Magazine article Management Today

Motor Most: Fast Lane to Mediocrity

Magazine article Management Today

Motor Most: Fast Lane to Mediocrity

Article excerpt

Before The Nome of the Rose made him famous, Umberto Eco used to run a literary-philosophical seminar at Bologna University. His speciality was interrogating everyday objects. I have a little fantasy about this master of the enlightened insight struggling, even under the influence of alcohol and tobacco, to extract any worthwhile meaning from the semiological (or 'brand') proposition of Maserati.

But if academics can't cope, car nuts can. Rich Taylor, the US authority on sports cars, explained the company's predicament perfectly: 'Jaguar was always the cheap car that could be legitimately compared to the high-priced competition; Maserati is the expensive car to compare unfavourably with Jaguars.' Hmmm.

The root of the problem is that Maserati, founded by five brothers in 1926, never actually wanted to make road cars. The commitment was to racers and was such that by 1937 two of the brothers had been killed in action and the survivors sold out to the Orsi conglomerate. Ten years later the brothers bad done their earn-out and, disenchanted, returned to racing cars with OSCA {Officine Specializate Costruzione Automobili Fratelli Maserati), leaving the maserati brand behind them. Perversely, Maserati then began making racing cars itself, the most successful of which was the magnificent 250F of 1954, engineered by Gioacchino Colombo, who had earlier made the reputations of Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari. Nearly 40 of these handsome Formula One cars were produced for privateers, including a certain Stirling Moss, who won Grand Prix in them.

Later in the '70s, the greatest car designer of recent years, Giorgetto Giugiaro, did some of his best work for Maserati -- bold, clean shapes like the Bora. But, despite all these interesting bloodlines, a happy image refused to stick. The problem was, the wrong sort of people bought them. In fact, the wrong sort of people owned the company. Although it is a truism of marketing that image long survives any change in the reality that gave rise to it, by the time a dodgy Argentinian called Alejandro de Tomaso acquired Maserati in the '70s, much of the image capital built up in the '50s had been squandered.

Under de Tomaso, Maserati struggled a dreadful thing called the Biturbo into production: the sort of car chosen by men who like to wear woven shoes and have a disinclination to do up buttons. …

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