If you attend the press days at a global auto show it’s not uncommon to see men with clipboards pouring over a new car. Back in the day, it was usually a Japanese engineer with a complex pre-printed form to fill out.
Indeed, the bench markers were famously first exposed when the Land Rover Discovery made its motor show debut back in 1989. According to the story, a Japanese engineer – equipped with a razor blade and matchbox – was caught slicing away samples of the Discovery’s interior.
If you’re old enough you might remember that the Discovery's interior was much hyped at the time, having been developed with the help of designers Conran and then winning a British Design Council award.
You can understand that the Japanese carmakers of the time were anxious about the arrival of the Discovery: in a segment that had been dominated by brands such as Toyota and Mitsubishi, the arrival of a rival with a much more car-like interior was a big move in what was then the market for utilitarian off-roaders.
Today, however, the bench markers are no longer surreptitious individuals concerned with keeping track of major product initiatives. This week’s Frankfurt motor show was host to the most audacious and widespread detailed examination of cars I’ve seen in two decades of attending motor shows.
I snapped this picture on the Mazda stand last Tuesday. All three of the people you can see were making detailed notes about the 3’s interior. But this picture above doesn’t quite show the extraordinary intensity of benchmarking going on: there are another two note-takers that you can’t see from this angle.
Another new development was the number of young women wielding notebooks and tape measures. The second picture is of a female designer measuring the depth the Mazda 3’s rear cupholders, and I have another of a girl taking close-up snaps of seat fabrics.
I’m not sure what’s happening here, but it might be that the auto industry’s colour and trim departments are now out in force as interior quality and material finishes (areas entirely in the hands of these departments) have never been more important.
Of course, the traditional male note takers were also out and about at Frankfurt, getting down into the detail of the sound deadening used on the underside of the Mazda’s 3’s parcel shelf and the way the tailgate struts are attached.
But it was the sheer number of note takers was a really big surprise. Is the car industry so cut throat that makers need a low-down on their rival’s new products 24 hours after they appear in public?