The Land Rover Writer

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Twin Spokesmen With Opposite Messages

Two veteran actors passed away recently. Both proved to be spokesmen for opposite approaches to building and selling automobiles.

Patrick McGoohan, the English actor who gained television fame in "Secret Agent Man" one of the finest Columbo episodes ever [it's the "urinal" episode], and "The Prisoner." The latter took "The Avengers" and swept away the humor. It spoke of a dark world in which a character, known only as Number 6, tries to figure out who he is and where he is being held; it's a mix of drama and science fiction. In the manner of great British series of the '60's, only 17 episodes were made, despite its commercial success on the air.

The signature opening of the show was McGoohan [presumably] in a Lotus 7, a tiny, light, cycle fendered sports car, that in the '860's of American cars, looked like an escapee from a carnival ride. They handled better than most race cars, offered minimal interior comfort, had hankie-in-the-wind tops and flapping side curtains. They weighed about as much as a Twinkie so their small engines could still propel them to fantastic speeds. Your passenger, should they be brave, sat about 2 inches to your right and still could barely hear you over the roar of wind, engine and transmission.

When McGoohan died recently and media commentators spoke of his career [his last big role was in Braveheart], they went right to the visual impact of this little car speeding down a road on a quest for freedom. To drivers of any American car, the Lotus 7 was an impossible consideration as transportation. I still want one.

Its antithesis was the Chrysler Cordoba,hawked on television and print in a memorable advertising campaign.

Ricardo Montalban, notorious for his role on Fantasy Island and as an evil warrior in Star Trek movies, rose to fame in movies as one of the first Mexican-born leading men in US films. For the automotive world, his timeless notoriety came out of his time as a spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba, a "personal luxury car" for the '70's.

The Cordoba resembled something you would design in study hall if you had come to school stoned. The car featured one wretched excess after another: a garish grille; a wide body stance that from the rear, looked like an offensive guard on an NFL team; a vinyl roof; more bling than an NBA draft choice; and two doors too big for most barns. That said, the car sold awfully well during the decades that cemented Detroit's current reputation for unsalable cars.

But it was the interior that made Montalban's career as a car spokesman. In a hard-to-believe accent, Montalban extolled interiors of "fine Corinthian leather." Decked out in a suit that only a "Saturday Night Fever" extra could love, in a shirt with collar points larger than the wings on a 747, he let his tongue trill over the word "Corinthian." Clearly buyers sweated bullets in their polyester suits and headed right for the dealership. Except, of course, there's no such thing as "Corinthian leather." The seats were just a fancy vinyl.

How opposite the messages presented by these two spokesmen, now sadly departed.

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