First published 2011-06-20
Badge engineering is the process of getting a car that already exists and re-branding it. Sometimes, with some clever styling, it can work. Nobody questioned Ford ‘s small and mid-sized Laser and Telstar range, available mainly in the Asia-Pacific region throughout the 1980s and 1990s; they were pretty much Mazdas, 323s and 626s to be precise. They looked different enough to the untrained eye and often that‘s all they need.
Sometimes, it‘s more prudent for a large manufacturer like General Motors to sell a product under a local brand; such as Holden‘s marketing of several Opel-built models from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, starting with the Calibra coupe and stemming out to all manner of transport from the Astra to the Zafira.
Sometimes tough, it‘s just a matter of getting enough retarded people into a room together and assuming that the buying public are as retarded as them. This is why badge-engineering at its most terrible was a failure; because nobody wants to buy a Holden-shaped Toyota with Opel doors and a 40-year-old Buick engine. They just want a Holden-shaped Holden with Opel doors and a 40-year-old-Buick engine.
Following is a list of the four most short sighted badge-engineered vehicles to be sold in Australia and it is with more than a small degree of pain that we admit that at least three of these are Holden’s fault.
But not this one;
Nissan The Ute
There are 3 year old, blind children living on Jupiter who can tell that this car is an Australian Ford Falcon…
Ford enjoyed some success with the Ford Maverick range, which was completely and utterly a rebadged Nissan Patrol. Somehow Ford were able to market a complete range that pretty much mirrored Nissan‘s offerings; the cab-chassis pick up, SWB wagon and volume-selling LWB wagon were all offered. Ford were able to discount for fleets, country folk liked buying from their local Ford dealer and the buying public were more forgiving of a 4WD vehicle when they all looked like tool boxes on wheels.
Ford and Nissan also shared Nissan‘s Japanese Bluebird-based, front-wheel-drive Pintara as well. Despite some quality issues and poor sales that lead to the demise of Nissan as a manufacturer in Australia, Ford‘s Corsair version had some excellent styling changes that actually made it look better and more upmarket that the Nissan Pintara it was based on.
However, the butter knife of success did not cut both ways and Nissan got The Ute. Not just ANY ute, but The Ute.
Instantly recognisable items such as the grille and steering wheel were purely Falcon, with the grille even hiding an oval-shaped aperture for the Ford emblem under the large Nissan sourced badge that was a leftover Patrol item (possibly leftover from all those Ford-badged Mavericks), while the Falcon‘s other quirks of an umbrella-style, under-dash handbrake and the horn button on the end of the indicator stalk also made it through intact.
Hell, who are we kidding? The only Nissan parts on the Nissan The Ute were the front badge, steering wheel badge and the stickers on the side and rear.
Needless to say, when your product is, on the local market at least, as recognisably a Ford as an Edsel, the Nissan badge wasn’t going to fool anyone and as many as a billion percent of these cars are now either dead or wearing Ford badges.
Onto the first mention of Holden in our badge engineered roundup. Back in the 1950s, things at Holden were going well; they had over 50 percent of the new car market with a single model (yes, you read that right 50%); they completely dominated the Aussie market with a couple of trim levels and four body styles. Then people started to realise they wanted other cars and annoyingly, manufacturers starting building and importing them.
By the 1980s, it was apparent that economies of scale would not allow a company like Holden, a rapidly-shrinking big fish in a small pond, to pump out more than one or two models of their own design. While their first badge-engineered effort, the Holden-assembled version of the Vauxhall Viva would eventually go on to become the Torana, which was as Australian as desert-based serial killings, others would remain strange and obscure.
Holden had success in the 1970s with the Isuzu-built, Chevrolet badged LUV pick up and continued this with its Isuzu replacement, the Holden Rodeo. This vehicle was sold globally with a variety of names including LUV, P‘Up and Faster. Like the Rodeo, Isuzu also provided Holden with the exclusive marketing its Trooper, this time as the Holden Jackaroo, wearing a name so Australian (meaning stockman or farmhand), it practically invented drop bears and shat koalas.
Enter the Holden Drover. Like the Jackaroo, it had a typically Aussie, salt-of-the-earth, honest-to-goodness, farming name. Unlike the Jackaroo, it was a Suzuki Sierra, and like all badge-engineered cars, the question arose as to why you would buy a Suzuki Sierra from your local Holden dealer when you could get one from your Suzuki dealer, unless of course you were sleeping with him.
Holden marketed several of Suzuki’s versions, including the wagon in standard roof and high-roof format, as well as a pick up and a long-wheel-base pick up. Tragically, the farmers who built this nation and spent the last thirty five years buying Holden utes weren‘t about to downgrade to a Kei-regulation compliant Japanese four-wheel-drive, especially when the Suzuki version already had a great reputation for doing what it could do well. Just as a Suzuki instead.
Holden really have a mixed track record on their badge-engineered cars. The story of the makes and models of cars that Holden have sold as their own could, if documented, fill up the entire Internet itself. They have sold models from Isuzu, Toyota, Nissan, Suzuki, Chevrolet and Opel. And those are just the ones we could count on one hand off the top of our head.
While the Holden Drover was as Australian as a Japanese exchange student, it couldn’t be mentioned without the other Suzuki-built commercial vehicle marketed by Holden in the 1980s.
Kei cars are a particularly weird class of car; built specifically to fit into certain tax and insurance bracket in their home market of Japan, something that has failed to stop them leaking out of Japan through the sieve of good automotive taste (due to their size, you see) and onto the roads of the world.
Kei cars have enjoyed good success in Australia, with Suzuki having particular success with micro-hatches like the Alto and the hilariously named Mighty Boy utility vehicle. However, it is the one-box-van Suzuki Carry that has possibly been most enthusiastically received by both florists and inner-city dry cleaners alike.
