Maysles Meets American Psycho
November 23, 2015 10:48 PM   Subscribe

In 1993 the BBC produced a television series known as "From A to B: Tales of Modern Motoring." One episode in particular stands out for shining a rare light on the peculiar practice of badge engineering cars to reflect subtle gradations in status. The result is somewhere between the Maysles' Salseman and Easton Ellis' American Psycho.
posted by basicchannel (37 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
via jalopnik
posted by basicchannel at 10:51 PM on November 23, 2015

I used to work for a large company that played this kind of status game all the time. Your job title determined which parking space you got, what office you got, how large it was (in sq.ft.,) how far it was from amenities like the bathroom and the cafeteria and what furniture you would get. Everybody got a desk, but additions included extra chairs (of several types, no mix and match!,) desk lights, a mini-couch, full size couch, fridge, television, and bookcase. You were allowed one personal desk photo, and one small wall photo. Photos had to be approved. There were 12 kinds of desk chair. If you got promoted, you were expected to choose from a spreadsheet your office options, but never given the rules of what you were allowed to select.
I only worked there a year, and felt like I was in a real life version of "Brazil." Being on the bottom I could only laugh at what I precieved as loony behavior, but some took it very seriously. He got into a fight over a parking space that he thought has assigned to him. Sad and strange.
posted by Marky at 12:05 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

1993 now looks like the fifties. But the BMW at the end could still hold its own as a modern car today, while the pitiful British Leyland Austin Maestro "Clubman D"... in baby blue... ... ... no words.
posted by colie at 12:17 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

It was a fantastically well-observed and influential series (check the accompanying Martin Parr monograph for a set of photographs that match the mood precisely) but almost seems a little too cruel - even given today's standards of reality TV. I remember talking to another documentarian about it - he was making a contemporary film on class in the UK - and he agreed, saying that people are too self-aware and self-conscious these days to allow the long, lingering shots that essentially dissect their character through nervous silence and cutaways to seemingly irrelevant details. The director, Nicholas Barker, also did a series on interiors and taste - again with Martin Parr - and that too was wince-inducingly brilliant.
posted by srednivashtar at 1:27 AM on November 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

This helped me connect with the inner monologues of all the drivers I've cut off in Euro Truck Simulator 2.
posted by transitional procedures at 1:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Now I know where Steve Coogan got the inspiration for Gareth Cheeseman from.
posted by oh pollo! at 1:46 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

does the community style on jalopnik comment threads run toward totally deadpan sarcasm? because if it doesn't, there are for reals people on that jalopnik thread who are both basically literate-seeming and also completely invested in the idea that they shouldn't let certain lower-class types of car ever pass them, because it would be somehow improper.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:09 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

What an amazing documentary. Car models is something that I've never been that tuned into, but then I'm not in the hyper-competitive world of sales, either, where it sounds like they are all looking at status cues. And I'd guess that the company car is not a small part of their total compensation, so getting a better vehicle is itself a form of a raise.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:10 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

At the time the BBC were putting out some great series of documentaries... and I'd watched just about all of them even if it's something I have little or no interest in (ie cars).

I remember this one in particular because I was on a course at the time that mixed in a lot of people of different backgrounds. One of the guys had been a sales rep and manger and said if you're manager in a crap-ish company and don't have a lot of offer to stop your sales bobs going off to another company (remember that pre-slump) these kinds of incremental bonuses and mind games were essential (and probably one of the reasons he was trying to leave sales)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:12 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

A reminder of why the rampant Anglophilia of Americans is such a bizarre thing. Dreary class-seeking drones compulsively driving the most tragic examples of automotive nothing produced this side of the broken Soviet empire when you could still buy a nice used example of the greatest car ever built for pocket change makes the glum, grey, hidebound-futurist UK J.G. Ballard wrote of seem altogether more plausible and terrifying.
posted by sonascope at 4:36 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

When the BBC recently announced they were launching a steaming service to give access to some of their older shows my first thought was, i hope this means i can finally watch A to B... again. It turns out it was already on Youtube. Thanks for this.

