In a recent article of mine, T Bourlon asked a question that has been on my mind ever since. I'm paraphrasing, but what in the heck happened to American cars? Why did the United States generally stop making quality, reliable automobiles? Why do my younger cousins have European and Japanese car posters on their walls? And what would it take to get American cars back on top?
In thinking about this subject, I found myself reminiscing back to when I was a child. My dad drove a beastly 1970's Cadillac, which some of my friends affectionately referred to as "Matt's Yacht." To call this thing a "monster" doesn't really do it justice. The car was tremendously long, with a backseat so large that me, my sister, and my brother could stretch out and not come in contact with one-another. It had leather seats that would get so hot in the summers that I still get up gingerly in my modern, cloth-seated car. It was the lap of luxury in its time, with a lengthy list of features considered innovative for its time, and I still fondly recall how all of my neighbors would praise my dad's fine automotive tastes. But in thinking back to that car, was it really as excellent as I recall?
It's no big secret that American cars aren't what they used to be. The quality of our automobiles comes under constant assault by just about everyone, from school children to the experienced review team at BBC's Top Gear, a British comedy car review show. What do people say? The popular meme is that American cars are poorly assembled, with a disregard for safety and performance, and overpriced for the quality of the product. Not that I'm telling you anything you don't already know, of course; while polling shows that Americans are slowly starting to fall back in love with American cars, it doesn't take much to learn what the general public sentiment is... just ask a few of your friends.
So what exactly happened? To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure. It might be that American car manufacturers have been consumed by the corporate mentality. Cutting corners equates to cutting costs, which adds up as more profits in the end. But shoddy seams and loosening bolts don't exactly make for an enjoyable driving experience. Perhaps it's a cultural thing; the workers in other countries take more pride in the quality of their cars, lovingly assembling them and carefully inspecting every square inch. Or perhaps -- and this might not be the most popular thing I say on Newsvine this week -- American cars were never all that great to begin with.
Thinking back to my Dad's Cadillac, the thing broke down as often as it got me to school. It had such frequent engine troubles that I grew up thinking that all cars did that; it must just be an accepted facet of owning a car. And just how luxurious was it? The turn signal indicators, which were built into small ports at the front of the hood outside of the cabin, were nefariously faulty. The seat belts had all ripped or had been detached from the seats by the time my dad sold it. The windows were electric, and all but the front passenger window had stopped working. The buttons on the radio would stick, occasionally forcing my family to endure country music for the duration of our drive. It wasn't exactly the most efficient car in the world, either; we'd need to stop for gas constantly whenever we went on a trip, and with my dad insisting that his children see as much of the world as possible early on, that meant gasoline was a significant expense in my house.
Here's where I'm going to upset quite a few people. American muscle cars, while attractive to the eye, were easily outperformed by their European counterparts. With the exception of Ford's famous GT40, which won at Le Mans four years in a row from 1966 to 1969, and more recently with the success of Ford's Focus on the World Rally Cup circuit, American cars are historically woefully outmatched by Europe's exotics. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, BMW, Lotus, Alfa Romeo... the list of great European cars is unrivaled. And today, Asian cars are competing handily above American cars as well. Let's face it... we just aren't very good at building race cars.
"Okay," you might be saying, "but I don't want, nor will I ever need, a race car!" This brings us to our next question. Why did America fall behind in consumer vehicles? The answer to that is pretty simple, really: American car manufacturers weren't paying attention to the needs and concerns of consumers, sacrificing the markets to Asian and European car companies that kept their ear to the ground on rising trends. Consumers wanted smaller, fuel efficient vehicles, but American auto-makers continued producing monstrous gas-guzzlers. The void was filled by Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota, who remain dominant forces in the market today as a direct result. And European companies like Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, and BMW were making luxury vehicles that out-classed Cadillac and Lincoln in every conceivable way. In summation, foreign cars didn't really kill the American automotive industry... American cars did.
So what might the future hold? As it stands, things aren't looking too bright for American car makers. Quality hasn't increased as much as it needs to in order for American cars to reclaim the global spotlight. American cars look bland, perform poorly, and are manufactured in a way that makes the word "haphazard" more than applicable. If American car companies hope to stay afloat and eventually reclaim the throne, they need to focus on quality, safety, performance, and economy. Furthermore, they need to take back the imaginations of the youth, cementing the next generation of consumers with car designs that make kids drool. Making cars shouldn't be about making profits. It should be about making dreams come true. Look at the Bugatti Veyron, for instance. Was that car designed with profits in mind? Absolutely not. It was designed with the sole intention of forcing children to hang pictures of it on the wall, with the added perk of breaking speed records as the fastest consumer vehicle ever built. That is what American automotive companies need. They need something that takes your breath away... and not through a series of drawn-out sighs.