By on July 4, 2012

When did Americans start thinking the car-guy grass was greener on the other side of an ocean? Was it Tokyo Drift that did it, or was it David E. Davis’ thinly-veiled advertising copy for the BMW 2002 in the pages of the as-yet-un-revered Car and Driver? Perhaps it was the majestic Mercedes W108 that turned the trick, or James Dean’s Porsche, or the image of the overpaid, oversexed American aviator carelessly flinging an MG down a British B-road in the Lend-Lease era.

Regardless of when it happened, we all know that it did happen. Nearly every young automotive enthusiast wishes he could drive the ‘Ring, storm the Stelvio Pass, or deliver some tofu in a sticker-speckled hachi-roku. We’ve all imagined ourselves as steely-eyed arbiters of lane discipline on the Autobahn or standing-mile madmen nonchalantly betting a hundred grand on our chances down an Armco-lined two-lane on the dismal outskirts of Moscow.

Don’t be fooled. The United States of America has been, and continues to be, the greatest place in the world for a regular guy (or girl) to fall in four-wheeled love. Here’s why.

Let’s start with freedom. Yes, the enforcement of speed limits has become a for-profit business in many parts of America, and the EPA/DOT Axis Of Evil conspires to prevent us from owning Mitsuokas and R34 Skylines, but Americans are still generally free to purchase and own pretty much anything they can afford, and the taxation level on automobiles is, by international standards, virtually nonexistent. Hell, in South Carolina, the entire tax and tariff burden on a new car from anywhere, whether it’s Hiroshima or Dresden, is a total of three hundred bucks. Where else in the world can you buy a new $25,000 (or $2.5M) car and pay $300 in tax? Engine displacement taxes? CO2-based company-car income-taxation schemes? 200% import duties? We ain’t got any of that stuff here, son. Now go buy yourself something nice.

That brings us to cost. Americans are free to negotiate on prices at dealers, which is not the case everywhere, and in general they pay less for cars than anyone else, both in actual currency and in earnings-adjusted measurements. The young executive drives a 318i in Europe; in the United States, he drives a 335i, or an M3. Plus, America invented the Duratec Mustang, with which your humble author has had tricky personal experiences but which is generally understood to be the cheapest/fastest car in history.

When it’s time to fill that Duratec Mustang up, you’ll enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices outside of the Arab states, and you’ll be able to buy a 56-ounce Red Bull while you’re at it. Looking for parking? Unless you’re in New York or San Francisco, chances are you’re in luck!

Europeans, and to a lesser extent Asians, believe that automobiles are a privilege for the wealthy, but in America it is your God-given right to go buy a raggedy-assed old Crown Vic cop car, supercharge it, register it somewhere without an emissions check, put straight pipes on it, and smoke the tires up and down your local main street. You’re allowed to own a one-ton pickup truck, if you want one. You can tow things if you want. It’s very democratic, and it’s very republican as well.

When it’s time to go fast, America has you covered as well. Obviously we lead the world in drag strips and oval tracks, but did you know that there are more high-quality road courses in the United States than there are in the rest of the world combined? You do now. There are so many world-famous, epic road courses in this country that any attempt to come with a “Big Five” always causes pitlane fisticuffs among aging orthodontists. Do I need to name names?

  • Laguna Seca
  • Sears Point
  • Road America
  • Road Atlanta
  • VIR
  • Mid-Ohio
  • Watkins Glen
  • Sebring
  • Mosport — dammit, that’s in Canada!

Most critically, unlike the great European or Japanese road courses (like Spa, for example) it’s trivially easy and cheap to either get your own car on these tracks or race someone else’s car. We have not one, but two national race series for $500 cars.

The paddock at any American race, even the higher-end Grand-Am events, is mostly made up of normal American middle-class people pursuing their passions. We don’t consider motor racing to be a sport for the aristocrats here. It’s a sport for doctors, plumbers, and construction workers. It’s a sport where the guys who fix your Chevy Cruze have multiple SCCA National Championships. It’s a sport where a guy can start autocrossing in his late teens and become a Grand-Am champion. It’s a sport where another guy can buy a VW Golf spec race car, drive it home because it’s the only car he owns, and twenty years later turn into this guy. It’s a sport where a washed-up bicycle racer with a broken neck and legs that were reassembled in a jigsaw pattern and who still pisses blood every day of the week can wind up racing all over the country and beating Bob Lutz in his own car.

