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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Musing on models

Photo: Matt Ward www.iseethelight.com

As someone who’s just turned 35, for some a few years younger than me, and for many many years older, it wasn’t unusual to find models of cars displayed proudly on our shelves or strewn across the floor.

Aside from inviting a collision with an adult foot, they were also an invitation to imagine another world.

I remember well the bedroom races I’d conduct, pitting F40 against 993, C111 against E-Type, A110 against Countach; improbably paired in my adult mind, but impossibly evocative to my child one.

I’d spend hours studying details like NACA ducts. I’d blow through them and imagine what it would feel like to enter at the front as air, and emerge somewhere near the back. Or was it the side? The fogging of the F40’s plastic rear screen was inconclusive.

I’d imagine engine sounds and suspension movement. I’d simulate bumpy roads to the point of destroying delicate plastic hubs. These models -representations of real-world cars- enchanted me.

While I was car mad, even my less car mad friends had these models. Cars, as Chris Bangle has pointed out, were our avatars. They were powerful symbols of other, more exotic lives. The were objects of escape and potential. Together, we invested hours in the alternative worlds to which these cars gave us access.

But things started to change. For while F1, XJ220, 928, 850, 500 E and 600 SEL was the code from which I compiled my fantasies, for some of my friends and many of their younger siblings, virtual worlds coded by programmers became the escape of choice.

Mario, Sonic and their friends became their avatars. They were portable, sharable, and mutable. Younger siblings no longer drove the models on their shelves with the characters of their imagination. The switch of a cartridge, CD-ROM or app and the configuration of a character allowed them to be almost anything they wanted to be, wherever they wanted to be.

Then, with the advent of social networks, opportunities for self-expression and the creation of multiple identities exploded. We could all, adults and children alike, be many versions of ourselves all at once. Before us were the tools to shape new identities, share them with the world and kill them off in the space of an hour.

Model cars, much like their life-sized equivalents, must feel emotionally static and identity-constricting.

Sales figures of Mattel’s “Wheels” category, which includes the Matchbox and Hotwheels brands showed modest growth between 2015 and 2016. But a quick glance at their respective websites show only the slightest nods given to contemporary production brands and cars.

BMW’s collaboration with Hotwheels, for example, has produced 5 models, only one of them current: the M4. Matchbox does better with 6 contemporary models, although why anyone thought a Fiat 500X was worthy of a die cast is beyond me.

Otherwise, Mattel “Wheels” is focussed on collaborations with game, animation, comic and film franchises.

With this in mind, I’d posit that the childhood connection that we once built with car brands through their scale models is on the wane.

If that’s the case, then it surely follows that car brands are losing early access to their future advocates.

And it probably means the end of the era in which, once you’d grown up and made some money, you went and reaffirmed your loyalty and love for a brand by buying one of its products.

If this is all true, it feels like another nail in the coffin of the car as avatar. It also feels like another signal that the industry that fuelled so much imagination is seriously adrift in the face of technology and entertainment companies.

Category: Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.