Hubcaps and the art of trim-level psychology: CAR+ archive, January 1990

Published: 06 October 2015

About the time most of Britain was tucking into Shell and Danny snogging through the Eastenders omnibus, persons unknown ripped off my hubcaps. Or, to be more precise, somebody half-inched four wheelcovers in tricoat white. 

I have two theories on this. The first says that a certain light-fingered sociopath haunting Swanley, Kent, has a severely fetishistic interest in the bland discs of polyplastic that smother the wheels of a Ford Fiesta 1.6S. The second suggests that all this product differentiation baloney actually works, that wheelcovers in tricoat white are, as the brochure writers would have you believe, a status item. 

Product differentiation is marketing to the max. This is the way that car manufacturers add convenience, perceived prestige and profit to their products in about equal measure. Where you are judged by the warp and weft of your seat-fabric, the depth of your doortrims, the soft feel of your steering wheel. No army in history has ever created a set of ranks that comes close to the complexity of European car makers' model designations. 

Talking Fiesta, the demographics of hubcaps run thus: bottom of the range, the Popular and Popular Plus models are served up with what Ford elegantly terms a black centre cap and nut covers. The L model is equipped with centre covers in silver, the I-X and Ghia with full wheelcovers in silver and the S, as the criminal classes know, with full wheelcovers in tricoat white. The XR2i gets the silvered jobbies as standard, too, but you and I know that no Gary worth his Next for Men suit is going to be seen dead in an XR2i without the optional funk alloys at an additional £200. 

Product differentiation is nothing new, although it is currently reaching lunatic extremes. The Peugeot 405 Mil6x4 may be a fine accompaniment to a winding road but it is saddled with an 1l-syllable marque and model designation. There are pop songs you can hum that don't have 11 syllables in the entire verse, chorus and middle eight. The revised Fiat Uno range includes, in Italy, 21 models available in 21 colours: there are, says Fiat, more than 1400 combinations of model, colour, trim and options. 

Car manufacturers are not the only global sellers to place massive emphasis on product differentiation. The rag trade does it all the time and none better than Giorgio Armani. Emporio Armani and Armani Jeans are the basic threads at vaguely acceptable prices. Then you're supposed to get hooked into the Mani range — better fabrics, smaller production runs — before biting the bullet and flexing your gold card on the stuff that actually carries himself's full name. 

Some high-tech products studiously ignore the ziggurat of badge-sticking that afflicts major car makers. When Apple christened its first computer the Macintosh — rather than bunging on a plaque strewn with hard-nosed figures — it gently reinforced the positioning of the product as desktop friend rather than inducer of full-sweat techno fear. 

You can forget all the stuff about the great technical advances of the '80s when it comes to cars. Disregard anti-lock brakes, cleaned-up engines, four-wheel drive and engine-management computers. A model structure that offers incremental specification upgrades at every significant price-point in each range is the way you shift cars in Britain today. 

This is nothing more than neighbour-baiting. Ford does it best— if memory serves, Ford invented the whole concept. You might argue that the original Cortina GT was the first piece of aspirational marketing — taking Ford's family box and doling out additional sex and grunt appeal with those two magic letters. Of course, the GT appellation was debased from that point on — no longer Grand Tourer— it now signified Getting Tacky. 

Ford, of course, is still brilliant at product planning. Disregarding the regular flurry of limited-edition teases — the Laser, the Classic — that act as showroom-dressing, the lowest rungs of the Escort ladder are the Popular and the Popular Plus models. 

What makes a Pop Plus stand out from a Pop? A grey bodyside moulding, colourtoned bumpers, a radio aerial hidden in the rear window and full wheelcovers. 

And £564. I've double-checked Ford's spec box and can't find any additional goodies to tempt you further. The Popular is brilliant because, at a single glance, you can take in all the codes that scream its position as freeze-in-a-breeze naked : sides unsullied by chrome or plastic, punched steel wheels, industrial-black bumpers. The neighbours would suss it instantly, label you a cheapskate. The additions to the Plus — especially the shiny bumpers and smooth-cheeked wheeltrims — make it look more chic. 

Through the mid-range Fords, differentiation becomes easier: central locking, sunroof, cut-pile carpet, tachometer— these are the building blocks that support a vast array of different models. The real pricing chutzpah is found in the dark extremities of Ford's all-model listing. 

Slap inch-bigger diameter wheels and fatter tyres on a Granada Ghia. Add cruise control, graphic equaliser, fuel computer, heated front seats and chuck in metallic paint as standard. Ditch something called the driver's upper pocket. You are left with a Ghia X. 

These trifling additions will set you back an extra £1395 on the two-wheel-drive models. Metallic paint— at £175— and a graphic equaliser for £100 are also listed on the options sheet for the plain Ghia. So the X-factor effectively means you are still paying the thick end of eleven hundred quid for such very fabulous kit as a fuel computer and graphic equaliser, two utter non-essentials. Then, on top of the X, comes the Scorpio. 

Imagine for a moment that I had gone completely bonkers and actually lusted after a fuel computer for my Granada Ghia. I can't get one —this jumped-up pocket calculator does not appear on the options list. It's X-model or nothing, Jack. 

Some makers, however, eschew the L-for-sales-rep, GL-for-zone-manager approach used by Ford. You can buy a dashboard computer straight off the BMW options list: you can also select your steering wheel from the same sheet. Occasionally, BMW will attempt some product differentiation of its own — the Special Equipment models or the grotesque 325i Sport — but the badges give away nothing more than maker and the overall model. And, if you wish, you can even delete the model label. 

BMW has positioned itself as a premium brand irrespective of model. Across most of the civilised world a BMW parked on the drive, be it a 316i or an 850, spells out that you're a middle-class go-getter. 

At the death, at the suburban inquisition-through-the-net-curtains, whether you drive a Sierra L or an LX is irrelevant: for all Ford's lateral thinking through the parts-bins, the whole process of product differentiation does nothing to heighten the overall brand image. But you can be sure it gives the average hubcap-lifter a warm glow inside.

Bulgin on Alloys, January 1990

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000