Martin Parr was also involved in the equally great Signs of The Times. If anyone can locate that I would be very grateful.
posted by alanbee at 4:45 AM on November 24, 2015

Such a weird little look at the recent past that seems like it was a hundred years ago. Are company cars still a thing in the UK or have they long disappeared like they have in the US?
posted by octothorpe at 4:46 AM on November 24, 2015

a nice used example of the greatest car ever built for pocket change

Running and servicing costs for a Citroen DS doing 35,000 miles a year would be terrifying.

These poor guys all had to choose from a list which was determined by fleet deals and tax breaks anyway.
posted by colie at 4:55 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are company cars still a thing in the UK or have they long disappeared like they have in the US?

Can't speak to the private sector, but my old university is not unusual in maintaining a fleet of top-end Jags. Purely for admin staff, of course, not the actual academics.
posted by Dysk at 5:00 AM on November 24, 2015

The very worst of badge engineering: the Vanden Plas 1.5. Just look at it: that oversized chrome grille inexpertly glued to the front of the fugly Austin Allegro.

I know the shitbox British Leyland company cars well, being the youngest kid of a middle manager in a nationalised industry. I've sat on the middle back seat of the worst of them: a Wolseley (aka Landcrab, whose rear sills needed bailing weekly) and a Princess (whose hydragas blew out on holiday, causing the car to limp around at a 30° cant until we found a garage). We ended up with two Princesses, the second of which my dad could choose the trim level, but not the colour. It was green; metallic green. Let's just say it was not the right colour to accidentally make a wrong turn into the middle of an orange walk with …

Balls to them all. May their transmission humps rot quietly with their memory.
posted by scruss at 5:46 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

This pretty much what Chevrolet used to do back in the 60's with its family sedan. They established the different trim and accessory levels of the same platform as individual car models, though they were basically the same car. At one point, they offered four variations on the same car...Caprice, Impala, Bel Air, Biscayne, with Caprice being the high-end model and Biscayne being the cheapo.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:09 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Running and servicing costs for a Citroen DS doing 35,000 miles a year would be terrifying.

My 1970 DS with 360K on the clock needed a clutch, maybe $5k in parts and labor over six years, and never once left me on the side of the road. Even in the US, where every single part was mailordered, the nearest Citroën-friendly garage was eighty miles away, and metric tires were unobtainium, my overall costs were still way, way less than what I've have paid monthly for the shittiest low-end new car.

Mind you, driving 35,000 miles a year is deranged to the point that I would question my sanity if I ever took a position that required that, so I may not be the best use case (and in that situation, I'd buy a nice 2CV or Renault 4 instead).

It's just—even in the UK, there were so many amazing choices available and yet, people would buy Ford and post-Leyland nightmare crap. Yeeeesh.
posted by sonascope at 6:12 AM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Of course, that all presupposes the possibility that it was so advantageous to get the crappiest company car and that company people were so badly paid that they couldn't just so "No thank you" and go their own way, but I find that a little doubtful.
posted by sonascope at 6:15 AM on November 24, 2015

My favorite badge-engineered Britmobile, though, has to be the absurd Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet models, which took one of the top three all-time great people's cars and glued a whole bunch of class sadness all over it because nothing says class quite like a shitty little boot with fins, a fake grille, and a veneer fascia.
posted by sonascope at 6:21 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Company cars still exist, although they've been in decline since the turn of the century. The Office of National Statistics put the 2014 figure at just 8.6% of the total UK car population (29.6 million vehicles). What's significant about them, though, is that they are still the majority of new car sales - 54% of initial registrations of new cars are as company cars.

