Remember TTAC’s Future Writers Week? You chose the writers. The writers wrote. The stories are in (well, most of them …). Here is the first one. Do you like it? Tell us. The stories will be published in the sequence in which they arrived in TTAC’s mailbox.
Despite living in California for nearly eight years now, and recently becoming a citizen of these United States, I still consider myself to be an Englishman. To be English in America is a generally pleasant experience – no man will ever get tired of pretty girls telling him how cute his accent is – but it is also a life full of little differences which remind you every day that this is not your home, even though it is where you live.
One such difference I have noted, particularly around this site, is the American perception of Volkswagen, which I find quite puzzling.
So please indulge me by engaging in a brief mind exercise and bounce this scenario around your brain for a moment: What if everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen?
What did you come up with? Likely some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare in which you wake up late, the shower burns you, the handle falls off your coffee mug, the toaster electrocutes you and, of course, your car doesn’t start. Which, paradoxically, would be the exact opposite of what came to my mind. In fact during the late 1980’s “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” was the slogan under which English VW’s were marketed.
Those were halcyon days for VW advertising, and I don’t just say that to ingratiate myself with the management here. The ads not only won multiple awards, but they ingrained on an impressionable populace the notion that Volkswagen equals reliability. Given whom they were up against in Europe at the time – Fiat, Alfa, Skoda, Lada, Lancia, Rover etc. – this was a message well received by the English public, and VW sales did very nicely. My old man had two Mark II GTI’s in that era, the first being written off by an American coming out of an airbase and forgetting which country he was in, and the second seeing daily service until its honorable discharge. Both of them, while they remained right side up, were totally reliable and compared to my dad’s previous car, a Rover SD1, that was a genuine revelation.
My own first car was also a VW. I had a twelve year old, late 80’s Polo shooting brake – which I beat like a rented mule but couldn’t kill off despite my best hooning efforts and laissez faire attitude towards maintenance. In addition I have driven VW’s of a more recent vintage, I know many people who owned or currently own them, and out of all those people I struggle to think of one who had the proverbial “lemon” or “garage queen”. So where is the disconnect? Honestly, I’m asking! I look forward to reading your thoughts below on how these two very different perceptions about the same product can exist. I will even throw a couple of ideas out there myself, beyond the distinct possibility I was brainwashed into believing VW’s are great by Mad Men.
Firstly, I think Skoda was a massive coup for VW in Europe. It is hard to overstate what a joke Skoda was in the latter part of the last century, but once they came fully under the VW umbrella in 2000 the turnaround in public perception was remarkably quick – I mean so quick it makes Kia and Hyundai look like pikers. Going from less than zero to being the thinking (if thrifty) man’s choice in 5 years or so is quite a feat. VW very literally staked their reputation on Skoda by courageously advertising the brand as “Skoda, made by Volkswagen”. Fortunately that risk paid off and the public perception of VW is much better for it – after all if they can do the impossible with their budget brand then the premium version must be amazing, right?
Secondly I think that the general perception of German automobiles in Europe is rather untarnished compared to here in the US. An Englishman may question Germany’s ability to play football, but their industrial capability is beyond reproach. The reason for this is twofold: compared to other European volume manufacturers, like the aforementioned Rover, Fiat and Renault, German brands are perceived to be light years ahead in desirability and reliability. Also, perhaps more importantly, the Japanese have not made anywhere near such a big impression on the European market as they have over here. In America Toyota’s are ubiquitous and the gold standard for reliability, but in England they are rare and the brand is not well understood – Wolfsburg is certainly not losing any sleep over being able to avoid that comparison.
I would also suggest that VW’s focus in the segments that Europeans care about most – the small to mid size – gives the brand more positive mindshare over there than the same cars could ever achieve in the land of the F-150 and luxo-barge. Finally I will go out on a limb and guess that the dealer experience closer to the mothership is a bit more pleasant, but then having teeth pulled is more pleasant than any US dealership experience.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is all she wrote. I shan’t describe the tortures threatened for newbies exceeding their word limit – suffice to say that I dare not continue and must reluctantly pass the torch on to you. Why do you think VW has such a poor reputation in this country? Poor amongst the cognoscenti on this site at least, sales seem to be going gangbusters with the wider public.
Andrew Nevick is a lapsed Englishman who lives in rural San Diego county and programs mobile software for a living, mainly iPhone and Android games. He drives a Prius and rides a Ducati, both thrill him, in different ways.
This poll has been removed.