Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Sexy Old Mercs, Brand Building and Platform 21’s Repair Manifesto

The recent news that Mercedes – Benz is starting a German pilot programme to resell what are known in Germany as Youngtimers (cars too young to be considered bona fide classics, but too old to be uninteresting) was music to my ears. That they would be selling cars from the hey day of Mercedes engineering and build quality, the years 1970 to 1990, only turned up the volume.

I immediately started compiling an imaginary list of what I would buy if my pockets contained anything more than lint. On it you would have found the following:

  1. A ’79 500 SLC, a little known rally homologation special with a lightened body and a wonderfully rumbly V8 under the bonnet
  2. An ’88 190E 2.5-16 Cosworth, the less chavvy alternative to an E30 BMW M3
  3. Two W124 E-Classes, a 300CE-24 Sportline (the discreet alternative to AMG) and a 500E sedan, built by hand at Porsche’s Zuffenhausen plant
  4. A W116 450 SEL 6.9… Ok, you get the point, I have an unhealthy obsession with a certain era of Mercs.

Once I got my daydreaming out of the way I realised what a canny move this is.

Brand (re)building:

Mercedes had a reputation as building the best quality cars in the world bar none, a reputation that was squandered in the chase for bigger margins in the mid-90’s.

I still remember Car magazine’s first review of the W210 E-Class in which the journalist, Georg Karcher I think, came away completely dismayed at how poorly built the car was. I cant remember if he commented on the styling but that also marked a departure, from staid understatement into cheap nostalgia, with a gawpy 4-lamp front end and horribly saggy surfacing. An expensive car, even to my relatively young eyes, had never looked so cheap.

The brand has made big gains in quality, both perceived and real, in the last couple of years (their design development is still open to question) but on the rare occasions I take a taxi in Frankfurt, it is astonishing to listen to, poke and prod a W124 E Class and compare it to the just-superseded W211.

The newer cars look, feel and sound more tired at between 100-200,000 Kms than the old cars do at 250,000+. Of course, I’m not talking about the aesthetic component of the equation, which finds the older interiors looking hilariously blocky and literal in comparison to the new cars. Even here, however, a comparison of the instrument clusters shows that a fanatical approach to functionalism has given way to glitzy high-tech that is not ageing anywhere near as gracefully.

The idea of manufacturer-backed refurbishment and resale as a brand builder is not new. Nissan USA used the same tactic to great effect in the lead-up to the launch of the 350Z. They bought up, restored and resold the cars that made people fall in love with the Z legend in the first place: the 240Z.

By reselling their old cars, Mercedes is hoping to send a strong message about how well built, to say nothing of how desirable, their cars are and in the process, erasing the awkward truth about their recent history. They’re communicating something along the lines of “If our old cars are still this sexy and are running so well that we can resell them after all these years, imagine what it must be like to own a new one!?”.

The Bigger Picture:

Then I saw something bigger, and something perhaps a little crazier in all of this. Could there be a new business model in here for the car industry, one that somewhat mitigates the whole-of-life carbon debt of new car production?

In this new model, consumers could shift from buying newly produced cars that are designed for a finite service life to buying newly refurbished cars that have been brought up to the latest emissions standards. We would move from recycling to reusing. Platform21 recently published a manifesto on the topic and it makes for interesting reading as you try to expand the 11 tenets to car ownership.

Someone I know has recently spent well over €7,000 on fixing a German SUV because key vehicle systems are designed not as serviceable assemblies, but as non-serviceable sealed modules. The gearbox failed, requiring a complete new unit. It was a similar story when the air conditioning failed, necessitating the removal of the entire front end to replace another non-serviceable module.

There was a time when a mechanic would have repaired or replaced a failed part without replacing the whole system. It’s a process that is better for the owner and more environmentally sustainable to boot.

This is the model into which old Mercedes’ fit and you only need take a trip to Africa to see how well a repair-and-reuse model can work today. There, the humble 190 E is revered as the taxi of choice and canny mechanics have been buying up stockpiles of parts from Europe to keep them running long into the future.

Granted, there are only a few manufacturers that have had the necessary build quality in their history to make this a reality immediately (Volvo, Saab, Rolls Royce/Bentley and, perhaps, BMW come to mind) but there’s no reason why the automotive products we produce from here on in can’t be designed with long term reuse in mind.

