Question Of The Day: Wait a Second… We Didn't Build The Best Cars in the World?

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman
question of the day wait a second we didn t build the best cars in the world

Pop top worm can time. Yesterday’s QOTD (essentially) poised the question how a big a boot in Detroit’s ass will it take to get American back to building the best cars in the world? And your answer was (for the most part) that we never built the best cars in the world. Insert sound of car screeching to a halt here! Say what? Are you telling me my childhood was a lie? All my old man’s stories about his dad’s Buick Roadmasters and Cadillac Eldorados — they were fibs? That article about Zora Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette Gran Sports that all of us have read in one form another ninety billion times — it’s a lie? Hell, the articles I’ve written about Shelby’s Cobras — not true? And, am I blind? Cause I got Ken Steacy’s book Brightwork about classic American car ornamentation as a Hanukkah gift and I realized that more thought used to go into a single hood ornament than Buick has put into its entire lineup over the past twenty years. See, Alfred Sloane had the formula figured out — Post-War Americans only wanted three things when it came to cars. 1) Styling 2) Automatic transmissions 3) High compression, high output engines (aka POWA!). Obviously GM had no trouble with two and three, and Sloan brought in coach builder Harley Earl to address number one. And he was, to a very large extent, right. Go ahead, look at a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and tell me I’m wrong.

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  • Barberoux Barberoux on Jan 07, 2009

    WWII destroyed the economies of England, Europe and Japan. Postwar the US had the economic power and the industrial power to build, and buy(!), cars. There was scant competition since the economies and industrial power elsewhere had to rebuild. American cars in the 1950’s were innovative and the styling was dynamic but so what. Maybe compared to the decline in American car design, innovation and execution since the 1970’s with the rest of world’s automotive manufacturers the 1950’s was a really hot time but to say that we built the best cars is rather faint praise. The postwar economic boom in the US created an atmosphere that was conducive to building and selling consumer goods. The US was really the only game in town. “Menno’s” list is very impressive but it seems the quest for cheap profits by car manufacturers delayed those innovations from trickling down to the cheaper cars. The first car I owned that had disc brakes, rack and pinion steering and impressive handling, for an inexpensive car, was not an American car. Foreign competition showed what a modern car could be and the domestic manufactures have been playing catch-up since the early ‘80’s. I owned a 1956 Chevy in 1966 that was beat. The seats were down to springs and the body was rusting away beneath the impressive hood ornamentation. Everything that could go wrong with a car went wrong with that car. I did learn valuable mechanical skills sprawled underneath it fixing the countless problems. Cars in the ‘50s were built to last a couple of years then get traded in. Compared to cars today they were POS. True the styling was dynamic and I do enjoy seeing a restored 1950’s car at shows but to own and drive one, no thanks. Saying that we had the best cars is technically correct, though since we bombed the hell out of any competition we might have had, we should wonder why we wouldn’t. We also had the most undamaged major cities and the highest GNP in the world. Saying that we were the best, given the conditions postwar, and given the way the American manufacturers have squandered that success, seems a bit desperate.

  • Davey49 Davey49 on Jan 07, 2009

    Henry Ford would have said that Alfa Romeos were the best cars in the world. I hear that Hudson cars were very good for their day. Best cars ever; Mini Volvo 2 series Accord Suburban

  • CarnotCycle CarnotCycle on Jan 07, 2009

    I think American cars were the best in the world overall from about 1955-ish to 1970-ish, if where you were driving was in the United States. This was the time when the USA was building its still unparalleled Interstate system, and cities in the West were booming and growing with cars in mind, instead of old cities accomodating cars in lieu of horses. Plus the United States procured the vast amount of hydrocarbons it used domestically in that time-frame. To drive several thousand miles of paved roads through virtually every kind of geography and climate for no other reason than a family vacation is something that only some parts of the world today enjoy outside of the United States. A big car that can waft along reliably at eighty for hours on end with no more than a thumb on the steering wheel is a good car in that environment, and Detroit rides from that era fit that bill. My father has a very well restored and maintained deep blue 1960 Pontiac Ventura coupe bubbletop with a 389 Tri-Power in it. For the most part its stock, except for things like the alloy rims its on and some motor-tweaks. That car is a good-looker by any measure. Lots of twist through most the rev-range, gets mid twenties per gallon on the freeway in overdrive. Handles like a pig, but its actually considerably better than the hippo-dynamics you'd expect. Trunk big enough to toss a MINI in as a spare car for emergencies. Safety wise the thing is a throwback, but it doesn't need a crumple-zone; it it gets in a collision with a modern car the modern car will be its crumple-zone. A modern construct of that car with direct injection EFI, independent suspension with disc brakes and traction control, and updated insturments in the dash and you would have an excellent car today that is better than anything Detroit sells for under $40,000 or so. I was driving that car this summer on a father-son roadtrip to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We at some point in Jackson Hole got stuck at a light next to a Pontiac Montana minivan. I remember looking around at the car I was in and listening to that motor idle, and then look over at the Montana. Ah, how the mighty have fallen I thought!

