Premier Auto Group

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
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I called up Ford the other day. Apparently, they're still keen on putting Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin under one roof. Talk about weird. Passion dead people who want to stay alive buy Volvos. People who really do honestly intend to take their off-roader off-road someday (or at least drive it when it's snowing) buy Landies. Aspiring plutocrats buy Jags. People with more Mercedes than sense (i.e. people who don't mind when bits of their second car fall off) buy Astons. It's about as logical a mix as muesli, venison, Pimms and cocaine.

Apparently, it's not the forecourt from Hell. It's Ford Motor Company's Premium Automotive Group! Discriminating buyers who want the best, um, status safety off-road sports car can find it— or them—under one roof. PAG plans for each super dealership to feature a "Motor land" test-driving facility. Customers will have the opportunity to try out the car of their choice on an oval track or an off-road course. God forbid someone should take a wrong turn and drive an XKR-R off-road, or a Defender around a proper corner. If it sounds confusing, that's because it is.

PAG Supremo Wolfgang Rietzle disagrees. He says the plan reflects "brand synergy". Like all auto executives, he's paid to say things like that. In fact, throwing all these cars together makes about as much sense as an off-road Aston (or Porsche, but don't get me started). The only reason these venerable brands are facing the retail equivalent of a shotgun wedding is that Ford owns them all, and Wolfie works for Ford, and Wolfie can't run Ford because he's a German and his last name isn't Ford, so he runs what companies he can, and wants them all neat and tidy, in one place, in order. Ya?

As bizarre as it sounds, Mr. Rietzle may be on to something. Brussels seems determined to let franchised dealers divorce their retail and service departments. Unencumbered by the need to keep so many different types of cars roadworthy, the uber dealership could represent a shift away from selling transportation, towards show biz. Think multiplex. We shall see: Ford opened its first PAG dealership two weeks ago in Saarbrücken. But even if a retail smorgasbord is The Way Forward in The Internet Age (2pm, The Burberry Suite, pens and No Doz supplied), someone's going to get hurt.

It won't be the Swedes. Volvo owners are a loyal bunch that will not—cannot— be distracted from their mission: to buy the same car they bought ten years ago. It won't be Land Rover. Given Land Rover's infamous build-quality, their buyers have already proven that they'll put up with just about anything. It won't be Jag. Rubbing shoulders with Purdey-loving Land Rover and Glam Rock Aston can only increase the brand's already insufferable (if effective) snob appeal. It will be Aston.

If any car brand depends on exclusivity, it's Aston Martin. People don't buy their cars because they're practical like a Porsche, or reliable like a Mercedes, or easy to drive like a BMW, or good around corners like a Ferrari, or mind-bendingly fast like a Lamborghini, or… wait a minute, why do people buy Astons? Oh yes, exclusivity. Character. That sort of thing. So, do Aston's "discerning" customers want to mix with people who boast about the miles per gallon achieved when they towed their caravan to ——? No, they do not. Nor do they wish to associate with customers who wear Wellington boots while they drive. Jag owners may be the right sort, but then again, probably not.

Throwing all these brands together raises some interesting questions. Like who sells what to whom, how, when and where? To which Wolfie has an interesting answer: "Each salesman will be an expert in his own brand," he explained to an overly credulous Times. "We are not dumbing down."

It's worrying that Aston is in the hands of a man who knows the expression "dumbing down". More importantly, Mr. Rietzle's answer tells us nothing about how salesman will deal with brand overlap. Volvo will soon make an SUV that will compete with the Freelander for the irrational affections of the School Run set. The Swedes also make a top down sports cruiser— an interesting if white bread alternative to the venerable Jaguar XK. When should a XJ customer be encouraged to trade-up to an Aston? Can an Aston customer ask for his change in X-Types? And, lest we forget, salesman will be salesman. There's bound to be poaching on a scale not seen since the Irish potato famine.

Oh OK, I admit it: no one in England actually "sells" anything. Customers are used to qualifying themselves— to the point where I've seen them reminding the salesman which options are available for their new car. But turning car dealerships into Selfridges surely tempts the Gods of Brand Identity. Can Ford resist the temptation to "rationalise" the hundreds of overpaid graphic designers, copywriters and photographers who knock out those brand-specific glossy brochures that provide a polite excuse for customers seeking a way to leave the showroom without buying a car? Will they settle on a PAG theme that unites Swedish utilitarian minimalism with traditional British, um, anything? Like a Jaguar S-Type, the idea may work, but it sure won't look pretty.

The PAG Group's "stack 'em high and sell 'em expensive" master plan does have a silver lining. At least it means they're leaving Ford alone. Ford currently makes some of the best handling cars on the road. By sticking all their sub-brands in quarantine, Billy Ford's Mob can keep the Blue Oval focused. As for Aston, well, if she can survive an oil embargo, safety regulations, emissions legislation, the stock market crash and a paddle shift system that fries the clutch in under an hour, she should be able to withstand contamination from Volvo et al. At least one hopes so, doesn't one?

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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