There was a time when the world was full of happy order and structure. When car makers performed a world service by putting a simple set of hierarchical trim badges on the back of their cars. Vauxhall and Ford each varied little from the simple L, GL, Ghia and ‘S for Sport’ pattern. Back then you knew where you – and your neighbours – were on the order of thing simply by the badge on the back of their Cortina.
Ford and Vauxhall were the masters of the boot badge ouevre, with clever (and ultimately inexpensive) detailing enabling the trained eye to identify a r0-styled GL from a steel-wheeled L or chrome-stripe CD from a chrome stripped LS. The plush seats, electric rear windows and radio cassette were barely enough to justify the 20-30% extra price. Yet this relatively unsophisticated system was hugely successful, not least in the fleet market where few sales managers could resist lowering a tinted window and smiling as they parked their Ghia next to their sales executive’s lowly L.
This system really began in the 1960s and served car companies and customers well throughout the 70s and most of the 80s. Things started to go awry in this well-established order when Vauxhall and Ford clearly got a bit bored and let some marketing people loose. Gradually the strict boundaries became blurred. The L became the LS and LX. GL became GLS or GLX. Ghia became Ghia or Ghia X. The boundaries between poverty, middle class frippery and luxury started to blur.
This system was honed and developed for the middle classes as an unsophisticated but hugely pernicious sort of social ordering and motivational tool. If you had a L you wanted a GL. If you had a GL you were better than those with an L but not quite up there with the rarefied ranks of Ghia, which represented a sort of draylon-n-fondue level of almost-attainable decadent luxury.
For those middle classes aspirants who managed to break out of this cycle of badge booty there was the opportunity to swap a Ghia for a Jaguar. The Jaguar XJ6 and Rover SD1 were for people who had gates on their drives and a downstairs loo.
At around the same time the Germans came along. BMW and Audi started to offer alternatives to Ford and Vauxhall that didn’t need trim-based boot badges – just whacking the Bavarian propellor logo on the four rings of Audi onto a car was enough to say you’d crawled from the suburban swamp and made it. Vauxhall and Ford responded by making their model ranges even more complex. Along came Zetec, Titanium, Titanium X, Life, CDX. All these variations made the humbling pecking order in the cul de sac just too difficult to work out.
In their own way Audi and BMW try to work a simila trick, but it is all a little too subtle. Chrome grille and twin exhausts? That’ll be your six-pot BMW rather than a humble four cylinder. Except if the middle manager in question has decided to option-up his humble 316i, as many do. And take the badge off the back. What good is that to the neighbourhood?
I can’t help thinking though that when Vauxhall and Ford started to lose their way and began broadening their trim options from the late 1980s onwards with GLS, Titanium, Ghia X, Diplomat and other such nonsense, it coincided with an increasingly complex and confused world. A little piece of society crumbled when you stopped being able to strive and judge off the back of a boot badge.
Today the world is more complex. Just owning a BMW, whichever one it may be, is to own a Ghia. Buy with care and remember to tick the ‘delete boot badge’ option and your 316i can look to all intents and purposes like a 330. Which is a bit pointless really isn’t it?
Although our world and our choices and decisions are more complicated in many ways, in some senses they are also simpler. L, GL and Ghia were daft. After all, who needs faux-wood and leather when vinyl seats that stick to your legs are just as good? Maybe in these straightened times we’ll enjoy the simpler pleasures and austerity of an era before all this stuff came along. Maybe we’ll buy cars because we just like them. We’ll buy the engine and interior specification that we want. We’ll buy Mondeos because they’re better than Audis and Seats because they’re VWs that are cheaper than VWs. Brand and badges are daft. What matters is how good the car is. And what lasts are good cars, not the badges on their boots – the Jaguar XJ6, Jensen Interceptor, Alfa Romeo Spider and Morris Minor were just good cars. Not great brands.