Beetle juice

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

Drive the new Theorem. It's a good little runner, the Theorem. It goes like this. The design of cars, once a bulwark of national cultures, has become homo-genised. Great tribes have been brought low before the new global market. Once, Coventry no less than Stratford was part of Britain's heritage. Abingdon, where they made MGs, might have been Tintagel. Now they are no more, gone in spirit or in fact. Rover is BMW. Jaguar is Ford. It's the same everywhere. Czech Skoda lost its identity to Volkswagen; now Spain's Seat is getting the makeover. All in aid of the trite universalism implied by the name Mondeo.

I could be wrong. You see, I don't really know much about cars. I just don't have the motor neurones that are standard issue for male design writers in this country. So when, for example, Stephen Bayley says you can't trust somebody who drives a Montego, I have to believe him. As for me, for more than a decade I have driven the same Ford Fiesta XR2. I am neither ashamed nor proud of this fact, and if this announcement has a confessional tone, it's not intentional. To make matters worse, my other car's a bicycle. This possibly shameful history makes me a prime target for the companies selling a new generation of small cars, the Ford Ka, the Mercedes A Class, or the others that are trying to buck the globalisation trend.

Most notable, though scarcely the best designed in this latter category, is the Smart car, the long-awaited joint venture between Daimler-Benz and SMH, the company that makes Swatch watches. It was always an improbable liaison: the solid conservatism of Mercedes and the cheap flippancy of Swatch. Neither company seems especially proud of its creation. The Smart has its own brand symbol, but nothing to identify its parentage. It's certainly no Mercedes, and despite a few token gestures it lacks the frivolity of a Swatch. Its genesis was troubled, too, not least by failure to pass the "moose test" in those countries where such creatures are expected to stray on to the highway. (The test is to swerve to avoid one, not to see if you can fit it into the boot for several weeks of roadkill gourmandism.) The engineering modifications that were subsequently necessary have done nothing for the vehicle's driving qualities.

More presentable is the new Volkswagen Beetle. Its arrival in the United States was sufficiently noteworthy to prompt a paean from Paul Goldberger - not one of the auto eroticists among design critics - in the New Yorker. Its designers have pulled off a tricky feat, paying homage to the pensionable original, but miraculously streamlining its form to create an entirely plausible contemporary vehicle. Compromises were made as the designers struggled to fit a Beetle shape on to a Golf platform. But if the result works like a Golf and looks like a Beetle, then it has got a lot more right than most cars.

The new Beetle's critical success - at £15,000, the volk have yet to vote with their wallets - has thrown other manufacturers into a quandary. BMW is to revamp one of its famous old models, and is apparently dithering about whether to look forward or back. Only recently would such a question even have been asked. Rover is to resurrect the Riley name. If only it had been big in the States and somebody had put it in a movie, perhaps the Morris Minor, like the Beetle, could have been warmed over for the end of the millennium, too. Volkswagen's development is in tune with the new rhetoric of marketing.

The talk is no longer of heritage and tradition, or even of brand values, but of genes and evolution. BMW advertisements use the traces from DNA tests as background artwork. The geneticist Steve Jones makes scientifically silly claims for Renault. The family resemblance passed down through some brands makes it easy to believe there are car chromosomes. The new Beetle is clearly its father's son. Last year, the Design Museum staged an exhibition of the Porsche dynasty, showing how three generations, all called Ferdinand Porsche, had developed the look of the car by taking advantage of improved technology while retaining its essential identity.

It doesn't always work. Take the London taxi. A previous new model, the boxy Westminster, was heartily loathed. The latest version attempts to respect the original but to make it more contemporary. The result is a sad compromise like the traditional taxi melted under a grill for a few minutes. Others try to ignore the genes. This is why the vile Lotus Elise - notwithstanding its selection as a "Millennium Product" - is a poor successor to the Elan and Esprit.

The biological metaphor extends to the limit of current science. Inevitably, there is the threat of "genetically modified" cars as manufacturing conglomerates essay ill-advised brand crosses: the next Rover may have a BMW grille. Even car shapes are becoming more "natural". The Citroen C3, the Fiat Seicento and the new Fords as well as the resurrected Beetle are composed of overlapping bubbles, like three-dimensional Venn diagrams. Against all expectations, it seems the spirit is returning to car design. No car these days comes from the genius stylist at his (always his) drawing board. The Ford Focus, as its name confesses, notoriously involved focus groups in its conception. In the designer's demonology, of course, focus groups are the death knell of creativity. But the Focus actually looks different. What its appearance suggests is that focus groups are not as powerful as is generally supposed. They can be manipulated or ignored. Perhaps this explains new Labour's fascination with them: they offer the appearance of attending to consumers' wishes while letting the designer or politician carry on regardless.

The Ford Ka and now the Focus look novel alongside the Fiesta and the Escort. But alongside the new Beetle or the Smart, they suddenly look almost dull. This must be Ford's hope. The company does not need a cult but a mass-market success for a decade or more. Police forces around the country are ordering the Focus. There could be no better indication that Ford is on the way to its goal.

Maybe the tide of globalisation is on the turn. The Theorem may not be for everybody. Watch out for the Lemma, the hatchback version due out next year.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet