Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad starring the city of Detroit and its new 200 sedan may have captured the imagination of American industry-watchers, but its timing was highly inauspicious. As the ad was launched, Chrysler was being thrust into a kind of transnational custody battle between US taxpayers and the Italian government, a battle that underscores the ambiguous benefits of national bailouts of multinational companies. At the same time, Chrysler workers have once again made news by getting caught partaking in controlled substances during a lunch break, an awkward representation of the culture of the city that Chrysler is so desperate to re-inspire faith in. And even outside of the controversies swirling around America’s most challenged domestic automaker, there are signs that the phenomenon that can be termed “automotive nationalism” is outliving its usefulness. Chrysler may argue that “what we make makes us,” but appeals to the national or regional character of a car are not simply misleading… they’re downright dangerous.
Of course, assigning national attributes to a vehicle is as old as car criticism itself. For much of the 20th Century, cars were products of nations first and consumer goods second, a perspective that helped shape much of the modern European automotive market, with such troubled brands as Seat and Lancia surviving solely due to strong home-market sales to patriotic citizens. And, for a good deal of the past century, the application of national stereotypes to automobile brands may even have had some basis in reality: Italian cars were full of character but somewhat unreliable, just as German cars really did embody the values of quality, exactitude and seriousness. At the same time, these perceptions were forged in a very different world from that which we now occupy. In the early days of the auto industry, national identity was the lens through which all economic and cultural artifacts were judged.
Today, the national character of automobiles is an increasingly tenuous concept. On a macro scale, most modern automobiles are remarkably similar in layout, performance and “character.” The differences between (for example) French, German, Japanese, American and Korean midsized family sedans are incredibly subtle, and offer little material evidence for any kind of national identity. Reliability, long a point on which to characterize entire nations’ automotive outputs, is no longer an acceptable price to pay for some other, more positive national characteristic (say, “character”). As has been suggested by neoliberal economic theorists, global competition has an intensely homogenizing effect. Though enthusiasts may bemoan the development, automotive identity has been largely benchmarked out of existence, and consumers have broadly benefited as a result.
And global competition hasn’t merely erased most of the allegedly national characteristics from cars in terms of the end user experience. From planning through production, every process involved in the creation of a vehicle has changed in ways which weaken any possibility of a connection between a national attribute and the finished product. After all, many modern vehicles are planned, designed, styled and produced in vastly different regions by vastly different cultures. For example, Hyundai’s Tucson was designed by a German, for a Korean company and is assembled in the American South. Similarly, the 200 that Chrysler is so eager to associate with Detroit is an Italian-led development of a US-produced vehicle (the Sebring) which was engineered by a joint German-American firm (Daimler Chrysler) on a Mitsubishi platform. And as if that weren’t enough, the exact same vehicle will be rebadged and sold as a Lancia Fulvia in Europe. And this vehicle represents Detroit how?
But again, the problem isn’t simply that cars don’t represent national identities any more… it’s that pretending they do is deeply dangerous. Perhaps nothing proves just how ripe “automotive nationalism” is for a trip to the ash heap of history like a recent episode of Top Gear, in which one of the globally popular show’s hosts attempted to apply this outdated perspective to the Mexican Mastretta sportscar. With shocking results. After all, if Italian cars are “flamboyant” and German cars are “relentlessly efficient,” why wouldn’t Mexican cars be “lazy, feckless and flatulent”? The problem with this wince-worthy moment isn’t so much that Top Gear’s well-traveled hosts seem to have no knowledge of Mexican culture beyond what they learned watching “Speedy Gonzalez,” but that they continue to put so much stock in their concept of “automotive nationalism” that they can’t tell the difference between analyzing a forthcoming automobile and parading their ignorance and prejudice before a global audience. In this clip you can watch as 20th Century thought breaks over the rocks of 21st Century reality, taking out the world’s best-known proponents of automotive culture in the process.
Of course, old ideas will always have deep resonance with people, and there’s no way to expect that automotive nationalism will simply disappear overnight. Indeed, Chrysler’s post-bankruptcy advertising has relied entirely on the concept that rebuilding lost American icons like Detroit and domestic manufacturing can be accomplished by buying their vehicles. These vehicles represent “us,” Chrysler tells America, and by buying them, we can support the disappearing but somehow still authentically American values that made this country great. But what are those values, really? Fiat-Chrysler is asking us to project our image of ourselves onto their vehicles, just as they’ll ask Italians to project their self-image onto Lancia-badged, Canadian-built Chrysler 300s… and the strategy may yet have enough legs on it to generate some short-term sympathy. But will it last?
In a word, no. Especially in mature markets like the US and Europe, consumption has long replaced production as a source of identity. With the rise of global communication, communities and identities are fragmenting anyway: people are free to choose and mold their identities, and as a result, global, interest-oriented communities are rapidly outstripping the importance of local, geographically-determined identities. And as this process continues, the car you drive and what it says about you has become far more important to the construction of identity than which car is built nearest to where you live. Chrysler’s thesis, that the things we make make us, is another lingering echo from the 20th Century: today, what we buy, not what we build, makes us.