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Jan 12, 2009

    I was a die hard Mustang guy until I got stationed in Italy. Dad says those furrin' cars ruined me b/c I haven't owned one since (18 yrs or so). What did it for me were the yuppies I was surrounded by when I was growing up. Mom & Dad have had GMs since the mid-80s and are only now talking about buying Japanese vehicles again. Their recent GM vehicles have been okay until 100K miles most of the time. What has changed their minds has been two things: my success with Hondas. I'm getting 200K miles for less trouble and cost than they are getting ~125K miles. Heck my CR-V still has the original clutch at 170K miles with ALOT of city shifting. Just one minor example. Their other reason to even consider a Japanese vehicle is the talk of Detroit bankrupcies. They tell me they won't take the uncertain step of buying a vehicle when the manufacturer is going bankrupt. They also won't own a Chrysler no way, no how. Quality (lack of). And Fords? No likely either. (no compelling products). I'm not relating this for any other reason than to say these two babyboomers who have for a couple decades believed in "Drive America" won't be much longer. Anyhow I drove my Mustangs and saw those 80s imports. They were miles ahead. Handling, creature comforts, the little details like intermittent wipers, etc. When I finally began buying 80s imports to replace my 81 Moostang clearly my suspicions were correct - for the type of cars I was buying. You folks can argue Mercedes vs Caddy but I was driving Moostangs and VW GTIs and Firebirds (that my friends owned, never me), and so forth. I had a huge 3.3L six making the power of a 1.8L (or even 1.6L four cylinder engine) and those little cars could scoot all while getting good mileage. Foot on the floor uses alot of gas in those little cars too. As if I needed more to confirm my ideas about Detroit cars I had the opportunity to drive or ride in American cars in Italy. My Moostang was happiest at 60 mph. I pushed it to ~80 mph once driving to FLA and it reluctantly did the run getting truly miserable mileage. I could watch the gas needle fall to E. In Italy I rode down cobblestone streets in American Escorts, American Horizons that were unhappy climbing steep mountain roads, took Tempos on day trips to the snowy Italian mountains, took American Cavaliers around the city trying to keep up with cars that had half the displacement and twice the suspension design, and I drove cars HARD on the autostrada racking up hours at ~100+ mph. The American cars were crap every time. We saw the effects of the Naples roads on the American cars. Blown shocks, bent wheels, alignments that would stay aligned, and more creaks and rattles than you could shake a stick at. However the little cheapo Italian cars could last decades riding these crumbling roads (the mafia controls the construction industry in Naples, siphons off funds meant for roads). Often American folks would arrive with their domestic sedans only to quickly park them in favor of an Italian compact car of some sort. Here were tiny cars with style and gusto that were built CHEAP. These cars could be repaired when necessary cheaply or discarded in favor of another cheap car. Many had lasted decades like the thousands of tiny rear engined Fiat 500s, 650s, and their cousins. I've had a hard time ever giving more than a moment's thought to traditional Detroit vehicles. I WANT to buy American but there are few products that satisify my taste. Focus, Astra, and that's about it. Their typical compact cars (Cavalier, Cobalt, Aveo) aren't even in the same ballgame with the companies that build cars for Europe for me. I'm buying used compacts. The large vehicles might be fine but why would I spend my hard earned cash on a 15 mpg vehicle to haul the family around town? There is a place for a large vehicle but not in my "fleet". Everyone's needs and expectations are different but it looks like more of us need a short distance car than the excess of the past 15 years regardless of the cost of gasoline. We seldom travel more than a few hours this way or that so we don't need that big Buick or a large SUV to feel comfortable. FWIW I don't subscribe to the fads of the family haulers. If I need a minivan I'll buy one. What I really need is a stylish family wagon. Right now the VW Passat or VW Jetta Sportwagon appear to leads the pack for us. Perhaps we'll have a pair of tiny compacts for the daily drivers and something like a minivan or Passat on standby in the garage. Good luck to Detroit but I doubt I'll contribute more to their bank accounts aside from what our politicians have.