Volvo Chases the Yuan

I will attempt not to sprinkle this blog post with too many profanities.

Background: Yesterday I sat down and managed to read a book I had procured, and whose title could perhaps be translated as Overdrive. Lars Henriksson, the author, has been working for Volvo since the 60’s, and is a member of the Socialist Party. It’s packed with numbers, statistics, history and personal experiences, and gives a car hater such as myself plenty of high octane fuel in the tank. I’ll probably have reason to return to this book in future blog posts.

The most interesting part of the book for me is that Lars Henriksson proposes that the car industry could play a pivotal role in a change towards a more sustainable society. I hadn’t really thought about the future of the car industry, to be honest. Lars claims that the car industry is an incredibly flexible mechanism, and that it would be very bad to just let them die and hope that something better rises from the ruins, because a lot of know-how has been accumulated in for example Volvo over the years. Lars gives the example of how the Allies were able to transform their car industries to making bomb planes instead. The assembly lines’ step from car to train or solar panel could be quite short.

With that in mind, I am highly alarmed by the fact that today Geely (a large Chinese car company, which is the new owner of Volvo) has decided that Volvo is going to aim for the production of luxury cars. The new Chinese middle class likes big, gas-guzzling cars, as it is a sign of wealth. Not particularly good considering that peak oil is around the corner, and it is an incredible waste of resources. I feel that Volvo is spitting us in the face. But I suppose they’re only acting according to their capitalist motives, which is to make profit. And the Chinese are simply following in the footsteps of the West, surely we cannot blame them for emulating our societies? Still, this enrages, and scares me a whole lot. Revolution out of nowhere, sudden aftershock of the financial crisis, right now I feel that anything would be good to stop this development…

I’ll end with a quote from the book:

The Mafia

The large auditorium was packed to the brim with foremen, bosses and lower union representatives. It was close to the launch of the car which would soon begin production in the factory and we would be enthusiastic by taking part of a first sample and receive some of the underlying philosophy.

It was not so much a car which was presented to us. A few snapshots of details whose design had been tested in various customer surveys and which would make this particular car stand out from the competitors. Of course it wasn’t mentioned that this car, which billions [of SEK] had been put on development, did exactly the same thing as the last model and like the competitors: provide a number of people with the possibility of transportion between different places. But this basic quality is so obvious that it’s not possible to compete with that as an argument.

Instead it was a nearly religious message the bosses in charge gave to us. This little brotherhood, so fulfilled by their own importance that they without presentation called themselves Hasse, Nisse and Bosse, didn’t present a car – it was more of a religious experience, a lifestyle and an identity which would soon come to us. Because all cars are driveable it was the idea of the car and not its tedious material manifestation which was presented and would be used in marketing.

“By buying this particular car the client shows that he, or possibly she, is a person with clear values”, said Hasse (or was it Bosse? or Nisse?). “A person that cares but still has taste and wants to show it. Through the choice of his car he makes a statement, about who he is and what he stands for”, explained Hasse-Bosse-Nisse.

What we would soon weld, paint and screw together was as such not as much a modern but quite ordinary motor vehicle, but more a lifestyle which would be revealed to humanity. Something many wait for without knowing it.

Because the enthusiastic evangelium perhaps didn’t light the life spirits enough in the hot and oxygen-poor building but seemed to go over the head on the gathering one of the prophets (Hasse? Nisse? Bosse?) felt moved to leave the presentation’s script and of biblical pattern explain himself with a simile.

“Take Moscow”, he said. “If one drives around there with a Mercedes it suggests that one belongs to the mafia. And then we have an alternative for those who want to express something else.”

Then he suddenly fell silent and stared, hit by an insight, out into nothing. In the lack of a script he lost himself in a new thought and began to speak, if not in tounges, at least without thinking.

“Though of course, it’s the mafia who has the money…”

He let his words hang in the air too long. During a few seconds and angel went through the room and I imagined that onehundred and fifty people thought the same thing as I:

“And who is it that you want to buy the cars if it’s the mafia who has the money? And is it on average, in the world, ‘the good guys’ who have the cash?”

The illusion of lifestyle, consideration and values burst and the raw economy’s real and not particularly pleasing face appeared for a moment. Production happens neither to express values or fulfill needs. The only thing that counts is buying power needs, people with money to put it simply. And how they got the money is actually not very interesting for the one with something to sell.

Before the silence and the thoughts that grew in it became too pressing, Nisse (Bosse? Hasse?)  got to his senses, shook his head a bit and said:

“Well, we should at least have an alternative”, and returned to the script of today’s preaching.

In time Volvo’s city jeeps became quite popular in Russia. When I drive one of them out of the factory and park them on the Russia row I often wonder who it is which has ordered the car.


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