I recognise that it would be a massively hard sell to ask consumers to consider buying refurbished rather than new (what would replace the enjoyment of the all-important new car smell?). There’s also the question of how manufacturers can build enough profit into the model. Having said all that, if ever there was a time to get ideas on the table, no matter how far fetched, it’s now.

Looking back to look forward is something we tend to shy away from in the automotive industry, except when we’re looking for design cues. We’re always looking forward (mostly not far enough) to place a new product into the future that we want to create. But as Seth Godin points out today, there’s great power in seeing how we’ve solved problems in the past. So perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from the days when cars were built to be repaired rather than replaced.

[Source: Platform 21, Seth Godin]

Category: Branding, Car, Design, Design Strategy, Eco

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    I can see why you like the SLC, but it’s a bit too white-shoes and gold-chains for me. The Cosworth (in black, one assumes) and the 500E (gunmetal?) are stellar choices and I really think that everyone who is into cars needs a 450 SEL 6.9 (metallic brown!). You know, for popping out to the shops *in the next state*. But I still think the Sportline is the most inspired and trainspottery choice.

    The idea of re-use is excellent. Imagine being able to treat drivetrain components as interchangeable or upgradeable sub-systems. Get the new turbo-diesel installed in your old petrol-engined car. The engine drops onto the standard mounts and mates with the existing transmission. Upgrade to the new hybrid drivetrain after 5 years. Get a new independent rear suspension to replace the old live-axle, everything just bolts up.

    Though I can see how that could also lead to even more of a non-user-servicable outcome.

    You also might/would end up at the scenario where an OEM eventually declared that some subsystems or chassis are obsolete.

    But I do like it.

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Ben, you’re talking to a guy who once owned a Volvo 262C Bertone with a 2.3 turbo 4 out of a 740 Turbo running 18psi. Call me perverse, but the idea of “gold chains and white shoes” cars with a secret to hide is something that tickles my fancy 😉

    Colour choices are bang on except for the 6.9, although having just seen Frost/Nixon, I can understand where you’re coming from. For that particular beast I would chose either petrol blue or perhaps moss green with a moss green velour interior. Again, there’s something about the perversity of the trim in a car like that.

    I’m glad you could see something in the idea of re-use and in replying to your comment, I can see that I did exactly what I was talking about with my Volvo. The car went from having a 2.7 litre, uncatalysed, Super-swilling pig under the hood to having an electronically managed, catalysed, unleaded-sipping (if one was moderate) 2.3. My average fuel consumption dropped from about 17-18 l/100 to 10l/100. Still not great, but a drastic reduction in fuel use and emissions and a new lease of life for a car that was otherwise fine. The thing I loved about the car was that it was completely user-serviceable too. Granted, in the scenario I outline in the post, most people still wouldn’t service their own car, but I would hope that any mechanic could do the work without a PhD in computer sciences and a whole raft of proprietary equipment.

    Technology becoming obsolete is almost a given as it continues to develop, but if we can make the shell that contains it as flexible as possible, the major components can carry on as sub-systems are replaced.

    I seem to remember Virtu, Nokia’s luxury phone brand, touting this kind of future proofing with their Signature series phones. Once there was a new hardware upgrade, you simply sent in your hand-crafted, bejewelled phone to have it’s innards replaced.

  3. […] may not be as big a problem as you first think. Given my recent post about repairing things and mutual musing here and over at Re*Move on the topic of a more democratic model of vehicle […]

  4. Aditya says:

    Im doing the same with my 84′ Yamaha RD350B. Buying good spares is an issue though, as importing them from Her Majesty’s land costs a bomb..but still, the sheer joy of seeing one in ship and shape running condition is priceless. Its probably comparable to the joy of a toddler when his dad fixes up his broken favourite toy.

  5. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Adi! Great to be in touch again!

    I can totally understand where you’re coming from with your RD.

    Before I left Oz for Coventry I had a Honda CD200 which was slow and heavy but looked simply amazing. Trying to get parts for it was sometimes a nightmare but the enjoyment I derived from my weekend cruises on it made it all worthwhile!

  6. […] in nicely with the point I made two weeks ago in Sexy Old Mercs, Brand Building and Platform 21’s Repair Manifesto doesn’t […]

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