Ask Sri Lankans born in the ’70s to tell you which cars they remember growing up with, and you’ll hear about Austin Cambridges, Morris Minors, “Upali” Fiats, and Beetles. All of which are rubbish. Yes, I know people will put out a fatwah on me for calling a Beetle rubbish, but it is. And yes, I know Upali Wijewardena’s Fiat 128 was the Micro of ’70s Sri Lanka, but you’ll be better off if you put wheels on a Ceylon Tea crate. Plus you’ll be faster. Doesn’t anyone remember a Karmann Ghia, or a Datsun 240Z, or a Mercedes 300? Or at least a Mk1 Golf, for God’s sake? Why do people seem to remember the bland? Somehow, though, I doubt that Sri Lankans in the year 2040 will look back fondly on the Nissan Sunny.
While you’re about it, ask a Sri Lankan to name a great ad from the early days of local television, and it’ll be a pretty predictable choice. The original Airlanka jingle (above) will certainly feature among them, with people still able to sing bits of it or at least hum the tune. There’s one of those dodgy old massage guys on Hikkaduwa beach who sings one part of it (“Blue voters, smiling ice — Sri Lanka, pair of dice”) over and over, as he walks along the sand looking for customers. Then there’ll be the Dot toffee commercials (“Oyagey kate Dot, mage kateth Dot!”), the Thultex spot — the only reason I remember that one is because at 14 years old, I’d never seen that far up a woman’s leg. So we remember this stuff, but were they good ads — did they entertain us (OK, there’s that leg again), engage us? Fuck, no, but we remember them anyway. Mostly because there were far fewer ads around back then.
Now it’s pretty easy to see why people remember great cars and great ads — or great anything for that matter. Cars, movies, books, we remember the ones that were interesting, fun, touching — things that played to our emotions, that entertained us. But what makes us remember things that we have no reason to — why would we remember a packet of washing powder? We wouldn’t, because there’s nothing to remember about it. But somehow Sri Lankans manage it. We even remember the Austin Cambridge. Why?
Perhaps it’s because Sri Lankans, on the whole, prefer the bland and anonymous. We save our spice for our rice, and that’s only because everyone else does it too. Every other day of the week I’m up in front of clients, trying to sell them an ad that I think will do all kinds of wonderful things for their brand. Market share, brand building, top-of-mind, etc etc. And as I pitch that top-of-the-range ad out onto their boardroom tables, I can see them squirm and wait, hesitating over this Scirocco that’s going to have everyone talking and pointing — and believe me these aren’t Porsches; they really are Sciroccos, maybe even RS5s. But no, the client’s waiting for me to run out of revs so that he or she can buy that Toyota Allion that no one will notice. It’ll take them from 15% market share to 17%, smoothly and comfortably, and very very softly. And in an unfeeling, numb coma.
And it’s not just the clients. Last year we built two cars for the same client, but for two different marques. Now you could call this client a Nissan, except this Nissan hasn’t ever built a Z car. So we produced a big plush GT. It was stylish, it was sexy, it was dark and fast, and had a V8. It was everything a GT was supposed to be, plus it had four seats, so it was sensible too. The client loves it. The consumers are lapping it up too, so they obviously like it. But then we also built this client a hot hatch. Now this was no polite Toyota Vitz. It was a fire-breathing, twin-turbo, 300-bhp, torque-steering ball of testosterone that annoyed the shit out of everyone from the managing director to the sales force. This just wasn’t what a Nissan was supposed to do. The customers just weren’t too sure what to make of it. Some old ladies even wrote in to complain that it made them wish they’d never bought a Sunny. They might even buy Corollas in future, it seems. So Nissan decides to pull those testosterone-filled turbos off and market a 4-cylinder 1.3-ltr model. Now everyone’s happy. The consumers are not rushing out to buy it — mostly because no one notices it — and the old ladies are at peace. The MD’s happy that he’s not lost market share, and all the brand managers got a good smacking.
So yes, Sri Lanka does, in the mass, seem not to want to be too edgy in what it consumes. At least for now. And this is also clear when you look at actual taste in cars — the only people with less car sense are the Indians, and that’s not really their fault; for years they’ve been force-fed a diet of Ambassadors and Indicars.
