Note to car industry: China isn’t the only market

Published: 27 April 2012

Nothing against China but it seems to me its influence over the car industry is becoming problematic. The world’s great car makers allowing Chinese tastes to dictate the conception and production of their cars is rather like the world’s great restaurants developing menus entirely to please Americans, merely because there happen to be a lot of them. The fact that these menus have no culinary merit and will disgust anybody with a functioning palate (ie, Europeans) is deemed inconsequential. They’ll just have to lower their standards and put up with the dross served up.

But of course they won’t put up with it. Instead they’ll stop going to restaurants and will instead start learning to cook fabulous meals at home, and then some of them will start their own small restaurants and people will start to notice. And these small restaurants will grow and the old restaurants serving US-spec slop will close, because nobody wants what they offer. And then the small restaurants will become big and their massive overheads will mean they have to grow fast which means developing menus to please… the Americans. And round we go.

And what's this got to do with the Chinese car industry?

The annoying thing about all this is the fact that we’ve somehow sleepwalked into a situation where nobody can make a living unless they’re able to sell their wares in at least 142 markets. How did this happen? Why is it necessary for every organisation to be absolutely huge? Why can’t we build and sell cars locally?

Ferrari, for example, used to create scalpel-precise sports cars aimed at Italian men and, eventually, with a bit of a shrug, agreed also to take money from a few discerning men from neighbouring countries, provided that they came to Maranello to collect the car. Now Ferrari makes cars for Chinese toy exporters, Russian oil barons and Indian call-centre owners, none of whom have the slightest interest in the engineering genius, handling qualities, or cutting edge technologies on which Ferrari built its name and which are the whole point of owning one. Instead, they think they’re buying what is effectively a big hat – a sign stating that they are considerably richer than their one billion countrymen.

Reducing cars to the lowest common denominator

One day soon Ferrari may find that the spirit of Enzo lives on only in other small sheds peopled by other auto geniuses, and that Maranello will be regarded with no more devotion than the latest Geely plant in China (or one of those burger restaurants). And the same will happen to Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Maserati… all of whom are currently tilting tat at the so-called BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

I call for global recalibration: can we please get back to building cars for discerning, knowledgeable, demanding consumers and then forcing those who don’t know or care to put up with the result? Rather than the other way around?

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By Greg Fountain

CAR's former managing editor, editor, caption chiseller, noticer of ironies