Other countries may have auto-caviar for the super-rich: a ‘bahn blast in a Bugatti, a spank seat in an Aston for a 24hour ‘Ring race, private laps around Fuji in a Ferrari Corse Clienti formula car. Americans, on the other hand, have an equal and fair chance to work hard and live out their automotive dreams at any level. From the guy racing a Tempo around a short track to Scott Pruett’s multiple Daytona Prototype championships, from the teenager working a fast-food job to drive an old Mustang to Bill Gates struggling to get his 959 through the DOT, we are all experiencing our part of this very automotive country. Happy Fourth, everyone.

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40 Comments on “The Case For American (Automotive) Exceptionalism...”

  • avatar

    Hear, hear!

    To say nothing of the fact that we probably have more miles of enthusiast-worthy roads than any other country in the world. And it isn’t just the famous ones – we have whole states criss-crossed with hundreds of fun roads with light traffic.

  • avatar

    Jack’s just trying to make us feel good …

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    *Merica! F*** YEAH!

    Give me wide open asphalt, large displacement, and a decent suspension. I’ll be a very happy man.

  • avatar
    The Doctor

    “Europeans, and to a lesser extent Asians, believe that automobiles are a privilege for the wealthy”

    In America, when someone drives past in a nice car (most) people think “One day I’ll be in a car like that” whereas in Europe people think “One day I’ll have him out of that car”.

    • 0 avatar
      American Refugee

      Do you have any evidence that that’s in any way true? Most of the Europeans I know (and I live here) would look at a nice car and think “nice car”. Maybe the difference is that they would look at a overpowered underengineered car and think “douchebag” a bit quicker then most Americans.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        After a week driving a Phaeton around Dresden — the place where it is BUILT — and another week driving an SLK around Frankfurt, I’m inclined to agree that many Europeans want to see the proverbial high nail hammered down.

      • 0 avatar
        The Doctor

        Most of the Europeans I know (and I’ve lived here all my life) think the same way but they’re not representative of the majority.

        Most people now hate anyone who earns more than them and cars are a perfect embodiment of that. I’ve had my Phaeton keyed and seen how the interior of a friend’s Superamerica glistened with an even coat of spittle after he left it parked with the roof down.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed. The French especially are Super Duper Duper, Triple-Dog-Dare-You, Anti-rich.

        Anyone who is above center-middle-class is immediately labeled as the nastiest variant of “Bourgeois” possible,

        -they’re practically considered a separate, and non-French species.

  • avatar

    I don’t take anything regarding our automotive freedoms for granted. I’m just glad we have the freedom to drive foreign cars (5.0 mustangs notwithstanding). particularly turbocharged RWD Japanese ones (well, some of them anyways).

    of course I fantasize about Top Gear-style automotive tourism, but then again they’ve had some very good experiences in the US themselves.

    if I had to pick a great car/driving trip for myself, it would be a Honda S2000 doing some canyon runs up and down the California coast (on the way to a Laguna Seca lapping day, of course). who needs the Alps? :)

  • avatar

    Now if only the Obamacare decision had been handed down prior to 1973. One of the less-reported items in that decision says that if a state refuses to participate in a Washington program/mandate the feds can’t withhold all the funding for that item, only new money. Armed with this knowledge perhaps the states wouldn’t have felt compelled by DOT blackmail into slavishly going along with the 55 MPH limit. And drinking ages, and emissions tests…

    At least we’ll be ready for LaHoodlum’s demands for RF jammers.

  • avatar

    The $300 sales tax in SC isn’t as good as it sounds. We are one of the states that pay personal property tax every year on our vehicles. I’d rather take the tax hit up front, like Ohio does it.

    • 0 avatar

      Michigan charges yearly property tax on vehicles.

      And by Michigan’s reckoning, vehicles only depreciate for the first 3 years.

      So my 1987 beater Mazda is worth $14,000, says the state, and they tax me commensurately.


      • 0 avatar

        While capping depreciation at 3 years is a typical government dick move, it could be worse. Michigan’s tax could INCREASE based on the age of the vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        Kevin Kluttz

        North Carolina also. I still pay almost $150 in taxes on a 7-model-year-old Civic.

      • 0 avatar

        True, but nonsense on multiple levels, starting with the fact the tax itself is quite minimal. Michigan makes cars, remember? Why would they discourage buying them? So you pay ~$72/year? How is that thuggery? Or is it the the famous “somebody” should pay the way for your use of public roads?

        “Michigan’s motor vehicle registration tax for passenger vehicles is based on a vehicle’s list price and age and varies according to a statutory schedule. For new or newly registered cars, the tax starts at $30 for cars priced less than $6,000 and increases to $148 for cars priced between $29,000 and $30,000. For cars priced over $30,000, the tax is $148 plus $5 for each additional $1,000 or fraction of the price.

