Between The Lines: James May on American Cars and Food

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.]
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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.

  • Dennis Howerton Nice article, Cory. Makes me wish I had bought Festivas when they were being produced. Kia made them until the line was discontinued, but Kia evidently used some of the technology to make the Rio. Pictures of the interior look a lot like my Rio's interior, and the 1.5 liter engine is from Mazda while Ford made the automatic transmission in the used 2002 Rio I've been driving since 2006. I might add the Rio is also an excellent subcompact people mover.
  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • FreedMike It's not that consumers wouldn't want this tech in theory - I think they would. Honestly, the idea of a car that can take over the truly tedious driving stuff that drives me bonkers - like sitting in traffic - appeals to me. But there's no way I'd put my property and my life in the hands of tech that's clearly not ready for prime time, and neither would the majority of other drivers. If they want this tech to sell, they need to get it right.