26 Mar 2013

Any Colour You Like – As Long As It’s Pink

Sharon Endacotte reckons men and women generally want the same from cars - yet auto manufacturers' attitude to female drivers is still condescending

I have recently come to the realisation that I have far too much makeup in my possession.  Presently, there are three bags full of the bloody stuff overflowing onto my bedroom carpet, one of which just contains nail varnish.  While I was trying to get this into some kind of order the other day, I found myself contemplating the myriad hues and finishes, fine sparkly dusts and glitters, matte and gloss polishes, and I got to wondering whether there’s any crossover between developing makeup and developing car paint finishes.  It’s all just particulates suspended in a medium designed to stick it to a surface really, and whether you want a subtle shimmer, a special effect or a metallic sparkle, it’s all down to the composition of the stuff you paint on.  You know that flip paint TVR were so fond of on the Tuscan? Today I’m wearing nail polish that does exactly the same thing.

Anyway, this got me thinking.  These days, you can have your car finished, resprayed or wrapped to pretty much any finish you want.  You want a matte black stealth car? No problem, sir.  You’d like to wrap your F430 Spider from nose to tail in chrome? Well, as a footballist, that’s your prerogative, and it’s not for me to pass judgement on your personal tastes (though I will, when I get my eyesight back).  Purple fairground glitter on your lowrider?  Of course.  The choice of colours is limited only by your imagination and the technical capabilities of the company you entrust to apply them.

And yet, ask a company to design a special edition aimed at specifically at women, and you can have any colour you like… as long as it’s pink.

Both the Fiat 500 and the Volkswagen Beetle have been produced in special Barbie editions.  The infamous Micra C+C press cars weren’t, it turned out, actually pink at all, but had a pink wrap applied to the more popular metallic blue paintwork, though at least that was in a good cause; for every 250 miles endured by motoring journalists in those heinous vehicles, £250 was donated to Breakthrough Breast Cancer – as well as flogging a few actual pink Micra C+Cs into the bargain.  

Similar noble ideas were behind the Seat Mii Miinx, a dealer special that started life as a one-off and became a limited run, complete with charity donation, when people started asking to buy it.  There have been special pink editions of the Smart ForTwo as well.  It’s not a new phenomenon though, as a quick trawl through the automotive archives to 1954 reveals the grandma of them all, the Chrysler La Comtesse concept, which led, between 1955 and 1956, to the Dodge La Femme… which came with essential matching accessories such as a powder compact, lipstick case, comb, purse, rain coat and bonnet, and which did not, it has to be said, set the world alight with its sales figures.

I’m not saying there isn’t a call for pink cars.  They’re very handy when you’re coming to the end of a game of car snooker (actually, these days it’s almost as hard to find a green), for example.  And given the range of colours you can have your car painted, of course some people will want pink because they happen to like it.  There’s no argument from me there.  

However, the pink car is promoted differently from almost any other vehicle, and that does bother me a bit, because it reminds me of the ‘pink it, shrink it’ ethic so prevalent in the technology marketplace – effectively, take a basic product (or even a previous model), stick a pink cover on it, charge a premium and target the female market, on the basis that the colour is more important to women than the capability of the product.  It’s as if half the market is being treated like, as Douglas Adams might have put it, a mountain that you wish to ignore: it’s been painted pink and designated ‘somebody else’s problem’.

It’s not even so much that all other cars are marketed at men, as that the motor industry just isn’t very good at selling cars to women.  This came up on Twitter a while ago and the estimable Richard Porter summed it up neatly, in 140 characters or less:

Isn’t the way cars are marketed at women mostly patronising toss? Suspect women and men mostly want the same things.

He’s right, of course.  The majority of women drive cars decorated from the same colour palette as their male counterparts, so they’ve clearly based their choices on other factors – things like price, reliability, ride quality, handling, power, capacity and personal taste… in fact, exactly the same factors that men base their choices on.  So what do women look for in a car?  There is no one answer; we’re all different and we all like different things.  I drive a Triumph Herald because I like it (when it works).  My housemate drives a Ford Mondeo estate because she can get bulky furniture in the back.  My sister drives Fiat Punto because she needs a sensible family runabout.  And my friend Sarah (who is under five feet tall) until recently drove a Jaguar XJS, mostly just for the fun of it, but also because a tiny woman driving a big old Jag tends to mess with people’s heads.  The only thing these cars have in common, beyond their basic car-ness, is that not one of them is pink.

Ever wondered what a car designed entirely by women might actually look like?  A few years ago, Volvo decided to find out, and the YCC (Your Concept Car) was the result.  Based on the principle that a car that met the requirements of women purchasing premium vehicles, a rapidly-expanding sector at the time, would meet the requirements of the sector as a whole, Volvo assembled an all-female team to take the idea from the very earliest stages of design to completed concept.

The result, in 2004, was a fairly muscular coupe with hybrid engine, excellent all-round visibility, short-span gullwing doors to give level entry and easy keyless access, an innovative approach to maintenance (the washer bottle could be filled without opening the bonnet, and as an oil change was said to be needed only every 50,000 miles, other fluids would be changed or topped up only at service), run-flat tyres, clever use of storage space and easily swapped upholstery pads.  It was also equipped with park assist, something which Volvo found both male and female customers wanted.  While it was designed by women, the aim of the design team was to produce something that would appeal to premium buyers regardless of gender – and while many of its features were unusual or unique at the time a lot of the technology is now very familiar, as are some of the styling cues.

And the colour?

It was a Volvo.  What colour do you think it was?

Which pretty much brings me back to where I came in, because in 2011, Volvo, ever aware of their female customer base, was the company that launched a range of nail polishes - to match the paint shades on its redesigned S60.  And if anyone has some they don’t want, I think I can find room in my makeup bag.

With thanks to Richard Porter for putting me onto the YCC project