        The tax decreases in each of the subsequent years. The decrease is based on a portion of the prior year’s fee: in the second year, the tax is 90% of the first year’s fee; in the third year, 90% of the second year’s fee, and in the fourth and subsequent years, 90% of the third year’s fee (Mich. Compiled Laws, § 257.801).”

    • 0 avatar

      Kalifornia hits you both ways, high sales tax ~10% depending on locality and yearly “license fee” property tax. Oh, and the weight fee on trucks, even for personal use. Still, with some of the highest fuel prices in the lower 48, and an anti-car bias in Sacramento, its still a lot cheaper than in most of the rest of the world.

  • avatar

    Haven’t seen better patriotism in a while.

  • avatar

    This is a truly great reality check and very true. Good job!

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    And we got Route 66, baby!

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    When I was in New Zealand for a few months in 2007, I “escaped” from the family for a needed break and found a great licensed pub owned by the local coal miner’s union. NZ is plastered with all the euro-garbage that so many here profess undying lust for: diesel this and that, Alfas, Peugeots etc etc.

    Tragically, many of the miners I met that night died in that terrible mining catastrophe a few years back.

    I wanted to talk about all the new Alfas. The coal miners all quickly quashed that discussion, referring to them as trash. What my hosts vigorously cross-examined and hounded and badgered me about were the legendary and unseen Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros and the americanized Holden Monaros that were magically transformed into Pontiac GTOs. The Interstate Highway system. Gasoline @ a pitiful $3 per gallon (it was 8 bucks a gallon on the south island). NASCAR. Car shows where owners drove 100’s of storied 60’s muscle cars.

    I talked to them non-stop for 3 hours and finally quit, not because they had heard enough, but because I was hoarse.

    • 0 avatar

      Great story Larry.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      “NZ is plastered with all the euro-garbage that so many here profess undying lust for: diesel this and that, Alfas, Peugeots etc etc.”

      Same is happening down here. Worst part is that most of those cars are actually rubbish, but people is happily buying the badge (my guess). Nothing wrong with that, everyone spends their money where see fit.

  • avatar

    Don’t worry. American experiment comes to the end. Remnants of American exceptionalism will not last too long with presidents and Congress we continue to elect year after year. Supreme court decision now gives Congress freedom to penalize us via as many taxes as they wish to change our behavior to comply with requirement set by so called “Liberal” ideologues. “Liberal” always meant small Government that stays away from private affairs. Not anymore: in true spirit of “1984” world we are living today now it has opposite meaning – big overreaching Government controlling every aspect of our private life. It is just matter of time when America will become not different from the rest of the world.

  • avatar

    Jack is also leaving out the affordability (not a joke) of fuel for vehicles and cheap registration across the country. Even states with somewhat extensive requirements for having your car inspected are nothing compared to the gougefest that occurs in Japan. The accessibility of cars in the US is great, as is the ease of getting into motorsports. For many, it still is a bit of a luxury, but it’s not chokingly expensive.

    The two things we owe to this are the legislative compositions of each state and the sheer size of the US. Hell, I live in Texas, and I’m pretty sure Texas alone is larger than most European countries. Mobility across our country has always been seen as something important, and we need roads, cars, and the affordability to be able to do it!

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    Great article Jack. IMO really the only major thing that we Americans can legitimately envy is higher speed limits. Except for the most northern part of I-95 in Maine, 70 is the top limit east of the Missippi, and 75 is the most common limit west. We think that 80 mph limits are exceptional (only in parts of Texas and Utah), when it’s the default expressway speed limit in most European countries (well 130 kph is close enough to 80 mph for internet work). I know the trend in speed limits is up, which is a good thing… looks like it will ultimate take decades to recover from the double nickel debacle but we still are.

    However I wouldn’t trade the rest of the authentic European experience (especially widespread use of speed cameras) for an 80 mph freeway speed limit. Overall I’ll take the way it is here over the way it is there every day and twice on Sunday.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Speed limits are fairly loosely enforced on rural highways in big sections of the US. You can get away with driving 80 mph on most 70 mph roads as long as you slow down before entering the city limits of certain revenue hungry towns.

  • avatar

    Sorry, not feeling it. I spent three weeks driving around Europe last summer. Munich-Stuttgart-Berlin-Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Amsterdam-Paris. Utterly spoils you for driving in the states for the simple reason that Europeans actually know how to drive, and pay attention to what they are doing. Plus the much wider variety of more useful vehicles for those of us who appreciate more than tire-smoking 0-60 times and going around racetracks. And even though speed cameras are all over the place, the fines are low and don’t affect your insurance in most cases. Contrast this to my state where the minimum fine is now nearly $300 with all the fees tacked on, plus whatever amount your insurance company feels like screwing you out of. Heck the Scandinavians even put warning signs before there is a speed camera, and I never saw one in a location that didn’t deserve one. As opposed to the 62 in a 55 ticket I got in the middle of the night on an empty interstate highway….

