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.