Black bumpers and steelies: we want proper base models

General Bunk
Do you miss the days when a base model meant a moulded black bumper, steel wheels and a single door mirror? We do, which is why we love these photoshops.

“I want proper base models. A Ghia or RS was always more exciting when it came five pages after a Popular in the brochure.”

Roy McCarthy – he of A is for Allegro fame – thought he was posting a “boring thought” on Twitter and expected his tweet to go largely unnoticed. Not a chance.

Just 24 hours later, the tweet had been liked 273 times, retweeted 29 times and had sparked 43 responses. These numbers are continuing to rise. Roy isn’t alone in his love of a proper poverty-spec model – like Amiel Daemion, there are plenty of people who are hopelessly addicted to base.

Sitting at the bottom of the range, the base model is a car in its most naked form, devoid of makeup, glitter and glam. It’s a world of unpainted bumpers, steel wheels and solid paint. You’re not expected to buy them – the base model is designed to lure you into a showroom, where the salesman will encourage you to spend more money on a trim level more suited to a man or woman of your calibre.

They’re the result of a heated contest between the marketing and finance departments, with the former throwing bells and whistles at the base model, only for the latter to remove them again.

The Popular, City, L, TC or Merit models of the world represent a vehicle with the slimmest of profit margins. A lower price or an added extra could send the car into the red. And we’re not talking about solid red paint.

Sure, the base model has evolved. Whereas once upon a time it meant parking your corduroys on vinyl seats, living without a passenger sun visor, and using a box of Swan Vestas instead of a cigarette lighter, by the mid-80s, motorists were treated to 'luxuries' like a heated rear window, two-speed wipers and carpets.

1986 Ford Escort Popular

'Good deal' details

Today’s base models are less Scrooge-like with their specification and, as Roy points out, the top of the range cars look too much like the cheaper stuff. Dacia does a pretty decent job with the UN-spec Access versions of the Duster and Sandero, but you need to venture into the world of commercial vehicles for proper boggo vehicles.

Even the base model names have disappeared, replaced with nonsense like Play, Active and Touch. These aren’t trim levels, they're the names of rubber items dispensed by wall-mounted machines in pub toilets. Probably.

Roy’s Ford Focus Homage pays homage to the Ford Escort Popular, a three-door only model featuring ‘good deal’ details such as moulded black bumpers, locks for the doors, tailgate and fuel filler cap, halogen headlights, reversing lights, remote-control door mirrors, laminated windscreen and a heated rear window.

Upgrading to the ‘more-for-your-money’ Escort L meant colour-toned bumpers, side mouldings, wheel trims, a rear wash-wiper, velour carpet, a cigarette lighter, radio-cassette, space for the cassettes and adjustable head restraints.

Providing details of the GL and Ghia models would provide too much excitement before bedtime, so we'll spare you the details, but if you wanted to stay ahead of the Joneses, these were the Escorts to have. Telling your neighbours that your car had a digital clock was a big deal – no nasty analogue timepiece for you.

But this isn’t about the Ghias and the CDXs of the world. This is about yearning for the days when base models with black bumpers and exposed steel wheels propped up an entire range of cars. A time when a five-speed gearbox, hubcaps, a passenger door mirror and a light in the glovebox felt as decadent as sitting in a bath while chomping on a Flake.

We enjoyed making the journey from base to top – we knew where we stood and it gave us something to aim for. The brochures were like a life lesson – work hard at school and you might be able to afford a GL. With any luck, you could even stretch to a Ghia.

Thanks to the genius of Roy, we can enjoy some of today’s cars in their glorious base-spec majesty. Please enjoy the Renault Clio Campus, Nissan Qashqai 1.3 DX, Vauxhall Insignia Merit and MINI City in full ‘front of the brochure’ spec.

Marvellous, aren’t they?

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Click here to buy a copy of Roy's book, A is for Allegro: An Alphabet of Curious Cars.