You can’t get away from class. We were a Wolseley family. The Vanden Plas Princess and the Armstrong Siddeley came later. We slipped downmarket with the Austin Sixteen in which I passed my driving test, but that was bought in 1948 or so, when cars were hard to come by. It was replaced by a Wolseley Six-Eighty. Not a notable success; its single ohc was unhappy with teenage over-revving but it looked classy with an upright radiator and wood facia. Wasn’t up to next-door’s Rover 14 maybe, but it was better than Austins, which were, by and large, bought by people who believed the Dependable slogan and were NQOC. Austins weren’t stylish but they were well made. Father was in steel and his metallurgist chums said Longbridge was fussy about the steel it was buying for gearboxes. He found that convincing.
Austin, Armstrong Siddeley, Vanden Plas and Wolseley; all, alas, gone. Yet class distinctions in cars remain. When I was road testing it helped make up your mind about cars once you had identified likely buyers - easy with BMWs. People who bought BMWs buyers got other BMW owners (like me) a bad name. Racy and aggressive they demanded cars that were fast and handled well. BMW buyers were fusspots so you set the road-holding bar higher for BMWs.
Ford buyers – difficult to avoid stereotyping. They were always cost-conscious high-mileage reps. Jaguar buyers went for style, refinement and prestige. They are no longer the same as the Jaguar buyers of our Wolseley years – Jaguars then were much too, well flashy really, like Uncle Bob, who had had Vauxhalls and then a black Jaguar with huge headlights and too much, so my mother thought, voluptuous curves and showy chrome.
Hyundai and Kia buyers now are connoisseurs of the long-distance warranty and born-again Austin buyers, looking for good metallurgy and unpretentious quality, buy Skodas. Dependable, regular, no nonsense solid worth, Skoda’s styling is derivative but the customers want it like that. Nothing radical; good proportions are more important than pretendy avant garde.
Skodas look modest just like Austins looked modest. They were styled by the unlikely Dick Burzi. Born in Buenos Aires, Ricardo Burzi joined Lancia in the 1920s. “Styling” was only beginning and he augmented his income drawing cartoons for newspapers, only to get into trouble for drawing some of the emerging Duce, Benito Mussolini. You couldn’t do that in Italy and Burzi had to flee.
Fortunately Vincenzo Lancia chanced to meet Herbert Austin on a liner, recommended him, and so the Italian-Argentinian joined Longbridge in 1929. His reponse to challenges proved variable. He was partly responsible for the splendid 1940s Sheerline and Princess, based on chief executive Leonard Lord’s Bentley, but he made 1945 Austins look like 1930s Chevrolets. His big solo effort, under instructions from Lord, was the ill-starred Austin A90 Atlantic.
Skoda (Octavia press launch above - my BMW behind) has avoided such flights of fancy. It knows its place, unlike the flagship VW Passat, which has got longer and sleeker. The cards in the Skoda pack have been shuffled, taking the Octavia a bit up-market and making it bigger, to accommodate the Rapid in a lower slot. Octavia is on VW’s MQB platform along with the Audi A3, Seat León and Mark 7 Golf and is temptingly priced at around £20,000, unless you specify lots of bells and whistles. It rides, handles and drives well. It isn’t fast, 11.5sec to 60mph, it is quite economical at about 45mpg without being super-frugal and qualifies as thoroughly worthy. Not faint praise for those old solid sensible dependable Austin customers.