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What Defines an American Car?

CNN’s “QuickVote” polls, which they offer on their website for the public to take, are often of questionable value, or at least questionable objectivity. In light of the “Will Renault/Nissan buy a minority stake in GM?” story flying around in the press today, CNN made tonight’s QuickVote poll: “What defines an American car?” The two choices are “Its style” and “Where it’s made.”

I picked choice number one, since that’s always, absolutely been what it’s about for me. Surprisingly, I noted that a vast majority of the poll participants voted “Where it’s made” instead. I guess this means we’ve all been conditioned to believe that a Toyota built in Tennessee is an American car? Same as a Camaro built in Canada is a Canadian car, and a Buick built in Mexico a Mexican car. (I wonder if these same folks would agree that a BMW built in South Carolina — and yes, they are built there — is not a German car but an American one? I bet BMW wouldn’t!)

To me, where a car is made is only a secondary part of the equation. What’s more important to me is who engineered it, who greenlighted it and where are the profits from its sale going? But above all of that, the number one most crucial issue, to me, is design. Style. The creative process that either results in an ugly pariah on wheels or a beautiful dream machine. And engineering aside, the style bestowed upon cars from the American Big Three has never required any special effort to win me over. It’s just my thing. The only other nation that’s captured this design spirit is Australia, and I’m not just saying that because I own a Holden Monaro — I found that out in 1998 when I visited Sydney, picked up some classic Aussie hot rod mags and realized, with a shock, that they were just like classic American hot rod mags.

Would you call the muscle car a style? In a sense, it is. And why do you think that the resurgence of the American muscle car — seen recently with the return of the GTO, the Shelby Mustang, the Camaro concept, the Charger, Challenger and all things Hemi — is garnering so much attention for the U.S. automakers? Because it’s something the Japanese car companies just can’t do, not because they’re incapable, but because no one would take them seriously if they did. It’s not their style, and it’s not part of their heritage — it’s part of ours.

And that, in my opinion, is what defines an American car — no matter where it’s built, it’s that inexorable spirit which must be present, that spirit of brash defiance, of freedom, of driving for driving’s sake. That spirit, which carries with it generations of gearheads, evening cruises and old, faded timeslips. Without those traits, it’s just another boring, too-perfect econobox, or a marvel of precision engineering with absolutely no soul. It’s not American, and it’s not something I care to drive. And for that I will make no apologies. Ever.

3 thoughts on “What Defines an American Car?

  1. I guess those dunderheads who voted in the CNN poll don’t care that their “‘Mericun-made Car” is compromised of a whole lot of Japanese and European parts, eh? That doesn’t matter, though, as long as the thing is physically assembled in the good old U. S. of A!

    As an aside, the Free Press had a sidebar today talking about whether or not the Nissan CEO could end up calling the shots if Nissan buys into GM. And the only thing I thought was, “Isn’t that the dude that AutoExtremist keeps ripping a new one for being a complete nincompoop in regards to running his business?” And the Freep was talking like this dude taking over would be a good thing (because he’s a hotshot young executive, apparently).

    As for the muscle cars themselves, my only big complaint with the recent surge of new muscle cars is that a lot of them end up looking pretty boring in the end, especially in comparison to the concepts. The concept Charger looked pretty cool. The actual Charger? Looks like every other single Dodge out there…except it has a bigger engine (and decails saying “Daytona” if you bought that model). And you know the Challenger won’t look anything like the concept, even though the concept is SO. FRIGGING. AWESOME.

  2. Yeah, the notion of buying American — with cars, anyway — is a little different these days. I think there are primarily two camps among people who prefer to purchase domestic cars. Some do it for the labor force (in other words, buy American and save our jobs!), and some do it for the style. The labor force argument, as you say, is starting to mean less because of all the parts coming from other countries. I believe the Pontiac Torrent has a Chinese engine, a Japanese transmission and is assembled in Ontario. So is it an American car or not? I’d say it is, because of the style it carries.

    Heh, that’s the thing that scares me about the whole Renault/Nissan/GM thing. If Carlos Ghosn (Mister Nissan) gets his claws around this, it’s all gonna go bang. Thing is, Ghosn was actually responsible for a big turnaround at Nissan over the last decade or so, so the media thinks he’d be perfect for the job. But now that he’s turned Nissan around, he’s been blinded by the tax savings the state of Tennessee is offering him, and he’s selling the whole company out to take advantage of it. Infiniti Group’s entire advanced product team is gone. The whole team. Kind of hard to care about tax breaks when you don’t have any product, but that’s just me…?

    Anyway, Nissan/Infiniti’s bottom line hasn’t started to see any real effects of Ghosn’s latest blundering yet, which is why no one except automotive analyists like Sweet Peet D (as Jalopnik calls the AutoExtremist columnist, heh) seems to have raised anything but “Great idea!!” reactions to Kerkorian’s grand GM plan. Anyway, the deal Kerkorian’s groupies are talking up is a minority interest in GM, not a controlling interest, which suggests to me that GM wouldn’t have to do anything they say. Which would be good, because the last thing GM needs is to sell a controlling interest in its management operations to a company whose management operations are slowly killing it. I think GM can do that pretty good by themselves.

    Agreed on the Charger; it’s just a damn shame how it turned out. I mean, the SRT-8 looks pretty mean, but once you climb inside the party’s sorta over…no manual transmission! And four doors, ugh. Big news yesterday was that the Challenger got greenlighted, as we all knew it would. I looked through the story for any clues as to whether Chrysler was gonna keep the production model true to the concept; nothing official, but last I heard they actually were going to try. In which case, the new Challenger would be worthy of wearing the name.

    But first, Chrylser has to solve this incredible overstock problem they have, since nobody is buying their cars. Did you see that now they’re offering 0% interest, employee pricing and a 30-day money back guarantee on all their cars through the end of August? Like, wow.

  3. Yeah, I was reading about the summer auto sales at AutoExtremist. “Chrysler — BUY OUR CARS! PLEEEEEEASE!” And people wonder why auto profits are down. Of course you’re not going to profit if you sell all your cars during the crazy summer sale season that consumers know is coming. Cripes. Doesn’t Chrysler have something like over 100 days overstock or something ludicrous like that?

    So, Dodge is possibly going with the Challenger prototype? That would be awesome. Still way out of my price range, but nifty. 🙂

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