The Origin of Automotive Species

Andrew Wentz
by Andrew Wentz
the origin of automotive species

Ours is a global economy. Like water cascading downhill, carmaking naturally flows to those countries providing the optimal combination of exchange rates, natural resources, transportation infrastructure and, of course, inexpensive labor. As a result, the U.S. auto industry now stuffs its cars with Chinese parts and assembles them in South Korea, Mexico, Brussels, Australia and more. While pundits bemoan outsourcing’s effect on America’s blue collar jobs, this internationalization exacts a hidden toll near and dear to pistonheads’ hearts: it erases product personality.

Once upon a time, cars had national personalities. American cars were comfy. German cars were robust. Japanese cars were inexpensive (reliability came later). Swedish cars were safe. British cars were a pleasure to drive. Nowadays, everyone does everything. An American car must be robust, comfortable, inexpensive, safe and a pleasure to drive. As must a German, Japanese, Swedish and British car. That’s great as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go far enough.

In their feverish desire to meet regulatory standards and internationalize production– to create a “global car” that appeals to everyone everywhere– manufacturers have eliminated their vehicles’ culturally-derived quirks. In fact, today’s cars feel as though they’ve gone through an automotive spell checker, making sure that the car has been completely cleansed of error. The result: tremendous overall quality bereft of genuinely distinctive character.

More specifically, GM owns (part or whole) thirteen automakers spread throughout the U.S., Korea, Australia, Sweden, England and Germany. As The General rushes towards epic cross-border cross-fertilization, shuffling cars like a Las Vegas dealer, we can already see the loss of national character. Saabilac? Caddibu? Holdeniac? GM’s willingness to ignore regional character is quickly draining any remaining life from their once vibrant portfolio of car brands.

To see the failure of the “global car” logic, consider Saturn. Justin Berkowitz’ review of the Saturn Astra praises its German-ness (e.g. handling, hatch configuration). Fair enough. But what happened to Saturn’s Tennessee roots? Where’s the straight-shooting all-American ethos that informed both the product and its dealers? Gone. And with it, Saturn as a coherent, indeed appealing automotive brand. Just like Saab. And Volvo.

Call me a recidivist, but I reckon a Saab is/was/should be a Swedish hatch– not a German-built sedan or modified American SUV. By the same token, a Volvo is/was/should be a sturdy sedan or wagon– not an inherently dangerous, frivolous convertible. Sure, you could dismiss these objections as senseless carping born of pistonhead preconceptions. But I view our brotherhood as an early warning system. Enthusiasts everywhere are signaling that something important is getting lost in translation, and we’re not wrong.

On the mainstream side, it’s become increasingly clear to observers both inside and outside Toyota that their rapid expansion of American production has eroded vehicle quality. To protect their brand, ToMoCo is launching various initiatives AND quietly scaling-back plans to expand U.S. production. Not to diss American workers, it’s a sure sign that the Japanese automaker “gets it;” they understand importance of location, location, location. Or, if you prefer, culture, culture, culture.

In this, they are not alone.

Volkswagen has recently learned the perils of international outsourcing– and the importance of national character– the hard way. After years of producing truly dreadful North American-bound Golfs in Brazil, VW finally realized that protecting the model’s rep mandated moving production back to its ancestral home. The reborn GTI looks, feels and drives like a “proper” German car. It’s been rewarded with a well-deserved spike in U.S. sales, and a welcome return to street credibility.

Vee Dub’s decision has paid off in all aspects… except financially. Industry analysts report that they’re losing money on their award winner, an inevitable result of exchange rates and financially onerous German labor contracts. Still, which is better: building a singular, world-class product domestically that forces you to address your cost basis at home, or building a meh car abroad that offers the chances of greater profits but doesn’t deliver them and, worse, eventually destroys the brand?

Of course, this raises another question: for a car to embody its national character, does it have to be owned by a local corporation? Maybe. On one hand, BMW’s MINI and VW’s Bentley say no. On the other, Daimler’s Chrysler and Ford’s Jaguar say Hell yes. The key differential: top management must be slaves to the brand, and recognize that the brand is deeply, profoundly, fundamentally national in origin.

When it comes to car design and quality, all but the most blinkered beancounter can see that ignoring the importance of national history and culture leads to machines devoid of personality. And in the current hypercompetitive car market, REAL personality is vital to any automotive brand’s long-term success. In this case, those who do not learn from history are condemned not to repeat it, and, inevitably, suffer the consequences.