Anecdotally, I remember my dad - a company car driver for much of his working life - telling me that car adverts were not aimed at individual car buyers; they were aimed at the drivers of company cars, and were therefore as much about making them feel happy and proud of the vehicle they already had (& therefore playing into the status game), as encouraging people to actually go out and buy a new vehicle.
posted by AFII at 6:30 AM on November 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

> a nice 2CV

Such existence has never been proven.
posted by ardgedee at 7:56 AM on November 24, 2015

Doing 35k miles a year in a 2CV would leave you much less free time than doing that same distance in a modern or modernish car.
posted by Dysk at 8:07 AM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

In the 80s, I worked for a tech company that had a banded company car policy that was linked to depreciation, not price. A couple of the young upstarts found that certain top-of-the-line Porsches were actually appreciating, so got those through accounts - but, sadly, they hadn't spotted that these were better models than the one the CEO had. The policy changed very shortly after that.

The same place had the unofficial motto - Per Hardware Ad Astra (But If You're In Sales, You Get An XR3i).

I never really subscribed to the car status thing, so had great fun with a variety of cheap motors. First car was an Austin 1100 (red - exactly the same as the one Basil Fawlty thrashes with a branch in Fawlty Towers), which had a gear stick that felt like stirring porridge but kept going like a champ. I fell into Citroen-space with a BX (which really went much faster than it should) - a friend had a CX, which was totes space-age, but that needed the constant attention of beret-wearing Gauloise-smoking existentialists to keep the electrics going. Another friend had a DS, and the admiration of us all. Skodas were good fun, too, and the later ones (pre-VW) were amazing value and worked really well for reverse-snobbism. My Estelle 1300 took a bunch of us down to a very muddy Glastonbury Festival one year, and it was the only one that managed to get out the car-parking field/swamp while middle-class-mobiles were spinning their wheels and sliding like Torville and Dean.

Even at the time - the 80s and 90s - being too into the whole status thing, especially with company cars, was widely reviled and seen as massively sad. But then, I was never in sales...
posted by Devonian at 8:41 AM on November 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

That was sad in its own way-- people obsessing over minor variations of a car model because they are significant in terms of status bestowed on you. The jalopnik comments have stories of fellow employees complaining to management if your car had a minor feature you weren't entitled to.

But the whole context in which this culture grew up seems to have been the world of the 1980s UK, where basically economic growth had ended, and all you had to look forward to as an employee was these incremental rewards, since any tangible career or salary advancement was not going to happen.
posted by deanc at 10:03 AM on November 24, 2015

When I lived in europe (Belgium) in the early aughts (have we decided on that yet? What the hell are we calling between 2000-2009?) I had a company car. It was ridiculous. I was a 15 minute bus ride from work, a 25 minute walk to work, and I was at a job that would *never* require me to travel.

Our company leased the cars, and let us upgrade to whatever we wanted, taking the difference of our 'car allowance' from our paycheck. I had one coworker with a sweet convertible luxury car that had a fairly entry level job.

The best I could figure was that the company car thing was a way to give the employees more compensation without having the tax burden. Tax reasons were the only reason I could imagine for giving employees company cars. My colleagues would use their cars to drive all over Europe on the weekends - including mini-vacations to Spain.

I've never heard of people in the technical world (including upper management) getting a company car before.

Mine was an Audi A5. It was the first time in my life I enjoyed driving (although fuck Brussels traffic).
posted by el io at 10:32 AM on November 24, 2015

a nice used example of the greatest car ever built for pocket change

My old music teacher had a Citroen DS. It was the greatest car ever. There was nothing else like it in my home town. Then one day he sold it and got a Le Car.
posted by lagomorphius at 11:11 AM on November 24, 2015

What the hell are we calling between 2000-2009?

Those would be The Naughties.
posted by colie at 12:23 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Doing 35k miles a year in a 2CV would leave you much less free time than doing that same distance in a modern or modernish car.

