How Americans Can Simultaneously Build The Worst And Best Cars

The first time I rode in an American car I didn't know it was an American car, but I did know it seemed very different to my daddy's car. And my mummy's car. It was huge, and it sounded angry, and it didn't have a gearlever on the floor – in fact the gearlever didn't seem to be used much at all – and it felt kind of wobbly. From the great squeaky, bouncy rear bench seat, I formed the impression that we weren't quite connected to the road surface, but that my legs were stuck to the vinyl seat covering.

The generic disposition for us Yoooropeans towards American cars is most often painted as one of gentle, patronizing mockery. And I suppose it's true that the lump of asthmatic mid-70s junk I was rolling in that day sometime in 1983, was quite a long way behind a Mercedes or BMW from the same period, but to me it carried with it the fascination of the new; the entirely foreign. And I don't think that fascination has ever subsided in me.


Deep down, I think I really like American cars, and I'm not saying that because I want to curry favor on an American website, I just quite like the way you people do things. I like the simplicity and the honesty.

Earlier this year I had a Camaro Z/28 for the day. Not your ordinary blue-collar American machine, but certainly a car whose roots lurk in the affordable category. I cannot tell you how enjoyable it was – a vast lump of metal which some lunatic had decided to turn into a track car, an on-paper eventuality about as sensible as fashioning a ballerina from a football player.

The methodology seems to have been so hilariously simple – the planning meeting must have lasted all of ten minutes. "Throw a massive engine at it, new diff, some suspension, make it fucking fast and keep putting wider front rubber on it until it stops understeering: yeeeee-haaa!!"You have to allow me just one slice of rank jingoism in here.


As a rule of thumb, in modern automobiles simplicity breeds character, complication often forces a reaction couched in respect – this means, if it doesn't stretch the anthropomorphic link too far, that the majority of American cars have a more light-hearted personality. They have a more obvious character: Mustang, Challenger, Suburban - they all benefit from a more direct emotional projection than European equivalents.


And it also means that when you do bad cars they are spectacularly amusing. I don't think that any European car company could have produced the Aztec, it's just too perfectly bad – actually, maybe Fiat in the early 2000s might just have been capable of such shitness, but only at a stretch.

And that whole period in the '70s and '80s when you were forced to make 7 litre V8s produce 200hp – it's hard to imagine that happening anywhere else on the planet.


The enduring fascination with American cars, proper Americana - notwithstanding the death of the Crown Vic and so many other US staples - is that I don't understand how the consumers of two such similar continents on either side of the Atlantic have ended up being offered cars with such different dynamic priorities. Yes, generally speaking you have a reduced need to tackle winding bumpy roads, so softer and faster in a straight line is a sensible move.

And of course the cost of fuel forced us to embrace smaller, more efficient solutions, but I still find it both strange and fascinating that the DNA splice in the '60s, '70s and '80s was so profound, and only now is the globalization of the car industry making us all share more similar vehicle designs. Hell, you're even going to get the new Focus RS.


Still, within those weird parallel realities either side of the pond some truly curious traits have emerged – the most amusing of which for me is that the land which embraced the automatic transmission, and which is seen by Europeans as being the land of elbow-on-the-window-frame, two-pedal driving has in certain cases become the only market certain makes will provide certain cars with a stick and three-pedals. I know you all want the fast Audi station wagons we have over here, but I'm massively jealous of the three-pedal F10 M M5 you get to buy over there.


And to further bust-apart the generic assumptions, over here in the UK a Crown Vic fitted with a massive turbo-diesel motor would be ideal. Massive, strong chassis, squidgy sidewalls and loads of space. Oh the irony.


Altering your frame of reference is the most rewarding part of a Limey understanding US metal. I've spent plenty of time on your shores in the past two years and have agonized at length over what I would own were I to live there, and I now know my two-car garage would be a Z28 and a twin-cab Ford Raptor. Two of the most American machines imaginable. I have never driven a Raptor, but I don't need to do so to confirm how much I'd want one. I picture myself heading off into the desert with a dirt bike on the back.

That is my current viewpoint. I think the US car industry is replete with fun and dynamism and, at the enthusiast level, making cars people desperately want to own. But it wasn't always that way.


My second exposure to an American car was in 1986. My father had asked the rental company for something "bit like my 323i". He was an old-school Brit my father, and unlike his youngest offspring never tempted to make dramatic attention-seeking outbursts, but after a few hours lolloping along in the Buick we'd been handed he turned to my mother and casually observed "This is the most unpleasant car I have ever driven."

Hell, your car industry has come a long way since then.

Illustration: Sam Woolley, Photos: AP, Raphael Orlove

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