I remember the embarrassed faces of the people at Lancia when they had to explain to journalists (at least, those with a minimum of automotive culture) that the second generation Thema fully respects the DNA of their manufacturer. Because it’s just a rebadged Chrysler 300 and very little modified at the margin. It is called “engineering badge”: you take a car, present it under another brand and jump, you try to make people believe that it is a new one. Let’s remember the famous formula of Unknowns: “don’t take customers for idiots but don’t forget that they are.”
Obviously, that doesn’t work. The Thema II was a complete failure in Europe, whereas if it was 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 Lancia Delta in the United Kingdom. All this actually only plunges the famous Italian manufacturer to the bottom of the abyss above where it has been in an unstable balance for a long time.
The engineering badge has only one long-term effect: removing the mark from its substance, thus killing it. Only decision makers with no automotive culture fail to understand this. I remember being told by one of these guys that to save Fiat, it would be enough to badge all the models… Ferrari. When such a method is applied, both constructors are definitely missing!
In any case, the decision of the late Sergio Marchionne, former boss of the Fiat Group, to turn to “badge engineering” to save Lancia is even more incomprehensible because he could not see the harmful effects. He also authorized the sale of the unspeakable Fiat Freemont, a Dodge Journey equipped with Italian diesels (that’s still local). Will his training as a banker prevent him from doing so? In any case, his American culture should have alerted him!
Because at GM, which for a long time was the largest manufacturer in the world, the engineering badge was damaged. Until the 1970s, the brands that make up the US group somehow managed to offer a few specific cars. The engines aren’t necessarily the same as Pontiac, which designs its own V8s, as is Chevrolet, which has others.
Then, in the 1980s, GM production became too standardized, removing the sleeves from their specifications, leading to confusion among customers. As a result, Pontiac and Oldsmobile, two emblematic names, disappeared, while Saturn and Geo were just flashes in the pan. And GM is about to break up.
A similar process took place in the Chrysler group, which scrapped Plymouth, and Ford, which could only get rid of Mercury (an artificial brand when it appeared, however). Back in the 1950s, we see that a similar fate befell the legendary Packard, which only produced vaguely modified Studebakers. The “Big Three” even pushed elegance to the point of selling cars designed by others under their own brand: the American Ford Escort at one time was just a new Mazda 323, the Plymouth Laser and Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Geo Metro a Suzuki Maabtik. To name but a few.
In Europe, apart from Lancia, Renault has practiced a lot, with persistence in failure that commands respect, the “badge of engineering”. We remember the inexplicable Renault Rambler of the 60s, an AMC stamped with diamonds that did not achieve any success. Recently, the ex-Régie tried to do it again with Latitude and Koleos, from Samsung, in fact SM5 III and QM5 respectively, made in Korea. They met with limited success, and their successors the Talisman and Koleos II, also offered in Korea, failed to change the trend. As a result, Renault is no longer at the top of the range.
Here again, one wonders if some autocratic and megalomaniac decision-makers have not narrowed their vision through their bushy eyebrows. It would have been enough for them to check the disastrous fate of British Leyland across the Channel. The British group sank first because of the bad quality of its products, then because of a wild “badge engineering”. Do you remember the excellent Austin 1100/1300 from the 60s? It was marketed under… six different brands: Austin, Innocenti, MG, Morris, Riley and Van den Plas. All these arms disappeared, Fiat completed Innocenti after acquiring it by making it market Brazilian derivatives of Uno…
Today, the engineering badge is still practiced, but less than before. For example, the Suzuki Swace and Across are actually Toyotas.
The flexibility of industrial tools and platforms is what makes them almost obsolete. We design a technical base and sell it under several brands, the elements that differentiate are first of all the bodywork and the passenger compartment. Everyone uses this strategy, Renault-Nissan, Stellantis, GM, Ford, the VW Group, BMW, Mercedes, Volvo-Geely, Jaguar-Rover, Toyota, not to mention countless Chinese brands. The result is a hopeless technical standardization that, like “badge engineering”, one fears 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. So far, between a DS4, an Opel Astra and a Peugeot 308, we have three times the same car under certain envelopes. And there is no need to look at the VW Group: it uses technical solutions similar to those of the Stellantis. All current transverse engine tractions, regardless of where they come from, remain in the architecture inaugurated by the Fiat 128 in… 1969.
I know that most of the current customers don’t care, but in the long run, aren’t we in the process of preparing the way for two large generalist factories that, from China, will produce two more or less good electric cars. market sold under different brands and appearances around the world? A bit like what happened with telephony…