I realize this likely isn’t news to anyone, but current-day America is an extremely divided place. Everybody hates everybody else, and we’re all the absolute worst. I’d like to believe the cleansing, healing power of the automobile can help bridge the divide here, but even that is tricky. If you had to pick one car that any American, from any background, religion, cultural subgroup or whatever would at least be able to consider relatively cool, what would that car be?
The more you think about this, the harder it gets. At first you might think a really iconic American car like the Mustang might be good, until you remember that there’s a large contingent of Camaro devotees that would rather eat a burrito made of bees than sit in a Mustang.
Or, take a Ford Model T—sure, it’s incredibly important and put the country on wheels, but plenty of people won’t forget what a bastard Henry Ford was, personally. Maybe a Jeep? Also influential and important and iconic, sure, but the militaristic associations (and just all the bros out there, really) will likely turn some away.
I’m not even saying the given, random American has to love the car, just that they’d think it was you know, cool. Like, they’d see it, it’d catch their attention long enough that they’d perhaps walk around it, and if they were offered a ride or a chance to drive it, they wouldn’t mind being seen in it. That’s all I’m asking.
This is a car that has to be at least generally appealing to Americans young and old, gearheads or not, religious or secular, urban or rural, with any degree of education, wealth, from any racial or cultural background, you name it.
Can this even be done? I’m not sure, but I have an idea, and I asked my fellow Jalopstronauts, too.
My (Torch’s) Pick: Nash Metropolitan
Okay, I’m actually fairly confident about this one. First, I think it needs to be American. I don’t necessarily thing this is an absolute, but there likely will be some people hostile to an imported car, so I’d like to avoid that. I also think the company that makes the car should be defunct. That’s because people can have strong brand loyalties, and that can cause them to reject other brands. By going with a long-gone marque like Nash, I can avoid that.
I think going with a small, “cute” car is effective here, too, because it can draw in people normally not as interested in cars, and keeps the car from becoming a threat to people with strong and combative automotive preferences, like muscle car lovers. A car like the Metropolitan isn’t taken as a judgement or a challenge to, say, someone who loves old Challengers.
Plus, the small size helps make it more palatable to environmentally conscious or highly urban-oriented Americans, yet the ‘50s style and charm of the car keeps it appealing to older-skewing, more conservative Americans.
While it certainly wouldn’t be the first choice of car to, likely, most Americans, the Metropolitan’s unthreatening, easy charm makes it one of the few cars to be capable of truly widespread appeal.
I think the little guy could just pull this off.
David’s Pick: The Checker Cab
If there’s one thing that most Americans can agree on, it’s that hard work is something to be respected. It’s why we wave at the person who delivers our mail in a vehicle with with no air conditioning, it’s why we bring lemonade to the folks moving our furniture into our new homes, and it’s why we leave tips for waiters and folks who clean our hotel rooms. (Not all of us do these, but really, we all should).
The same holds true for hard-working machines like my Postal Jeep and my friend’s rough-and-tumble 1943 Willys MB—both of them turn heads and put smiles on faces, in part, because all they wanted to do was serve this fine country of ours.
But for this question about cars that all Americans can agree on, I won’t recommend either of those Jeeps, because as Jason noted, not everyone’s into war machines, for obvious reasons. And while the Postal Jeep was a civilian machine, it shares body panels with the Korean War-era M38A1.
But it’s not just postal vehicles and military workhorses that broke their backs (frames) to haul Americans and their crap around, there were also the taxi cabs. And the most legendary of them was the Checker Cab built by Kalamazoo, MI-based Checker Motors Corporation.
The company was founded by a Russian immigrant named Morris Markin back in the early 1920s, and it churned out taxis from then until July of 1982, according to the Kalamazoo Public Library’s story on the once local car company.
In the late 1950s, Checker offered a sedan that would change the landscape of New York City—it’s the yellow, old-school machine you see above. It was big, roomy (it had two benches, and two little stools in the back), and bone-simple, and stuck around for quite a while, becoming a symbol of one of America’s greatest cities. Unfortunately, the legendary Checker’s prominence in The Big Apple began fading away in the 1970s until the last one went out of service in July 1999.
