The Joy of SLX
'The good old days' is one of those very, very annoying phrases. What it actually means is someone has sifted out all the bad stuff from 'the old days' and conveniently remembered the good stuff. Like spangles, Chopper bikes, Ford Capris and sherbert dips. Not like the three day week, rampant sexism, homophobia and a general dislike of anything not actually made and built in Britain.
There is one aspect of The Good Old Days, however, that I think really is worth celebrating. Car trims. The GLs, Ghias, SLXs and even Vanden Plas' of motoring. Nailing a badge to four wheels somehow cemented the world into a simple and clear hierarchy that was both a sort of release - because you knew your place - and satisfying, because you knew exactly who was beneath you.
Car trim levels were invented by Ford in the 1960s in response to the burgeoning demand for company cars. Before that nobody much cared whether you had the posh once or the poverty one, they judged you on the actual model of car and the marque. Pretty much as they do now.
Ford realised that to appeal to company car buyers they needed to be cleverer than that. Their genius was to spot that every company has an intricate hierarchy of worker drones, supervisors, managers, middle managers, senior managers, executives and directors. And at each level the subtle indicators of status were very important - the allocated parking space, a corner office, an actual office, a secretary. A delux stapler.
Having made this discovery it was a simple step to transfer it to cars. By offering a carefully organised greasy pole of trim levels it would be possible to sell exactly the same car to different levels of management - and keep them all happy.
The result was Ford's three basic trim levels - they went through several different names but are best known as L, GL and Ghia. Every new Ford was available in these options, from the Fiesta to the Granada. Fleet buyers wanted simplicity - Ford gave them it. This system also worked well when it came to making the cars - instead of offering a plethora of options that might confuse fleet buyers and complicate production, organising the extras into trim levels meant Ford could easily churn out GLs, Ls and Ghias day after day after day.
Ford would go on to fiddle with this basic formula by adding different trim variations as well as special editions, but the principle remained.
It was a huge success. Company car buyers immediately had a symbol of their status to display to customers and colleagues alike. And companies had a very easy and cheap way of rewarding staff - a bump up the trim hierarchy was much cheaper than a pay rise. And probably more desirable.
But how did it work? Here are our favourite tricks used by car makers to sell us the same car. Only shinier.
We like shiny things. Well, maybe not so much now, but in the 1970s we couldn't get enough of sparkliness. This Cortina Ghia is a prime example of chromifying a standard model: chrome wheel embellishers, chrome bumpers, chrome side rubbing strip, chrome door handles, chrome roof guttering, chrome door mirror.
The fact that making something with a chrome finish actually cost less than covering exactly the same thing in black paint and nailing it to a lowly L never registered with the buyers of be-chromed Ghias. They were just content in the knowledge that it shone, which meant the neighbours knew you'd got The Best One.
Nothing says classy quite like plastering the interior of a car in wood. Or so the marketing bods at Ford and Vauxhall and British Leyland presumably thought right through the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Presumably they'd looked at the interior of a Mk2 Jag, which has more wood than a 1970s film involving milkmen and stay-at-home housewives, and thought: bingo. Except in the Jaguar, it was real wood and looked amazing.
The application of wood in a Ford Cortina was much less successful. Mainly because it wasn't actually wood at all, just a close approximation of timber. As time went on the closeness became considerably more approximate.
And yet, right up to the late 1990s, who cared? A Mondeo trimmed in faux wood looked ridiculously - and didn't cost a bean more than the standard finish - but that didn't matter because that wood was a statement - and it said 'I'm better than you.' In fact it said 'and you can't best me either, because this is the top of the flipping range me old mucker.'
We should perhaps give an honourable mention here to Austin, which did actually use actual wood to cap the doors on its Vanden Plas Maestros and Montegos. But since no self respecting rep would be seen dead in either car, nobody actually noticed.
As I've said, simpler times.
Add Nicer Seats
Making car seats posher doesn't cost car makers very much, except when using leather. Which makes it a very good way to 'add poshness' without adding cost.
So posh versions initially got 'leather effect' plastic, which claimed to look like leather but definitely didn't. Or they got velour, which was plusher and deeper than the horrible standard seats in most cars. They appeared to be made Farah the horrible trouser people from customer returns.
Leather, however, was a desirable option. So desirable that it was only available on the very, very posh versions of bigger cars. Or Maestros. BL introduced the Vanden Plas trim level to compete with Ford's Ghias. VDP-trimmed cars were genuinely luxurious. But also genuinely British Leyland built cars.
At the start of the trim wars, just having front seat headrests was a luxury that could make grown men weep. Then we got padded headrests, where Ford literally added a velour pad to the centre of their plastic headrests.
From padded to adjustable to, and I'm almost trembling as I write this: Rear Headrests. Into a world where humble Fiesta Popular motorists didn't even get headrests, Ford launched the new Sierra Ghia with Rear Headrests, a luxury previously only available to buyers of posh BMW and Mercedes limousines. Ford was saying: we know that you Ghia buyers will likely be sailing between high powered meetings with a cargo full of be-suited executives. And we know the executives in the back MUST be as comfortable as the executives in the front. So we give you headrests for every single one of you.
Of course, nobody who got a Sierra Ghia or Escort Ghia ever transported high powered executives anywhere. Not least because anyone travelling in the back of either was likely to end up very rumbled indeed on account of the lack of rear legroom. But the lucky Ghia drivers did like to think that one day they might be called upon to convey the new FD to an important client meeting. And that, ultimately, is really all that mattered.
Rear headrests were an unspoken and unwritten statement. And of course, in the true spirit of trim wars, a very visual one immediately obvious to fellow motorists.
The Beginning Of The End
Peak trimmery was achieved with the Sierra, which vaunted its trim levels loudly and clearly. Its successor, the Mondeo, didn't.
For the Mondeo, Ford chose to copy rather than lead. Instead of differentiating each trim level with clear visual clues, each different Mondeo looked pretty much the same. This was Ford's attempt to copy BMW, Audi and Mercedes, who sold their cars on perceived technological strengths rather than showroom glitter. They didn't need to differentiate their models - or even offer different trim levels - because what lay beneath mattered more than what could be seen on top.
Unfortunately for Ford, the firm lacked the cache of those German marques. So ditching the visual clues just confused company car buyers.
Other mass-market company car makers took a similar approach to Ford by dialling down the chintz. And that's pretty much how the car market has continued to sell cars ever since - externally all but the 'sports' versions look pretty much the same whichever version you buy of an individual model.
I lament the loss of showroom glitz, but I am glad that car makers are concentrating on making cars that are actually good rather than merely shiny. But perhaps it's time to inject a little more of the glamour that came with GLs and Ghias...
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days.