A 2CV will cruise all day at 70mph/112kph, which is the national UK speedlimit. Thanks to the weird displacement tax system and brilliant engine designers, French engines fart in the general direction of tachometer redlines.
posted by sonascope at 12:37 PM on November 24, 2015

Once you get it up to 70, which will take you a damn sight longer than the slip road. And this is assuming that you're going everywhere by motorway. If you're on a road with a lot of lights and junctions, well, the 2CV is renowned for its (lack of) acceleration. I know a few people who own or have owned 2CVs, and they are unanimous in their opinion that you have to add 20-50% to your journey time compared to an average cheap car from the last decade.
posted by Dysk at 3:13 PM on November 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Watching this video, I realize that while I remember the make and model of every car I've owned, and I am generally pretty sure about what years they are, I could not tell you what trim level they were if my life depended on it, except perhaps my current car.

Also, upon reflection it makes sense that German cars would be the highest status cars, since they are the kings of sticking gibberish on trunk lids.
posted by ckape at 6:44 PM on November 24, 2015

This whole video is perplexing to me. It's just white guys saying "1.6L" over and over. I must have sounded like this as a teen talking about computer components.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:26 AM on November 25, 2015

A 2CV will cruise all day at 70mph/112kph, which is the national UK speedlimit.

This word 'cruise' -- it does not mean what you think it means. Struggling along at the pinnacle of a car's power output does *not* constitute cruising.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:39 AM on November 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

But it does have those really cool little half windows so that's worth the investment in time in repairs, locating the world's thinnest front tires etc.
posted by longbaugh at 4:16 AM on November 25, 2015

A 2CV will cruise all day at 70mph/112kph, which is the national UK speedlimit.

This also suggests that you haven't done much motorway driving in the UK. If you're actually going 70, you'll frequently be the slowest thing on the road.
posted by Dysk at 6:14 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mind you, driving 35,000 miles a year is deranged to the point that I would question my sanity if I ever took a position that required that, so I may not be the best use case (and in that situation, I'd buy a nice 2CV or Renault 4 instead).

I have a soft spot for impractical vehicles and would actually love to own a 2CV, but the idea of driving 35,000 miles a year in one (and for business, so showing up late or covered in grease from roadside repairs is not an option) is, shall we say, less than fully practical.

I probably drive 20,000 miles a year that is work-related (I'm not in sales, it is just that distances are large out here) and wouldn't dream of doing that without cruise control and AC, or in a vehicle that can't hold its speed up a mountain pass. I'll be driving 500 miles, mostly in the snow, later today in fact, and will be very happy to have four wheel drive, stability control, a modern heater, and a bluetooth stereo connection for listening to audiobooks.

The sales and manufacturers' reps I meet out here all drive 4wd half ton pickups, both because they are roomy and for the ground clearance, and because half ton trucks these days come with every luxury option you can imagine. One guy I talked to said he drives about 60,000 miles a year and sometimes much more, which sounds to me like its own version of hell. I keep meaning to ask if they are driving company trucks, or if they get a vehicle/mileage allowance and buy their own.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:06 AM on November 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

This was a fascinating piece, thanks for posting.

I had various reactions: it's very easy to feel these men are quite sad at first, but also, as you hear them talk and explain their rationale, you get to know more about why the company car is so important to them. Additionally, their complete lack of self-consciousness as to how they sound (utter prats a lot of the time) and total sincerity is finally, in the end, persuasive. It's basically more than 'look at these blowhards taking about their cars', it's about what people care about in material form. I mean, is it any sadder than caring about different iterations of the iPhone?

Many of the subjects did seem very concerned with hierarchy - on the road and in the corporate structure.

And of course you're reminded of the relentless materialism of the 80s and '93 isn't so far removed from that.

The other thing I gathered from the profiles is that being a sales rep was overwhelmingly dominated by men (or, I supposed, they chose male subjects).

Really interesting piece with some poetic bits and a lot of humor (intended and otherwise).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:04 PM on November 25, 2015

I was a kid when this film aired and the guy who laments 'it felt like the company shat on me' when he gets his Austin Maestro Clubman D became a school playground catchphrase legend.
posted by colie at 3:30 AM on November 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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