None of this explains why Holden decided that they could improve on the idea by fitting a grey plastic front garnish and calling it a Scurry. Like the Holden Drover, it was a decidedly Japanese and filled a gap in the market that nobody knew existed until Suzuki brought these vehicles out for themselves. Sure, the Carry had competitors, namely the Daihatsu Hi-Jet locally and any number of unique or badge-engineered machines resembling Godzilla droppings back in Japan, but the Carry was a success story, certainly here in non-Kei-regulated Australia.
Sure, the Scurry had a cute name and enjoyed some fully-sick, 1980‘s computer-graph-paper inspired front garnish it shared with the UK-market Bedford Rascal, but overall it really just wasn‘t a Holden in as many ways that an Ultravox LP just wasn‘t a Holden either.
Last but not least, or maybe least depending on how you look at it is the Lexcen. To give a bit of background, the model sharing program between Ford and Nissan, Ford and Mazda and finally Holden and pretty much everyone else, was partially the result of Australia‘s small economy of scale, but more so it was the result of the Motor Industry Development Plan, aka the Button Plan.
Senator John Button, Australia‘s then-Minister for Commerce, Trade and Industry felt that Australia‘s motor industry was too dependent on protection by import tariffs and that the thirteen different models that the five Aussie manufacturers were building were just plain too many.
The plan was to force manufacturers to build cars of greater quality that were more competitive on a world scale, with some models and even some manufacturers being sacrificed for the greater good. Manufacturers had to look to each other for support in market segments they could no longer fill themselves. Holden initially teamed up with Nissan and built the Astra, which was a localised N13 Nissan Pulsar with a Holden-built engine. The car achieved some success, mostly because it looked different enough from the Pulsar to fool Joe Public.
HOWEVER, this relationship did not last and the Holden Astra was replaced by the equally space-age-named Holden Nova. Around the same time, Holden also introduced the Apollo. Foreigners would point and stare; why do these cars that are blatantly a Toyota Corolla and Camry respectively sport Holden badges?
Thanks to the Button Plan, the UAAI joint venture was born; a joint venture between Holden and Toyota Australia to share models and technology. While the Nova and Apollo twins filled a hole in Holden‘s small and mid-size car range that was vacated by the Astra/Pulsar and Camira/GM J-car, things were also designed to go both ways.
Thus, Toyota introduced the Toyota Lexcen. While the Nova and Apollo enjoyed some minor trim and brightwork differences to try to fool the Australian public into thinking they were different cars, the Holden Commodore-based Toyota Lexcen had a new grille and orange indicators, rather than white indicators.
And that‘s it. Oh and a colour-keyed rear garnish panel, rather than grey or black.
Now it was one thing to pin Holden‘s small and medium-size dreams on Holden-ified versions of local Japanese cars, but to share the Commodore, Holden ‘s bread-and-butter, mainstream Aussie local car… the MAIN thing they sold, was something akin to travesty.
Worse still, the VN-model Commodore on which the Lexcen was based, was decidedly undercooked, with Opel doors, an archaic Buick V6 engine, narrow VL-Commodore-spec front end and the build quality of a Quarter Pounder-with-cheese, except if it was missing the cheese.
To make matters even worse, the Toyota was named after Ben Lexcen the designer of the winged keel, an invention that took the racing sailboat Australia II to victory in the 1983 America‘s Cup, ending 132 years’ of US domination. While the notion of naming after Ben Lexcen in itself wasn’t a problem, Ben Lexcen wasn’t his real name.
As Robert Miller, he had founded a company with Alan Bond and upon leaving that company, found that his name was being retained as part of the business name. Not wanting to confuse matters, he changed his name to Ben Lexcen, after the least common name in the Reader‘s Digest subscription database. As you do.
But wait! There‘s more!
The Toyota Lexcen was released in 1988, about fifteen minutes before the first of Toyota ‘s all-new luxury model, the Lexus LS400. Pretty much everyone who could breathe knew the Lexus was a glorified Toyota, regardless of how competent it was as a luxury car (JDM-versions were the Toyota Celsior, after all), but of course Toyota were keen to distance themselves from Lexus, wishing the brand to be a stand-alone marque akin to BMW or Mercedes Benz.
However, anyone who can speak any kind of English will notice that Lexcen and Lexus sound pretty similar, and more than one executive businessman who thought they were getting promoted into a $140,000 Lexus company car found themselves in a ridiculous Commodore with Toyota badges.
Best of all, the gurus in Toyota‘s marketing department saw it fit to advertise the Toyota Lexcen as ‘a little bit different‘. The jingle including some awesome lines such as ‘we’re a little bit different‘ and ‘all you have to do to be a Lexcen family is be a little bit different‘. Wait, and instead of ‘oh what a feeling!‘ how about, ‘oh what a different feeling!‘?
Sooo different. In fact, the word ‘different‘ was used in that jingle no less than four times. Sorry Toyota, but using ‘different‘ four times in a jingle does not make your car four times different to the Commodore, especially when It‘s exactly the fucking same.
To be fair to Toyota, the next model, based off the VP-model Commodore, did feature different (there’s that word again) indicators and quarter panels, rather than just moulding them in orange plastic, however the VR and VS-based Lexcens were pretty much just Commodores.
Fortunately, with the UAAI agreement between Holden and Toyota pretty much dead by 1997, Holden launched the all-new (except for engines, rear suspension and the c-pillar garnish panel) VT-model Commodore late in 1997 to uproarious applause and record-breaking sales, burying the stillborn VT-spec Lexcen in a pit of embarrassment somewhere at Fisherman ‘s Bend.