We should all be concerned by President Donald Trump’s unhinged Twitter rants about applying yuuuuge tariffs to foreign-made vehicles. The goal is to boost manufacturing at home, which is indeed a noble goal. But we cannot ignore that protectionist policies have historically produced some of the world’s worst cars.
German economic minister Sigmar Gabriel may have been a tad snarky when he responded to Trump’s tough-guy tariff talk with “the U.S. needs to build better cars,” but that’s the textbook definition of greatness: making things that are better than other things. We’ll never produce great cars if we’re effectively only ever competing with ourselves.
There’s a reason why the domestically-coddled vehicles of British Leyland and the Soviet Bloc are frequently the butts of jokes. To cite an example near and dear to a motorsport writer’s heart, these vintage products of (or causes of, in the case of Malaise-era American cars) short-sighted protectionist policies are frequent contenders for the 24 Hours of LeMons’ less than prestigious “Index of Effluency” award, which goes to teams who over-perform with a genuinely abysmal pile of crap that should have broken when it rolled off the trailer.
We may now love these odd old cars for their “quirks” (hey, I’m trying to be nice), and high-five anyone insane enough to keep a Triumph TR7 on the road, but those same qualities that make us respect a TR7 owner are not things we want in a new car. If America wants to be “great,” it needs to produce the greatest cars on earth, not cars that are just okay enough to get by within its own borders.
It’s hard not to get bad flashbacks to British Leyland’s worst days when you read Trump’s threats of high tariffs on imported cars. That’s exactly what the British did after World War II to prop up their homegrown auto industry, which didn’t work there, either. Knowing their cars would sell anyway, the nationalized conglomerate of British Leyland pumped out such gems of lazy design as the Morris Marina—a car that was based on a 1948 Morris Minor design at its debut in 1971, according to CarThrottle. That same ancient car was only slightly tweaked to make the Morris Ital that replaced it in 1980. Poor build quality of an already bad design made the Marina the most-scrapped car in the United Kingdom in the past 30 years, per Talk the Torque.
Like any good capitalist, I firmly believe that automakers need competition to produce their best and most innovative work. This isn’t to say that America doesn’t make good cars—it’s just that there’s no financial incentive to produce anything beyond the bare minimum when you’re only effectively competing with a few other domestic companies instead of the best and brightest designs in the world.
In other words, if you can continue putting out the same crapcans year in and year out and still make bank because other cars have been priced out of competitiveness, why would you spend the money to improve anything? Just sit back and watch the cash roll in!
The United States has led the world with some incredible cars in recent years, having raised the V8 engine to an art form, made electric cars that are actually fun to drive and produced world-beating race cars out of the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford GT. I’m not too worried about our engineering talent. I’m worried about the accountant who’s going to say no to the next great ideas because the bar American companies have to pass to be competitive in the United States will be significantly lowered should something like a 35 percent import tax be levied on imports.
To cite a more extreme example, this kind of death-by-accounting is exactly why the Trabant went so unchanged for so many years. Engineers who wanted to make the East German Trabi better did their work in secret because the higher-ups figured the car would sell anyway, and didn’t see the need to blow funds on research and development.
Needless to say, the Trabant wasn’t a big seller outside its own borders. When Soviet Bloc consumers finally had more choices of what to buy, these humble little cars were often found abandoned in favor of anything else.
This wouldn’t be the first time America flirted with killing consumers’ ability to choose the best vehicle for their needs, and the results were disastrous then, too. The United States government limited foreign imports after the 1979 Oil Crisis because Malaise-era American automakers were unable to compete with more fuel-efficient Japanese cars.
These so-called “Voluntary Export Restrictions” (which given that Japanese automakers reluctantly agreed to them to avoid hefty tariffs, weren’t too voluntary) lasted from 1981 until 1994. Some foreign automakers moved production facilities here to skirt these restrictions as well as to take advantage of a tax break on exports from the U.S., but they still effectively limited American consumer choice. Instead of simply making better cars to beat the likes of Honda and Toyota at their own game, we ended up with domestically-made crapcans like the Chevrolet Citation II and the Chrysler K-cars.
Like the cars that preceded them and spawned the Voluntary Export Restrictions in the first place, American cars in the eighties felt archaic compared to their international counterparts. Many cars, such as the K-cars that initially saved Chrysler, stuck around longer than they should have. The Big Three still aimed too squarely at customers who were loyal to American automakers no matter what, with little real innovation to keep them loyal. Why bother when imports weren’t allowed to compete?
The architect of these 1980s protectionist import deals, Robert Lighthizer, is Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. Trade Representative, notes Politico. The World Trade Organization prohibited his beloved “voluntary” agreements a decade later, but it’s incredibly worrying to see him edging back towards a position of power.
Building small cars is not American carmakers’ strong suit. Even today, it’s still not. Historically, our low fuel costs and wide-open spaces didn’t provide much incentive to downsize. More critically, the margins are smaller on little cars than they are on big ones, and we more happily crank out trucks than hatchbacks. But leaving these tendencies unchecked has repeatedly led the Big Three to all but entirely give up on their small car development. This means Americans’ only choice for good small cars came from foreign brands. If those imports are hit with hard tariffs, any American who wants a small car would have few good options at all.
When my parents bought me a car for college graduation, I ended up with a Mitsubishi—against my dad’s overwhelming preference to buy American—because the American-made small cars available at the time just weren’t that great.
The Ford Fiesta and Focus that finally started to buck that trend of mediocre small American cars even came out of Ford’s European division. And several of GM’s current small cars have Korean underpinnings. Like the foreign automakers who build cars in the U.S., our own domestic companies are also global efforts now. We’ve benefited greatly by getting cars developed in areas where there’s demand for cars beyond our stereotypical big-boat preferences, and thus, have more incentive to be good.
Protectionist policies don’t just discourage innovation, they also prevent consumers from being able to buy the exact cars they want. It’s hard enough to convince automakers to bring over enthusiast-beloved hot hatches as it is, given the weaker demand for small cars here. Further restrictions on imports would make our chances of getting cars like Toyota’s rally-inspired 210-horsepower Yaris very grim.
At some point, we also have to admit that America doesn’t have all of the greatest talent in the world, and not everyone wants a car that fits into the Big Three’s areas of expertise. American marques fill a lot of niches, but we don’t build anything like the flat-six, rear-engine Porsche 911. Nor do we have a reasonably priced, small-displacement roadster like the Mazda MX-5 right now. Making those wildly popular niche cars more expensive will only serve to punish consumers who want a very specific kind of vehicle.
We live in a world that’s perpetually connected to everyone else now. We’re not even content to watch only our own domestically-made television series anymore, much less only pay attention to our cars. We’re proud of making cars like the Tesla Model S and the Dodge Challenger Hellcat that are clearly the top of what they do. Are we really going to be proud of producing the next Austin Allegro or Cadillac Cimarron—something that meets the basic requirements of the domestic market but is thoroughly obsolete internationally?
I don’t think so.