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  • Michael Spencer

Soundings: thousands of sounds for millions of cars

By Bernard Carey.

Those UK residents who watched television in the 60s (1960s that is) will recognise this title as borrowed from a Unipart commercial (“Thousands of parts, for millions of cars, U-ni-part!”). Since I remember the words and the tune it was either a very good precursor of audio branding or I watched too much television as a youth.  It was a great example of creating a sound for a brand.

At the time, Unipart was still a subsidiary of British Leyland, whose brands are now in the hands of Ford (LandRover and Jaguar), BMW(Mini) and two Chinese car manufacturers, SAIC and NAC, (Rover and MG).

I worked at BMW/Rover form 1994 to 2002, and saw first hand how the quality and perfectionism of BMW permeated Rover’s thinking through this era. (I won’t comment here on the ultimate outcome; that’s another story). One episode that sticks in my mind was when the Rover Board was reviewing the design and build quality of BMWs generally, and gathered round inside a 5 Series to watch the Engineering director pulling and releasing the grab handle above the passenger doors. Unlike its Rover counterpart it didn’t snap back with a ‘crack!’, but gently and silently ‘shushed’ back into place. The use of a dampener gave a level of customer satisfaction probably well above the cost of its application, and the hushed version was soon a feature of the Group’s upmarket models.

At the time Rover also had a quality control process based on trying to iron out PAFs, or Particularly Annoying Faults, that the consumer had identified. (I never did establish what a FAF was, always too polite to ask). It was surprising how many of these PAFs included an irritating sound; a squeak from a seat, or a bump from the suspension, or a too loud noise from the engine.  As the Ford executive recognised, sometimes the best noises are none at all and half the engineer’s task is to kill the sound. Anyone remember the VW commercial where the source of an irritating squeak was found to be a medallion hung up on the rear-view mirror?

But certain sounds in cars do enhance the enjoyment; the reassuring shut of the door; the gentle swish of the wiper blades; the click of a fastened seatbelt (sorry America, but it’s the law in Europe);the purring of the engine; and the growling of a performance car being revved through the gears. Warning sounds are there to be annoying enough to persuade you to act (though I must have a word with my manufacturer about the seat belt ‘ping’ when I take it off to reverse.)

Car manufacturers have used focus groups and consumer panels in recent years to determine the sounds that work best for the customer. In some cases engines have been re-tuned to make them sound sportier, even when the performance belies the result. Recently there is much more research available on the physical, neurological and emotional responses to sounds, so perhaps it is time for car manufacturers to revisit their sonic thesaurus and determine sounds that can help the driver concentrate, make emergency responses quicker and more effective, and dare I say it, keep the driver awake at the wheel (Japanese manufacturers are already testing this).

All of these sounds, together with everything else that builds a brands values – performance, reliability, service, design, comfort, value – are vital in enriching the relationship with in the customer. And car makers, like all brands, need to be constantly aware that these sounds should be consistent with the brand, as should all sound and music they employ in commercials, at exhibitions, at conferences, on websites and in the showroom.

One last thought. I recall when we launched the new MGf in 1995, after many years when aficionados thought it would never happen. The first bunch of journalists at the press launch stood by one car and listened while their colleague revved the engine. If it didn’t sound like an MG, it wouldn’t matter how it drove, it just would not be the real thing. Thankfully it passed with flying colours, and the MGf became one of Rover’s few successes in those years.  Brrrm Brrrrm!

My thanks to Noel Franus for spurring on my reminiscences!

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