But let’s be fair, let’s take an absolutely objective look at an indicative segment of Sri Lankan cardome — my office car park. Personally, I think this is fairly representative of Colombo’s four-wheeled population: the bulk of it is, of course, Japanese — cars mostly, with a few SUVs — and a smattering of Korean, Indian, and European, ranging from little hatches to the chairman’s big luxury saloon. Throw in a tuned-up Japanese saloon with an exhaust big enough for an endangered Colombo beggar to sleep in, add a sleek sports car, and that’s Colombo in a nutshell. Now ask anyone in my agency which car they’d like to own, and they’ll point to the media director’s Allion, a car that follows Toyota’s tradition of making mid-sized saloons for use as as Taxis. Basically, they took a Premio — which is pretty crap enough — and asked themselves, “how do we make this uglier?” Result, the Allion.
Push my agency crowd a bit more and they’ll point to a Hyundai Sonata — because it’s big and silver — and a BMW 518 — because… well, because it’s a BMW. They’ll also, if they like 4x4s, point out a Land Cruiser. They’ll also pick the chairman’s other ride — a Mitsubishi Montero, not because they like 4x4s, but because a Montero means you’re the chairman.
Now none of the above are really very good cars. The Allion and the Sonata handle like barges in a heavy sea, have steering that’s as exciting as a bottle of Valium, and are just plain ugly. Let’s not even get into horsepower or torque or any of that frivolous mumbo-jumbo Jeremy Clarkson rattles on about. But as I said, they’re big and have “crystal lights” and nice carpeting, so we want ’em. The 518 is, after all, a 5 Series, and you might wonder why I’m dismissing it, but it’s just woefully underpowered, with it’s 1.8ltr putting out a piddly 113bhp. If you want a 5 Series it must be at least a 520. On to the Land Cruiser and Montero — now both these are great if your daily commute means crossing the Yala National Park, but driving enormous 4x4s around Colombo is just loutish. The perfect 4×4 for this city — and with our buggered up streets it kind of makes sense — is a small 4×4. And i don’t mean a girlie RAV4; I mean a twin-turbo Subaru Forrester.
By now, you must be wondering if there are any good cars in that car park. Well, believe me there are, and here they are: First up, the chairman’s weekend ride, a series III Jaguar XJ6. Now, yes, I do know that it goes from 0-100kmph in half an hour, and a Sri Lanka Postal Department telegram must be sent to the steering rack three weeks in advance of a left-hand bend being sighted, but it does have a 3.4ltr straight six, and just oozes old world style. This is Major Gowen in a silk cavalry tie. Next up is an Alfa Romeo 156, one of the more reliable models of car that Alfa ever made, and if you’re comparing saloons in Sri Lanka, I doubt you can find a prettier one. And say what you like, all Alfas are beautiful cars, even the ugly ones. End of story. Coming up next is my own Mitsubishi FTO, which with its 2ltr transversely-mounted V6, will take you up to the 100kmph mark in 6.5 seconds, and with almost 100bhp per litre, is one of the most fun cars you’ll ever drive, even though it’s a front-wheeler. Doesn’t look bad either, and who cares that you have to be Frodo to fit into the back seat. Finally, just making it into this group is a Honda Civic RS — now this is no Type R, but with 145bhp on tap, a stiffened suspension, and stylish lines, it really is a good car.
Yes, yes, I can hear you saying that these aren’t very practical cars, and except for the Honda, they aren’t really. The Jag and Alpha are expensive and troublesome to maintain, and the FTO has only two doors, a low and spine-jarringly stiff ride, and is as thirsty as a Daily News editor at a Sri Lanka Tourism media event. And yes, you’ll lose money when you sell them on (all except maybe that Honda, which makes me wonder if it should have been dropped from the finalists). But boy are they fun to own. And you’ll never ever forget what it was like to drive them. In other words, memorable. And with cars, as with ads, that’s as important as getting from A to B.
So maybe it’s time to buck the trend and be brave; to wear our personalities on our sleeves; to say what we really mean instead of smiling and saying what the neighbours want to hear. Our ads and our cars are as important to our personalities and our brands as the clothes we wear. But people are going to remember you; they’re going to point and whisper and grudgingly admire you for having what they don’t have — style and presence, and above all, big balls.