Join the conversation
2 of 46 comments
  • Jason Moy Jason Moy on Dec 20, 2007

    I said back in the 80s that Toyota and Honda will go down the tubes when building cars in the USA was just beginning to take off. 10 years later, it has happened to Toyota and now, I see it happening to Honda. Now, I hear that UAW folks are getting mad because Toyota is slowly moving production back to Japan after their rep has been trashed when left in American hands...not factory line workers, I'm talking about product development, engineering standards, and quality standards. Americans just don't get it when it comes to the small details that workers can't be taught but rather imbred in them via their home culture. I wouldn't shed a single tear for American workers, both white and blue collar if Toyota moved their production back to Japan...only a "good for them". Who knows, Toyotas may gain a bit of sport for a change. After all, the sporty Honda Fit has just replaced the Toyota Corrola as the best selling car in Japan. The cachet of the good ol' days would build brand rep, despite lowering profits.

  • Vento97 Vento97 on Dec 25, 2007
    Americans just don’t get it when it comes to the small details that workers can’t be taught but rather imbred in them via their home culture. That is a reflection of direction from the top of their respective companies. The upper management of European and Japanese based companies come from Technical and Engineering backgrounds. A math, science, and/or technology oriented way of thinking that is ingrained into the culture. The upper management of U.S companies come from Marketing, Business and Finance backgrounds. The "How can we make things as cheaply as possible for maximum profit" philosophy eventually trickles down to the workers on the ground - and, unfortunately, it shows.

  • Rng65694730 All auto makers seem to be having problems ! Still supply chain issues !
  • MrIcky I'd go 2500 before I went 1500 with a 6.2. I watched an engineer interview on the 2.7l. I appreciate that their focus on the 2.7 was to make it perform like a diesel and all of their choices including being a relatively large i4 instead of an i6 were all based around it feeling diesel like in it's torque delivery. It's all marketing at the end of the day, but I appreciated hearing the rationale. Personally I wouldnt want to tow much more than 7-8k lbs with a light truck anyway so it seems to fit the 1500 application.
  • MaintenanceCosts If I didn't have to listen to it, I'd take the 2.7 over the 5.3 based both on low-end torque and reliability record (although it's still early). But the 5.3 does sound a lot nicer.
  • Arthur Dailey The Torino Bird which was relatively short lived (3 years), 'feasted' on the prestige originally associated with the T-Bird name. The Cordoba originally did the same as it had a Chrysler nameplate. The Torino 'Bird had modified 'opera' style middle windows, a large hood with a big chrome grill and hood ornament, pop-up headlights, and a 'plush' interior. It was for the time considered a 'good looking' car and could be ordered with a 400 cid engine (the first 2 years) and even a T-bar roof. You can see one just behind De Niro and Liotta in Goodfellas when they are standing in the diner's parking lot and have learned that Pesci has been 'whacked'.Although a basically a renaming/redesign of the (Gran Torino) Elite, the Elite was for a time available with Ford's 460 cid engine.I had both an Elite and a 'Torino Bird'. Although their wheelbases were the same, the 'Bird always seemed 'bigger' both inside and out. The Elite seemed 'faster' but it had the 460 opposed to the 400 in the 'Bird. But those are just subjective judgements/memories on my part. However the 'box Bird' which followed it was a dud. It sold Ok the first year based on the T-Bird name, (probably mostly leases) but it quickly lost any appeal/prestige. Back then, the management/executives of the Toronto Maple Leafs used to get leased T-Birds every year. After the first year of the 'box Bird' they changed to different vehicles.
  • Parkave231 Random question that -- in the interest of full disclosure -- I am too lazy to look up on my own.Back in the day, cars in my mostly-GM family had a hard lock on the steering wheel, such that unless the key was turned to the ACC position, the steering wheel was physically locked in place.I don't recall whether my 2002 Deville locked the wheel in place, but I want to say it didn't, even though it still had a physical key.And now, of course, most everything is push-button, and my current Cadillac doesn't physically lock the wheel.So was the movement away from a literal physical lock of the steering wheel back in the 80s driven solely by the transition to push-button start, or was there some other safety regulation that got rid of them, or just something else that a car manufacturer could omit for cost savings by running something else through software (I'm guessing this since the H/K issue is a thing).