While I’m sure there were some cabbies who hated the things, and some folks who experienced some strange enough cab rides to taint their memories of this fabled sedan, I think, generally, most Americans appreciate the big, old-school, hard working sedan that was once an important part of America’s landscape.
PG’s Pick: BMW i8
Now, Jason said cars that Americans can agree on, not necessarily American cars. Here’s my pick.
The BMW i8 isn’t the fastest exotic you can buy. It isn’t even the most expensive or the most exclusive. It’s fun to drive, but not really mind-blowing.
But it has one major thing going for it: it looks like a spaceship.
It looks like someone at BMW filled out their paperwork wrong, or forgot to send an email to the right person, and as a result a concept car just got greenlit for production with no changes. It’s absolutely wonderful to see out on the road.
I see a fair amount of i8s here in New York. A lot of them are even street-parked, at least some of the time. It never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m never not happy to see one out and about. And when I look around, I always see people staring, pointing, taking pictures, and without fail they’re smiling too. It looks like the cool future we were promised (actual hoverboards, 3D hologram movies) and not the disappointing one we actually got (Twitter, rainforest fires.)
The i8 has a rare thing for a mid-engine exotic: charm. It’s not hyper-aggressive like a Lamborghini or even an Audi R8, and it doesn’t make you look like a dipshit the way a Ferrari does. The fact that it’s a hybrid helps, I think. But it’s proof that more car companies should just say “send it” when they have cool concepts. If nothing else, doing so makes people happy.
Erin’s Pick: Chevrolet El Camino
Being American isn’t just about working hard, it’s about doing that work with a little bit of flair. Wondering about what car nearly every American would love got me thinking (as I often do) about the golden era of Detroit steel, when our dreams were the only things rising higher than our cars’ tail fins. But it couldn’t be just any old classic American car. It has to be something with a little style, while also being a diligent workhorse, just like us. And no car does more while looking good than the Chevrolet El Camino.
This is a car that has business and party elements at an even 50/50 split. You may think of coupes as the preferred body type for rich playboys’ sports cars, or just as a endangered body type, but just look at those guys from the 1959 press materials! They’re running a farm with a coupe! Did you ever imagine a coupe to be so industrious? Chevrolet did.
The El Camino is technically considered a SUV in the states, because coupe utility vehicle isn’t really a thing (though it should be) and we all know how well those have been selling for the last 30 years (give or take a national crisis or two.) It’s a SUV, a truck and a car, all in one. Perfection.
El Caminos can be dolled up as lowriders beloved by younger enthusiasts, or preserved in all their gleaming chrome glory by older folks. The El Camino and its fellow coupe utility vehicle the Ford Ranchero are such strange and unexpected vehicles they demand a double-take from all who are lucky enough to share the road with them.
This is the car for hauling around tools all day and then going out on the town that night. Plus, its name, El Camino, is a great reminder that American ideas come from every corner of the globe, because we come from every corner of the globe. Hot damn, I feel patriotic.
Tom’s Pick: Any Dune Buggy
It doesn’t matter if you’re five or 50 years old. You see a Dune Buggy and you think, “Yeah, that looks fun.”
A Dune Buggy is not threatening, there’s no real “downsides” to the Dune Buggy scene. Granted the safety features might be a bit questionable, but that’s part of the appeal. It looks like a car that belongs in a cartoon, and almost every kid that had a die-cast cars as a kid had at least one Buggy with whacky colors.
Dune Buggies can come from all kinds of sources. One of the more famous of those is the Meyers Manx, but the formula is usually the same: take a Volkswagen Beetle remove the body and replace with a fiberglass tub that has giant fenders, an open top, and big-ass tires. While the Buggy’s roots are in a foreign car it is very much an American idea; it’s a car made for one purpose, to enjoy life.
While the Dune Buggy probably doesn’t make for the best daily driver, if you do see one at your favorite beach town you know that owner has their priorities in order.
All interesting picks! There’s great arguments to be made for any of these, and I suspect all of you have your own, much better ideas, so, please, don’t hold back! Tell me! Have at it and help me bring this beautiful nation together.
Oh, and if you’re not American, I’d still love to hear your opinion, too—your objectivity may be the key to the whole thing!