The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Pagani’s Zonda F remains the greatest new car I’ve driven, meaning it was still in production at the time it was tested. The way this car entertained you whether you were going fast or slow, is something that’s sorely missing today. It possessed subtle and obvious forms of vibrational communication, a superb engine and exhaust song, the absolute right effort on the pedals, steering, and shift knob.

Less than twenty years ago automotive manufacturers were typically referred to as “marques” or “nameplates,” and not the “B-word” (brands) that is widely used today. Making a marque particularly brilliant (or not) was how their product drove, and the sensations you felt from behind the wheel or in the passenger seat(s). Whether going fast or slow, at rest or full throttle, certain machines so fully engaged all of your senses that the encounter lingered for hours, days and even weeks after it ended.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Before automotive manufacturers were called “brands,” they were widely known as marques. What made the great marques special is each of their models had its own distinctive personality, something that couldn’t be found in its predecessors or successors—or its competitors’ cars. Lamborghini’s Diablo SE and Miura SV are two prime examples, different experiences from each other, and all their competitors. Today such uniqueness is hard to find, for the automotive “brands” tend to focus on the numbers their cars generate, rather than a unique experience behind the wheel.

For decades this type of immersive involvement was the primary ingredient that made the truly great cars just that.

So uncommon was their driving experience that it was like going to a gourmet restaurant, and ordering your favorite dish so you could savor its distinctive spices and flavors. And the encounter didn’t stop there, for the great marques changed the taste with each successive model, and all of them were different from what you would find at the competition. So if you wanted to relish a certain car, the only place you would find it was in that specific machine.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Porsche’s 930 Turbo is another memorable machine, with its own unique “taste” from behind the wheel. Originally known as the “Turbo Carrera,” the car was docile enough to run daily chores, but put your foot into it and count “one-one thousand two” and it took off like it was shot out of a cannon. A friend owned this addictive bolide, and it so bit me that I really wanted to purchase it. Alas, he didn’t want to sell…

The Experience

For instance, when sampling the menu of Ferrari, a 250 SWB “tastes” completely different from any 275 GTB, which tastes entirely different than a Daytona or 550 Maranello. It was the same at Lamborghini, where a Miura is an entirely different experience from a Countach, which is different from a Diablo or Murcielago. At Porsche, where my wheel time is more limited, 1974 2.7 Carrera is a completely different drive from a 930 Turbo, which is very different from an ’89 Carrera.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Two of the great automotive industry vanishing acts over the past 20 years has been the lessening involvement one experiences when driving performance and sports cars, and the disappearance of the word “marque” when talking automobiles. I feel the two go hand-in-hand, and one of the things that continually draws me to older cars is they are much more focused on delivering an engaging experience than today’s offerings. For instance, even though I was only in the passenger seat of this Maserati 150S, the vibrations you felt and the song you heard was astonishing. And for 1.5 liters, did it ever feel quick!

The characteristics of these cars (and marques) were so disparate that you could blindfold someone and put them in each, run them 0-120-0, and the experiences would be night and day different. Whether they hit 60 in 4 or 8 seconds was of secondary importance, for what you experienced while getting there was what truly lingered, and thus mattered. The way the suspension and chassis felt through the steering wheel, seat and floorboard, the sounds of the engine and exhaust, how the former pulls throughout the rev range, all the vibrations and minor nuances that bombard one’s senses…You commanded the car as it communicated and tested you and your skills in subtle and overt ways.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Compared to all the other cars seen in this slideshow, the Cheetah provides an entirely different experience while on the move. If you have ever wondered what it feels like to get punched in the face while being strapped onto a rocket, Bill Thomas’ audacious creation is it! The Cheetah is raw, loud and brutal, a road weapon designed with one purpose in mind: to blow off Carroll Shelby’s Cobras. And it felt it…

Loss of Individuality

Over the past 15-20 years, such individuality has been replaced by a relentless focus on what are, in many ways, meaningless numbers. After all, how many people can really tell the difference between hitting 60 in 2.8 or 3.1 seconds? This never-ending arms race for lower and faster times removed the subtlety that the master chefs (Alfieri, Dallara, Bizzarrini, Materazzi, Stanzani, Duntov, Guldstrand, Chiti and so many more) and their support staffs of engineers and test drivers baked into their cars—and the marques they worked for.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

An awe-inspiring experience if there ever was one is piloting Ferrari’s 250 Testa Rossa. Just 21 were made in 1957-58, and to this day it remains the greatest car I’ve ever driven. The mellifluous, delicate way this Ferrari could speak to you, and then suddenly envelop and overwhelm every nerve ending and receptor in your body when the throttle was on the floor, was mind-blowing, to say the least. This type of talkative nature seems to have mostly disappeared in today’s world of automotive “brands”…

For me, this deletion of minute vibrations and noises that were actually forms of communication is one of the saddest developments in the automotive arena, and it goes hand in hand with the manufacturers now referring to themselves as “brands.” Toothpaste, refrigerators, cell phones, the vegetables you have for dinner, those are “brands”—an otherwise generic consumer good that is differentiated by slick marketing and packaging so it becomes distinct from the others because none of them possess a true personality or any real meaningful underlying differentiator.

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

An American offering with a flavor all its own was the Dodge Viper. The original inspiration was to make a modern day Cobra, and with its large V10 engine up front, and minimalist interior and lack of creature comforts, the Viper was a marvelous successor to Carroll Shelby’s creation. For those who liked to drive and control their car with minimal outside interference from the “safety nannies,” the Viper was the perfect recipe.

All Uniquely Different

Cars never used to be that way. The character and temperament among a Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Iso, Aston, and whatever other marques you want to throw into this list was unique to each. Blindfold someone now, run them 0-150-0 in a current Ferrari, McLaren or Lamborghini, and the main difference will likely be the sound of the exhaust, and maybe the engine.

Which all makes sense in this era of “brands,” for it’s much more about the message than the actual experience. And the message today is “My 0-60 in 2.8 seconds is quicker than your 3.1, and my ‘Ring lap time is faster too.”

The Disappearance of Marques & “Master Chefs”

Today’s performance numbers can be awe-inspiring, but they come with a price—so many modern supercars largely feel the same. They are more about their performance and horsepower numbers, rather than a unique, memorable experience behind the wheel. But for those who like a modern talkative car, one of the best places to look is a Lotus Evora. The steering and chassis are incredibly communicative, and the horsepower is enough to thrill without getting you into serious trouble. In sum, the Evora is a rare bird these days, a car that “tastes” like nothing else.

But There is Hope

From an engagement perspective (and many more), the relatively modern Pagani Zonda F still ranks as one of my all-time favorite drives, as talkative and engaging as an alloy-bodied Ferrari 275 GTB/4. Plus Porsche still seems to make engaging machines; later this year I will be out in a friend’s 911R, and another friend’s Cayman GT4, and am so looking forward to seeing how they “taste.”

I will let you know what I find, for I’m truly hoping there are still masterful chefs and kitchens out there.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published