Magazine article Management Today


Magazine article Management Today


Article excerpt

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. …

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