Between The Lines: James May on American Cars and Food

Glenn Swanson
by Glenn Swanson
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between the lines james may on american cars and food
Top Gear (TG) presenter James May’s nickname is Captain Slow. As you’d expect from a country where sarcasm is a team sport, the moniker disses Mr. May’s driving skills. But the nickname could just as easily refer to May’s intellectual agility. Like automotive alpha Jeremy Clarkson, May is always happy to take an analytical shortcut, especially if it leads to some good old fashioned America bashing. Writing about his recent stateside sojourn in the Telegraph– "Eat Junk, Drive Junk"– May once again reveals that the U.S. and the UK are two nations separated by British snobbery.“Since I'm still in the States this week, I thought I'd have another go at headbanging that old chestnut about American cars and why they never work in Europe. Because, let's be honest, they generally don't. There have been one or two surprising successes in recent years, such as the Jeep 4x4s, but on the whole you drive an American car only if you're an Elvis impersonator or a dealer in vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes. That is, a bit unhinged.”Fair enough. American cars are generally larger and thirstier than the European sedans. Provided you’re not an Elvis fan or jukebox collector, you can spot May the “unhinged” comment. But what follows has nothing to do with American cars and Eurozone roads. It’s impure, adulterated bile.“I've been driving a few this week… the Dodge Grand Caravan (a large MPV, or what the yanks would call a ‘minivan’), the Dodge Ram 1500 Big Horn Edition (no, honestly, it's a pick-up) and the new Mustang convertible. And there is a common characteristic that is apparent in all of them and in every other mainstream American car I've ever tried. They don't seem to be very good.”One wonders if May’s Ram was built in Coahulia, and whether his definition of “mainstream American cars” includes U.S.-built Toyotas, Hondas, etc. In any case, May’s Caravan and Mustang are part of a contracting niche. And while the Ram may not be class-leader, it’s very good at doing what it’s supposed to do. But Captain Slow’s driven a bunch of Yank tanks and they all suck. Really? Really.“In the past, this has been explained away as a fundamental disparity in the remit of the car between the old world and the new… I think it might be something a bit more complex than that. American cars might genuinely be a bit rubbish, and to explain why I'd like to return to the tiresome and pretentious subject of food.”And then May gets genuinely insulting. He slams American cuisine “because it would appear that the principal job of food is to be thrown away.” For some reason, this insight inspires May to buy some local ingredients and make a shepherd’s pie (ground meat and mashed potato topped with melted cheese). The pie turns out “twice as big [as UK pies] that had cost half as much and yet tasted pretty much of the square root of Monterey Jack.” “And if it's true of pie, it must be true of cars. We are constantly amazed at how cheap American cars seem to be, but only until we try one. The Grand Caravan is a miserable conveyance with a clumsy, antiquated gearchange, meanly upholstered seats and an interior that would make Alcatraz look inviting. The Ram is probably the worst car I've ever driven. It looks absurd, the ride is truly atrocious and the relationship between the steering wheel and its road behaviour borders on the hazardous. I dearly want to love the Mustang because it at least seems to stand for what the American car was once all about, but with the best will in the world it's a bit of a phoney pony with sloppy deportment and a cabin that came out of a Kinder egg.”May’s unconsummated Mustang love says it all. On one hand, he admires America’s automotive exuberance. On the other hand, he can’t. And that’s because validating– or even tolerating– this country’s “can do” spirit would mean rejecting the po-faced, post-Empire, acid-tongued cynicism that informs everything he does, says, writes and is. Speaking to May’s main point, do American cars deserve such blanket dismissal? This collection of writers– scribes who regularly and fully criticize American automobiles as and when they deserve it– thinks not. As our forthcoming review of the new Honda Accord will testify, there are plenty of superb mainstream American cars. And yes, we’ve reviewed some solid “domestic” efforts as well.In short, May’s prose is tainted by [the same old] British anti-American prejudice. In fact, the next time Captain Slow wants to visit the states; I suggest he needn't bother. As May’s clearly incapable of the intellectual rigor required to keep an open mind and a balanced perspective, he might as well just phone it in. Again. [Read Mr. May's full Telegraph article here.]
Glenn Swanson
Glenn Swanson

Glenn is a baby-boomer, born in 1954. Along with his wife, he makes his home in Connecticut. Employed in the public sector as an Information Tedchnology Specialist, Glenn has long been a car fan. Past rides have included heavy iron such as a 1967 GTO, to a V8 T-Bird. In between those high-horsepower cars, he's owned a pair of BMW 320i's. Now, with a daily commute of 40 miles, his concession to MPG dictates the ownership of a 2006 Honda Civic coupe which, while fun to drive, is a modest car for a pistonhead. As an avid reader, Glenn enjoys TTAC, along with many other auto-realated sites, and the occasional good book. As an avid electronic junkie, Glenn holds an Advanced Class amateur ("ham") radio license, and is into many things electronic. From a satellite radio and portable GPS unit in the cars, to a modest home theater system and radio-intercom in his home, if it's run by the movement of electrons, he's interested. :-)

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  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Sep 22, 2007

    " ...However turning up late for one war being perhaps a mistake, but for two is downright shoddy.... " We had an appointment to keep?

  • Skor Skor on Sep 22, 2007

    Dynamic88 We had an appointment to keep? Exactly. During WWI, Americans could have watched the Germans kick the faggots&peas out of the English and it would have made no difference to the USA. In the long run, it would have probably been better for the world, since things would have been properly settled -- there would have been no excuse for a Hitler.

  • Dukeisduke Covered last Wednesday on Autoline Daily.
  • Dukeisduke This could make a decent 24 Hours of Lemons car (who needs reverse on the track?) - they just need to drop the price.
  • FreedMike Is this four days at 10 hours each, or four eight-hour days?
  • MaintenanceCosts I've worked 4-day weeks in previous careers. Unfortunately, my current business requires responsiveness to clients on all five business days, so it's not really an option for me right now.But 4-day weeks are outstanding. The longer weekend leaves you with a true day of rest after you complete all of the errands and chores that we all have to do throughout most of our weekends. I, at least, felt so much better during the work week when I had that third day off. Based on my own experience, I'm fully prepared to believe the studies and anecdotal reports that say employers are experiencing no drop in productivity when they move to a 4-day schedule.
  • FreedMike Pour one out. Too bad FCA let this get stale - I was always a fan of this car.