The perils of motoring austerity | Axon's Automotive Anorak

14th September 2023
Gary Axon

Decontenting. It is a word that is seldom used, but within the motor industry, decontenting is often feared and considered to be something of a dirty word. In car terms, decontenting is the removal some of the features from an automobile, in many cases, to be able to sell it more cheaply.


I can personally testify that decontenting can be a disliked word and painful practice, from my time in my previous life pre-Goodwood as a long-term Product Planning Manager for both the UK and Europe with a premium European car maker. I often had to do battle with the unsympathetic ‘bean counters’ that held the purse strings to try and protect and retain content from being deleted from a car for the latest model year. 

I was recently reminded of the curse of accountants and decontenting when a friend announced that he had just replaced his ageing Alfa Romeo 156 with a late 2005 Rover 75; a fine car that I wholeheartedly approve of. Though the 75 was an exceptionally fine car, by 2005 The Rover Group was sadly on its last knockings and struggling for its very survival.

In its constant challenge to make money (or rather, stop losing it hand over fist), the Phoenix Four (the management team that took over MG Rover when BMW abandoned its ‘English patient’ in the late 1990s) introduced its troubling ‘Project Drive’ decontenting cost-saving initiative across the entire Rover and MG. The Project Drive programme began in November 2000 and impacted the Rover 75 more than any other contemporary model in the MG Rover range, by decontenting many of the premium features which had helped to make the initial 75s so special, particularly the model’s very British interior.

This decontenting drive was aimed by Phoenix to try and keep Rover 75 (and its other models) priced competitively, though they were already all on the high side of their respective segments, to maintain the illusion that Rover was a premium brand.


The standard specification of all Rover 75s built after January 2001 gradually began to reduce after the Project Drive programme kicked on, with subtle losses, such as the deletion of the leather handbrake grip and removal of the embossing from the headrests and key fobs. Over time the distinctive torpedo-shaped chromed engine badges on the front doors disappeared, as did the seat belt mounting bolt capping and spare wheel/tyres, which were replaced by a cheaper tyre foam canister.

More serious and substantial changes were to follow, meaning that my friend’s newly purchased 2005 example was lacking in quite a few more in-depth areas over an earlier 75. The lovely real walnut dashboard was replaced by a cheaper (to source and to touch/look at) plastic substitute, which altered the special premium/luxury British ambience of the 75’s charming interior. The the 75 1.8-litre and CDT saloons, th rear anti-roll Baer was removed as a cost cutting gesture, and even the model’s luxury leather document wallet was replaced by a cheap plastic pouch.

The 75’s mild 2004 styling facelift added to the decontenting push, the Project Drive forcing the further removal of the chrome trim, now gone from the front and rear bumpers with the instrumentation dumbed down to cheaper, tawdry ZT levels too to help reduce costs. The number of 75 model variants were also reduced to half trim complexity and costs, and the quality of materials overall were cheapened, this detracting from the premium feel of the earlier Rovers. 

Alas, all of these Project Drive cost-cutting measures were in vain, as by April 2005, the money had simply run out for Rover and its historic ex-Austin Longbridge factory gates were closed. The complex negotiations with the supposed Chinese saviours of the Company failed to materialise, closing Rover down for good. The Rover 75 resurfaced for the Chinese market only as the modified Roewe 750, with much of the model’s British niceties not restored.


One of the other car manufacturers to have disappeared during the 21st Century – Saab – was also more than accustomed to decontenting. In fact, decontenting was one of the reasons Saab ceased to thrive or survive! As the Swedish marque’s Product Planning manager for some years, I lived through much of the torment and frustrations caused by Saab’s new masters – General Motors (GM) – which never fully understood the subtilise of the Saab brand or its highly well educated, independent and individual customers. As a vehicle maker more accustomed to developing new models to a price constraint, rather than quality, GM was much too focused on the final profit margin to ever allow the innovative, engineering-led Saab the freedom and flexibly to do things its own way, rather the follow the stifling GM ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ business approach. 