    Yup, cars and driving are cheaper here, but you get what you pay for.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      “Plus the much wider variety of more useful vehicles for those of us who appreciate more than tire-smoking 0-60 times and going around racetracks.”

      Can you please elaborate more on this?

  • avatar

    Never been the USA, but in my imagination it’s more or less as Jack described it.

    As for car prices, a very reasonable car like the Golf starts at 17.995 dollars int he USA. A Golf in Germany starts at 16.975 euros. The USA gets an antique 170hp 2.5, Germany gets an antique 80hp 1.4. Of course for extra money there’s THIRTEEN versions of six other engines available, i think the amount of engine choices is just ridiculous.

    I want a muscle car that doesn’t cost 80k euros and fuel that isn’t 6.5 euros / US gallon.

  • avatar

    The taxes and regulations that act as barriers in the US are generally hidden from the end user but exist. Chicken tax, CAFE fines, CARB mandates, difference NCAP standards, lighting standards, fuel standards (particularly the sulpher in diesel, if I am recalling it right). I think the article’s generally right, but leans a bit too far.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    Great article for July 4th, the automotive world would be a poorer place without the Mustang, Corvette and Viper, and those cars wouldn’t get built in a high-tax, high fuel cost environment. But just one question – if US car culture is so great, how come you guys buy so many bland Jap sedans every year?

  • avatar

    *clap* *clap* *clap*

    I agree completely. The reason you have all this car culture are extremely fair prices. Without them, there wouldn’t be all this F’n’F import stuff going on. Some (JAPANESE!) motorbikes I’m interested in cost HALF as much in the US than they do here. I feel I’m being ripped off by the tax system.

    As for speed limits: Yes, you have more. But (and this is important) you also have waaay more reasonable speeding fines, which means more freedom. With the money I would save on a car over in the US, I would go speeding all day. I would stop immediately for any cop blinking his lights at me for going too fast, handing him cash money I would stash in the glovebox. I would smile at him and say “Hello Officer! Great, great, great country you have here! Great. Here’s some money.” Thinking about this: I think I’ll come over for a holiday in a great red American convertible.

    A late happy 4th to y’all!

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    This is the main reason Formula One has a problem establishing its presence in the USA. Auto racing in this country is truly an audience participation sport and it is the rare individual that doesn’t have a friend or neighbor who participates in some sort of local, regional or national event, from autocross, bracket racing at the drag strip or a fixed-formula kart race to the major televised series. Even in my fairly small circle there are 2 drag racers, one dirt track amateur and a Pike’s Peak participant. I only learned about the last one when he was called in to replace the front glass on an SHO Taurus (“nice engine; I use one in my race car.”) When auto racing is as democratized as it has become in this country, an expensive spectacle which codifies “know your place” in the very nature of its being can’t possibly hope to engender the same adoration you’ll find at the dirt ovals, kart tracks, quarter- and eighth-mile strips which make up the base of this country’s racing scene.

    I would not be surprised to learn the USA leads the world in terms of total racing licenses as well as per-capita racing licenses. There are 2 speed shops within walking distance of my near-downtown location, and a couple more a short drive away. 2 of them have each year’s NHRA and IHRA rulebooks on the counter top, and all can obtain any other racing series manual within days of request.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    What about the easy availability and dirt cheap prices of after-market speed parts? After reading Baruth’s article on the Porsche 30 horse upgrade for 20 gadzillion dollars, it occurred to me that virtually ANY American V8 car can be easily and cheaply boosted to satanically-insane levels of horsepower and handling.

    A friend just had his newly-built 383 installed in his C4 Corvette – honest 550 dynoed horsepower – built by a local machine shop for an out the door price of $5,000.

    The real genius of Carroll Shelby and John Lingenfelter was figuring out how to make this simple and cheap process EXPENSIVE!

  • avatar

    A scene from the pit paddock area at Mid-Ohio for the Grand Am race last year: A car from one of the high dollar teams was making its way back the its garage area after a qualifying run. There were lots of spectators wandering around. Most got out of the way of said car, but a family of 5 didn’t see it coming. A crewman ran out from the garage and kinda shooed them away. He then ran to the garage and came back to that family with a plate of cookies for the kids.

    This would never happen in Europe (and yes, I’ve lived there).

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