I remember the embarrassed faces of the people at Lancia when they had to explain to journalists (at least those with a minimum of car culture) that the second generation of Thema perfectly respected the DNA of its manufacturer. Because it was just a rebadged and slightly modified Chrysler 300 at the margin. This is called the “engineering badge”: you take a car, present it under another brand and jump in, trying to make people think it’s a novelty. We will remember the famous formula of the Strangers: “do not take customers for idiots but do not forget that they are”.
Obviously that doesn’t work. The Thema II was a complete flop in Europe, whereas had it been called Chrysler I think it would have found its audience. The same goes for the Lancia Flavia II, a Chrysler 200 emblazoned with the Chivasso brand logo, or even the Chrysler Delta, the name of the Lancia Delta in the UK. In reality, all this has only precipitated the famous Italian manufacturer to the bottom of an abyss above which it had already been in an unstable equilibrium for some time.
The engineering badge only has one long-term effect: emptying a mark of its substance and thereby killing it. Only decision makers without automotive culture cannot understand this. I remember that one of these guys told me that to save Fiat, it would be enough to put badges on all the models… Ferrari. If such a method had been applied, the two constructors would certainly have disappeared!
In any case, the decision of the late Sergio Marchionne, former head of the Fiat Group, to resort to “plate engineering” to save Lancia is all the more incomprehensible as he could not have failed to see the ill effects. He also licensed the ineffable Fiat Freemont, a Dodge Journey equipped with Italian diesels (that’s still local). Would his training as a banker have prevented him from doing so? In any case, his American culture of him should have alerted him!
Because at GM, long the world’s largest automaker, the engineering badge has wreaked havoc. Until the 1970s, the brands that made up the American group somehow managed to offer slightly specific cars. The engines weren’t necessarily the same at Pontiac, which designed its own V8s, as at Chevrolet, which had others.
Then, in the 1980s, GM production became overly standardized, stripping shields of their specifics, which ultimately confused customers. As a result, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, two iconic names, disappeared, while Saturn and Geo were just flashes in the pan. And GM was close to being dissolved.
A similar process happened at the Chrysler group, which scrapped Plymouth, and Ford, which could only get rid of Mercury (an artificial brand as soon as it came along, though). Going back to the 1950s, we see that a similar fate befell the legendary Packard, which produced only vaguely revamped Studebakers. The “Big Three” even carried the craze to the point of selling cars designed by others under their own brand: the American Ford Escort was at one point just a barely facelifted Mazda 323, the Plymouth Laser a Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the Geo Metro a Suzuki. Fast. To name a few.
In Europe, in addition to Lancia, Renault has practiced a lot, with a perseverance in failure that inspires respect, the “engineering badge”. We will remember the ineffable Renault Rambler of the 60s, an AMC stamped with the rhombus that was not successful at all. More recently, the ex-Régie tried to do it again with Samsung’s Latitude and Koleos, in fact SM5 III and QM5 respectively, made in Korea. They met with very limited success, and their Talisman and Koleos II replacements, also offered in Korea, failed to reverse the trend. As a result, Renault no longer has a top of the range.
Once again, one wonders if certain autocratic and megalomaniacal decision makers have not had their vision shortened by their bushy eyebrows. It would have been enough for them to examine the disastrous fate of British Leyland across the Channel. The British group sank first because of the disastrous quality of its productions, then because of savage “plate engineering”. Remember the excellent Austin 1100/1300 from the ’60s? It was marketed under… six different brand names: Austin, Innocenti, MG, Morris, Riley and Van den Plas. All these shields have disappeared, Fiat having completed Innocenti after having absorbed it by making it market Brazilian derivatives of the Uno…
Today the engineering badge is still practiced, but less so than before. For example, Suzuki Swace and Across are actually Toyotas.
The flexibility of the industrial tool and platforms is such that it is practically obsolete. We design a technical base and market it under a multitude of brands, the differentiating elements being the bodywork and the passenger compartment in the first place. Everyone uses this strategy, Renault-Nissan, Stellantis, GM, Ford, the VW Group, BMW, Mercedes, Volvo-Geely, Jaguar-Rover, Toyota, not to mention the countless Chinese brands. The result is a rather desperate technical standardization which, like the “engineering of badges”, one may fear will lead to the disappearance of many coats of arms, deprived of any reason for being.
In the 1970s, between a Citroën GS, an Opel Kadett and a Peugeot 304, we had three very different cars in every way. Currently, between a DS4, an Opel Astra and a Peugeot 308, we have three times the same car under specific envelopes. And there is no need to ogle the VW Group side: it uses technical solutions similar to those of Stellantis. All current transverse engine drives, wherever they come from, retain the architecture inaugurated by the Fiat 128 in… 1969.
I know that the vast majority of today’s customers don’t care, but in the long run, aren’t we in the process of paving the way for two large generalist manufacturers who, from China, would produce two more or less good electric cars? market sold under various brands and guises around the world? A bit like what happens in telephony…
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