One example of this cost-conscious approach that springs to mind, with new cars built down to a price, potentially at the alter of quality, was the boot floor covering of the versatile Saab 9000 CS hatch. Some bright spark within GM (briefly) introduced a initiative for the Trollhattan factory-based production line staff to save costs; a scheme it had enjoyed a degree of success with in its other global brand factories at Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, and so on. 

This scheme rewarded any employee that suggested a potential cost saving with a heathy bonus. In Saab’s case, a Trollhattan production line worker suggested cutting off a section of the plush boot carpet, previously found under the split folding rear seat base, unseen when the seat was up in its usual position, as found at the rear of a 9000 CS. The cost saving for each small slither of carpet was deemed enough by GM to award the Saab factory employee a cash prize large enough to fund a brand new house extension he had previously been saving for. 

This might have been fine, where it not for the fact that historically Saab enjoyed the highest customer retention loyalty of any car brand globally, meaning that former 9000 owners soon noticed the lack of carpet under the foldable rear seat squab. They soon protested at this cheapskate solution, forcing Saab through goodwill and reputation-saving to restore the full-length carpet within weeks of making this ‘false economy’ change. GM swiftly withdrew its employee cost saving idea initiative, by which time the employee had already gone ahead and had his new extension built, meaning that GM couldn’t reclaim its award and this short-sighted piece of decontenting actually lost the corporation money.


GM didn’t get it all its own way when it came to decontenting with Saab. The platform strength of the Opel Ascona C/Vauxhall Cavalier simply wasn’t good enough for Saab’s safety engineers for the New 9-3, where safety was an absolute priority, so Trollhattan set about substantially improving and modifying the platform to make it meet Saab’s class-leading safety standards.

This didn’t impress GM, but it couldn’t really argue against the Saab modifications as quite rightly, safety must be everything. Let’s just say the the Swedes would not want to risk having an accident in a Cavalier! The same applied to the GM sat nav system which failed too meet Saab’s exacting standards. Saab was the very first motor manufacturer to introduce the Blue Tooth feature on a production car, as it tied in very well with the marque’s customer profile.

This added cost and complexity, but Saab won the argument over the more basic and inferior system fitted to other GM brand models.

Saab lost its fight to retain its pioneering New 9-3 door handles though as part of GM’s cost cutting decontenting scheme. The original New 9-3 had protruding door handles that were used by the Swedish emergency services as the default to illustrate how all vehicle door handles should be. They were super strong and designed so that a rope could be tied around them in an accident emergency to open the door and get the occupants out. The ‘regular’ flat plastic GM door handles that Saab was forced to fit to the last of the 9-3 may have looked aesthetically more pleasing and aerodynamic, but they were far less effective in an emergency situation. So much for decontenting and cost saving…


I’ve noticed more recently that Tesla has obviously been going through a similar cost saving decontenting session. The EV brand’s stylised chrome ’T’ logo used to be a nicely produced and prominent badge, with the T emblem said to have been personally styled by Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk – with the T naturally standing for Tesla, with the lower portion representing a cross-section of an electric motor part. This stand-alone badge has now been replaced by a lighter and cheaper chrome sticker, that appears both cheap to the eye and touch.

Decontenting was also applied to the Tesla Model S sometime earlier, when the car lost its distinctive (but cosmetic only) grille. Both the larger Telsa Model S and Model Y derivatives sold in the UK and other RHD markets have now been confined to LHD steering only, due to an extreme model simplification cost-cutting programme, effectively killing off their British sales appeal at a stroke.

For a number of years, some of the premium German brands – particularly BMW – used to shave costs by actually charging the customer for something they did have or want. In the 1980s-90s, for example, BMW, famously offered a delete option badge, charging its clients extra NOT to fit a model badge on the car boot lid. It also offered an optional smokers pack for extra model, making its customers pay more for the privilege of have a 12-volt power outlet, plus ashtray. Possibly the ultimate in decontenting, for the ultimate driving machine! 

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