Friday, 14 May 2010

SEAT, The Guinea's stamp


Pretty road test SEAT outside the old house at Rothesay
I used to have a mother-in-law who apologised for not having any real sherry in the house: “I’ve only got this Spanish stuff,” she said. Noreen was from a generation for whom Spain never quite got over the Civil War. Spanish equalled down-market imitation.

It is a bit like that with SEAT. I wrote in Scotland on Sunday in January 2003, that some brands somehow fail to make the grade. Nothing wrong with SEAT cars; they’re Volkswagen Group, but there is something missing. Ever since they were Spanish-built Fiats, and dusty dented ones were hire cars everywhere on the Costa Sunbed, they have never quite found their place. It’s image.

In 1953 the Sociedad Espa├▒ola de Autom├│viles de Turismo (SEAT) made Fiats under licence in a factory in Barcelona, from imported Italian components. The Franco government wanted SEAT to be self sufficient and develop home grown models. The Italian bits hadn’t been very good, but the Spanish ones were no better, and although a million and a half cars were built in ten years, SEAT only prospered so long as competition was kept at bay by Spanish tariffs. SEAT had too many workers, old equipment, and antiquated factories.

It also lost a lot of money rescuing Authi in Pamplona, which had been making Austins and Morrises. Government meddling in motor industries never works. Fiat withdrew support, SEAT invented cars of its own bit it didn’t even do this well, Fiat sued over copyright and it was only with difficulty that courts were convinced a Rondo was not a disguised Ritmo. After the oil crises of the 1970s, Franco’s death and Spain’s recovery, SEAT’s luck changed. It began assembling VWs, designing a car of its own with an engine from Porsche Engineering.

Toyota nearly bought SEAT but was put off by its debts, then in 1985 VW took 51 per cent. It built new factories, making the Alhambra with Ford at Autolatina in Portugal. SEATs were stylish, well-made and racy-looking. VW promoted them as sporting, which was where it all came unstuck. Despite years of promotion SEAT still lacks charisma. VW has image, Audi has image, Skoda has image but SEAT hasn’t.

SEAT’s progenitor Wilfredo Ricart made trucks in Barcelona, the Empresa Nacional de Autocamiones SA, (ENASA). They were called Pegasos, like the winged horse of Pegasus. Ricart also made Pegaso cars, which were exquisite, exclusive, extremely expensive, and between 1951 and 1958 with dry-sump lubrication and sodium-cooled exhaust valves, made Ferraris look dreary. He never thought of calling them ENASAs.

SEAT should have called its cars Pegasos but it’s too late now. Ricart created a heritage that would have been priceless for dull old SEAT. Heritage provides reputation, image. It is, as Burns might have said, the guinea’s stamp although the car’s the gowd for a’ that. Exclusive classic cars with heritage include BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, MG (for the time being anyway) and Porsche. SEAT, I’m afraid, doesn’t make it.
Good detailing. The rear door handle is recessed cleverly to make a 4-door look like a coupe. Automotive News reports: HAMBURG, Germany (Reuters) -- Volkswagen AG is aiming for a breakeven at struggling Spanish subsidiary SEAT in the next five years. It is counting on new models to boost sales. Volkswagen has agreed to raise capacity at Martorell, near Barcelona, SEAT CEO James Muir said late on Wednesday. SEAT is using just 60 percent of the plant's capacity. The plant-usage breakeven point is about 65 percent to 68 percent, according to J.D. Power Automotive Forecasting. Anything below results in big losses. SEAT's operating loss widened last year to almost 340 million euros ($431.9 million) from a loss of 78 million euros the previous year. "You can't return to profits just by cutting costs," Muir said. Volkswagen has tried several times to revamp the brand.

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