I’ve been on the road for the last few weeks and one of the places I was able to visit was the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport located just outside of Washington DC. Unlike the National Air and Space Museum located on the national mall close to the capitol building, the Udvar-Hazy Center is an enormous facility and although I have visited other aircraft museums that have had larger collections on display, I think it is safe to say that the Smithsonian’s collection is second to none. The aircraft on display span the history of flight and include both military and civilian examples. More importantly, at least for the sake of this discussion, they come from every corner of the globe and as they sit there, lined up beside one another, it’s easy to compare the craftsmanship of one nation’s products against the next.
Years ago I read an interview with one of the men responsible for the restoration of the aircraft I so recently saw and one of his comments leaped out at me. The national characteristics of each nation, he asserted, was represented in the design and construction of their aircraft. British planes, he said, were complex with many small parts while Italian planes were beautifully constructed but relatively fragile. German planes he continued, were generally well designed with large robust parts, Japanese planes were tinny and lightly constructed while American aircraft were solid and almost agricultural in nature. Of course that article is lost to history and I am left paraphrasing a dim memory, but as I stood there looking over the Smithsonian’s collection that statement rang true and I began to wonder if the same thing could be said of cars.
As auto enthusiasts we spend a lot of time talking about the soul of certain cars, Italians they say have it in spades while the Japanese have traded it away for sewing machine-like reliability. We say that German cars exude a feeling of solidity and technological competence while the best British cars, replete with thick leather seats and burled walnut panels, seem to lack that technological prowess but have instead the comfortable feel of an English gentleman’s club. American cars, and to a certain extent Australian cars, are traditionally agricultural, simple and rough but reliable, and in line with those nation’s connection to the land while French cars are stylish, quirky and unique much like the French people who have always had their own, unique worldview.
But I wonder of those days aren’t gone. National and international standards have forced the homogenization of vehicles over the years while the nature of large multinational companies, which consume one another like a school of voracious fish, constantly ingesting and occasionally regurgitating one another with surprising ferocity, has allowed for an amazing amount of cross fertilization. In house design and development, especially of subsystems like fuel injection and electrical systems, is frequently farmed out to subcontractors and it is common to see cars across several companies sharing similar systems so what then has happened to the national character of our cars? Does it still exist? Did it ever? I wonder…
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.