A Transcultural Study of the Acculturation of Consumer Goods, 1918-1933


researcher: Nicola Dropmann

German Cars in London
Cars changed Britain. The 1920s saw the widespread installation of petrol stations; in 1925, the first traffic lights were installed in London; in 1930, a car made it onto the cover of Vogue; and by the middle of the 1930 more than a million cars were registered in the United Kingdom. The car had become a central part of Europe’s and America’s cultural and economic life – an object of desire for consumers and producers alike (for a social history of the car in Britain see Plowden 1973; Perkin 1976; Richardson 1977; for the interwar period see O’Connell 1995). However, the car was a German invention and had to be imported to Britain.

Contrary to the centrality of the car in Western culture, “as a subject of scholarly inquiry the automobile remains vastly underexamined” (Volti 1996: 663). Those studies that go beyond mere connoisseurship (although helpful: Wood 1985; Sachs 1992; Baldwin 1994; Butterfield 2005) on the one hand and purely economic considerations on the other, are almost exclusively concentrated on the US (see Volti 1996 for an overview of studies up to the mid-90s; for more recent studies see McCracken 2005; cf. Flink 1975; Wollen / Kerr 2002; Volti 2004). Automobile cultures in other countries are most often understood in terms of Americanization (cf. Volti 1996: 684-85); only recently, and only for the late twentieth-century, some studies have begun to analyse the adaptation process of global car manufacturers to regional markets (Humphrey / Lecler / Salerno 2000; Carillo / Lung / Tulder 2004).

But although US-American mass produced cars were the most important imports to the British market, relations to European countries were also of considerable importance. This study sets out to analyse the marketing and the reception of German cars in Britain between the wars. In 1938, Germany’s automobile production was second only to Britain, and indeed threatening the UK as Europe’s leading car manufacturer (Flik 2001; for the importance of cars for the resurgence of German economy see Overy 1975). As a consequence, it seems, the British car industry became distinctly nationalistic. An advertisement for Morris urges the consumer: “If you don’t buy Morris at least buy a car made in the United Kingdom” (The Autocar, 4 March 1938). It will be a central task of this part of the project to analyse how the image of German cars changed throughout the 1930s, and in how far this was determined by political considerations. In other words, the question of the autonomy of the economic system will have to come under close scrutiny.
However, the image of cars, as it is being debated in the diverse automobile magazines of the time (which were often industry funded), is not only influenced by economic rivalry, and, increasingly, the political relations between Germany and the United Kingdom. In a way unknown to the other products to be scrutinized in this project, the image of automobiles is heavily influenced by the realm of (motor) sports; success on the track was often an important factor in marketing a particular good. Therefore, it will be necessary to take into account reporting of these sporting events, in the newspapers, but also in the then popular newsreels. Mercedes-Benz, for example, is famous for exploiting the success of their Silberpfeil to enhance their image as producers of sports cars. But how was the success in sport transferred into economic success? Did the companies employ this as a strategy?

Also, cars are different to the other products of this study as they rely much more on a brand image. Here, it is less the individual product, or the retailer, but the manufacturing company that stands behind the image of the good. Mercedes, again, would be a case in point here. In order to understand the manufacturing of a brand image, it will be necessary to look at the strategies of the companies in question. Also, the role of (visual) advertising – which blossomed in the 1930s (cf. Wilkinson 1997) – in the construction of a ‘marque’ will have to be analysed. However, while Johnson (1986) provides a biased and thoroughly non-academic account of the pre-war influence of Mercedes in Britain, the role of German cars in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s seems not to have been analysed at all.
Central resources for this study can be found in carmakers archives (Daimler-Chrysler Archives, Stuttgart, etc.), the Royal Automobile Club Archives and the British Library Newspaper Collection.