The Michelin Guide may have started as a marketing ruse, but its longevity is testament to the impact it made on the fledgling motoring industry. By Brendan Cormier
There are not one but two little red books that marked the 20th century in indelible ways: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, and the Michelin Guide. The more recognised of the two is of course is the former, a compilation of pithy party lines that spread communist fandom around the world. The latter seems trite by comparison: a useful listing of places to go and eat. The two could not be further apart. Whereas the first drummed up visions of a harmonious society forged through collective sacrifice and hard work, the other was a hedonistic paint-by-numbers, a capitalist rallying cry for excessive consumption via the car and the open road.
The Michelin Guide was also a stunningly successful case of strategic design. It began at the end of the 19th century when a French tyre company had a decent product but there was very little demand for it. While the bulk of Michelin’s early business had been bicycle tyres, it was keen to break into the emerging automobile industry. Motoring, however, was still very much a niche activity in France, a hobby for ambitious inventor-engineers and the extremely well-off. There were also major impediments to automobile use: road conditions were bad, signage was absent, and there were very few reliable guides to help motorists get around.
In 1900, in an attempt to bolster demand, Michelin printed the first edition of its little red book, comprising a simple layout of automobile routes across France along with local amenities. It contained hotel and restaurant listings but, more importantly for the time, places where one could buy petrol and where mechanics could be found (there were only 600 in the whole country). Other curious symbols in the guide denoted telephone access, train stations in case your car should break down completely, and hotels with darkrooms for motorists who practised photography.
Michelin launched the publication in August, during the height of the Exposition Universelle in Paris, which saw thousands of tourists flood the city. It gave out 35,000 copies for free, far outstripping its immediate use; only 2,897 cars were registered in the country at the time. But herein lay the genius of the company’s strategy. Michelin wasn’t trying to serve an industry, it was trying to create one. It would do so by turning motoring from an obscure hobby into a desirable consumer pastime, inspiring people to buy more automobiles, and thus more tyres.
The guide was just one of several tactics the company contrived to make driving easier and more attractive. It commissioned, for instance, a photographic road survey, showing road conditions in countries around the globe, which was used to lobby for better road investment. It produced road signs for free, which announced a driver’s arrival into villages and towns across France (no universal signage system existed at the time). It also offered a free travel service: by ringing a number in Paris and expressing your desired destination, you would receive a printed itinerary by post.
In 1926, the guide began adding a star next to hotels known for having excellent cuisine. In 1933 restaurants were added, with ratings of two and three stars. Gastronomy had become a major driver of tourism and the rating system was designed to exploit that. As the guide expanded to more and more countries, so too did the star system. In 1931, there were 19 three-star restaurants, limited to just France. Today there are 131 three-star restaurants across 18 countries, with Japan claiming the most. The system now consumes the attention of restaurateurs and foodies alike, with more people knowing Michelin as a restaurant-rating system than as a tyre company.
The Michelin Guide’s original mission – to inspire people to buy cars – has long since been achieved. It helped to normalise what was originally an eccentric contraption, giving it meaning and purpose. Our modern mobility system is now so dependent on cars that it seems hard to imagine that such marketing tactics were ever necessary. It recalls a common fallacy, that any technology that is ubiquitous has become so because it is the best and most rational to hand.
But there was never anything rational about the car. The Italian architect Paolo Soleri once quipped that a car is ‘5,000 pounds of metal using six gallons of poisonous fumes to transport 150 pounds of flesh who wants to buy one pack of cigarettes’. In this light, the Michelin Guide – along with the sustained marketing efforts of car companies – performed an act of magic, transforming an impractical heap of metal, rubber and oil into an object of desire.
The original version of this article appeared in Icon 198, on craft, making and design in a post-industrial age