The Case For American (Automotive) Exceptionalism

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
the case for american automotive exceptionalism

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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  • Larry P2 Larry P2 on Jul 05, 2012

    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!

  • HiFlite999 HiFlite999 on Jul 05, 2012

    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).

  • Tassos those 90s pathetic orange pixels are inexcusably lame in a 2010.The interior is filled with Grey Rubbermaid plastic and the tiny sliver of real or fake wood is an utterly pathetic attempt to pretend it's upscale (don't even THINK of "Luxury")Merc SLs with similar metal retractable roofs look so much better inside and out.Regardless of what you paid for this way undepowered near-luxury pretend-sports car, you would have done so much better with a PORSCHE BOXSTER...
  • Dukeisduke That's a cool picture (the one under the bridge) - where was it taken? Google Image Search doesn't turn up any matches.
  • Dukeisduke Okay, yeah, they should fix this, but, "URGENT: DO NOT DRIVE THIS VEHICLE"? I think we're reaching Peak Idiocracy.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is a great review, and very accurate from my perspective as the owner of a closely related, but longer and taller, E93 335i convertible. So much in this review is familiar. Here are the things that are a bit different about the 335i:[list][*]My car is a manual. Shifter action is good, with positive engagement, although a bit more play and rubbery feeling in the shifter than you would get with, say, a six-speed Honda. The clutch is a bit disappointing. It has a "clutch dampening valve" intended to protect against the most abusive clutch dumps. The valve throws my timing off a bit and I have had a hard time learning to drive this car with perfect smoothness, especially in the 1-2 shift. I may remove the valve at some point.[/*][*]My car has the turbo (in single-turbo N55 form). On the plus side, you get what feels like significantly more power than the rated 300 hp once on the boost, and even in fully stock form you get entertaining whooshing noises from the blowoff valve. On the minus side, there is some turbo lag, more than you get in many modern turbo cars, and fuel economy is, well, not close to what Corey is getting. The turbo car also comes with an active exhaust system that is extremely quiet when puttering while making some nice inline-six noise at wide-open throttle.[/*][*]There are back seats! I have a nine-year-old and a six-year-old. The six-year-old fits perfectly. The nine-year-old still fits, but that will likely change within the next three years. These seats are not usable for adults unless the front-seat occupants squeeze forward more than normal. E92 coupes are slightly roomier in back, and E90 sedans are substantially roomier.[/*][*]My car has the M Sport suspension, which does not have variable dampers. It's firm enough that I have to be careful to avoid even small holes on city streets if I don't want to get jarred. But if you can avoid the holes it feels good, navigating expansion joints and such without uncomfortable impact, while maintaining impressive body control for a porky 3900-pound convertible.[/*][*]My car has iDrive and a screen, as well as parking sensors. But it does not have a backup camera. Graphics on the screen are pretty good by 2011 standards, which is to say not acceptable by modern standards, but the system is easy enough to navigate and works pretty well. I prefer the rotary controller to a touch screen for fingerprint reasons.[/*][*]The parking sensors are by far the best of any car I've ever owned, and they are so accurate I really don't need a camera. The sensors go to a solid beep when the appropriate end is about 4" from an object, and I can comfortably cover about half that distance with no fear of bumping. They also project legimately useful graphics on the iDrive screen showing where the object is. I park in tight city settings enough that I really appreciate the accuracy. Also in the city parking mold, my car has power folding mirrors, which I wish every car would.[/*][*]Like you, I have the mid-level "Hi-Fi Professional" stereo setup, but in the four-seat convertible there is not a dedicated subwoofer. Bass is a bit on the weak side. Sound quality is about comparable with the JBL system in my Toyota Highlander, which is to say it's good enough for listening in the car but is not going to impress anyone.[/*][*]There are small leaks from the joints between the top and the A-pillars in my car. They won't soak the interior, but they will result in a few drops of water on the front seats after a hard rain. I'm still experimenting to see if regular applications of rubber protectant can restore the seals enough to eliminate the leaks. There are no leaks from any other part of the top mechanism.[/*][*]I've only owned the car for about eight months and 1500 miles, but so far nothing has broken and every feature on the car works correctly. A purchase-time inspection found only an incorrectly secured fan shroud and no other problems, and there is a mostly complete service history, so this was a well-maintained car to start with.[/*][/list]
  • Lou_BC This offer reminds me of those plans where you get something free but if you fail to cancel prior to the expiry of the "Free" plan you end up on the hook for a lengthy contract. Tesla wants to attract people to their electrical company. It's smart. Make money selling the car, make money with subscription services on the car, and make money selling the fuel to power the car at home and at charging stations.