than an L. We are more sophisticated now and invigilators of status and scholars of prestige must interpret whether 1.8TDi Zetec is superior to 2.0 Ghia, but the principle is the same.

Other manufacturers have enlarged the name-calling, often using status-free abstractions to avoid stigma. Mercedes-Benz, for example, started with Classic (meaning, in fact, Very Basic), Avantgarde, Elegance and Esprit. Renault plays semantics with Authentique (which, I think, also means Very Basic), Dynamique, Expression and Privilege. SAAB offers us Linear, Arc and Vector.

Engine size is a key factor. Never mind that I have never heard of anyone undertaking forensic tests to establish whether the swept volume of the engine matches what it says on the boot, the British believe that size matters. While 54% of our cars have an engine bigger than 1,500cc, only 6% have engines bigger than two litres. Never mind the implied tax considerations, larger displacement hints at greater prestige. The German manufacturers recognise the sensitivities here and offer anonymous bootlids as a delete option. Since a 2.0 BMW 5-series looks exactly the same as the four-litre, they say this is done to avoid unhealthy social provocation. I say it is done to avoid emasculating embarrassment.

Sensitivities in this area are acute. Some years ago I was involved in discussions to create a magazine for Vauxhall. I thought I had a brilliant idea. I said let's be honest and call it The Rep. Let's recognise what most guys in Astras and Vectras actually do, and tell them what they really need to know. Record times around the M25? Rat runs? Parking blags? Best places to have a pee? Cheap sources of bulk confectionery? My proposal was received coldly and without enthusiasm. The charming, even heartbreaking, thing is that even if your day involves photocopier service calls in Dunstable and Bedford, trace elements of romance still attach to your journey, just as dreams of social projection attach to the vehicle itself. This is the basis of the passion.

The competition that animates the company car markets finds expression in accessories as well as badges. At the top end of the business, the company car phenomenon distorts the specifications that prestige manufacturers offer. Many private individuals would hesitate before spending their own money on, say, electric seats or heated mirrors. But when the finance director offers you a lease package, it really makes very little difference.

So they load it up. Leather is a key signifier, but so too is advanced technology. First seen way, way upmarket, satellite navigation has now trickled down the car gene pool and will eventually be no more rare than electric windows. But for the time being, it remains a status-rich novelty.

The harassed business driver, needy of comfort at the end of a journey, hears a synthesised voice say: 'You have arrived.'

Res ipsa loquitur.

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