Today we muse upon the supposed relation between cars and their countries of origin.
Many years ago, in a British car magazine, I read an interview with an American car company executive about his employer’s attempts to crack the European car market (this was back in the days of efforts like Chrysler’s Neon sub-brand) in which he waxed lyrical on the subject of typically American virtues such as spaciousness in cars. Given that, certainly at the time, my primary association with the concept American car was the TARDIS-in-reverse quality of a typical land-yacht cabin, it wasn’t a terribly convincing argument. Nor did the executive in question seem to have much else up his sleeve in terms of qualities that are typically American in cars.
The association of car manufacturers, or rather their products’ typical qualities, with their country of origin is so common that it almost goes unnoticed as a sort of self-evident truth. It’s worth asking, however, if this is really true at all. The idea has an obvious intuitive appeal: Cars hailing from a country with poorly surfaced roads, for example, will surely tend to have compliant, long-travel suspension, won’t they? Well probably, if they are being built primarily for the domestic market, but that’s a pretty big assumption, certainly in our present globalised world.
Often the associations between cars and their countries of origin are more to do with supposed character-traits: French cars are quirky and comfortable, Italian cars are sporty, British cars are traditional and so on. As intuitively appealing as such associations may be, one doesn’t have to look particularly hard to find counterexamples: A Fiat Multipla is about as sporty as most of Issigonis’ creations were traditional – as quintessentially British as some of them may have become in the decades since their creation.
Perhaps we need to narrow our scope a little to look at certain marques that represent their countries’ automotive values better. A Citroen DS19 would seem to fit the description of quirky and comfortable rather well. The Rover 75, a car of which regular readers may know I am peculiarly fond, certainly evinces a sort of tradition. I can’t think of a Ferrari that couldn’t reasonably be described as sporty.
Perhaps the geographical associations that we naturally make are valid for countries’ iconic car manufacturers, rather than the grey masses with which they must condescend to share the marketplace? Here again, a healthy dose of scepticism might be wisely prescribed.
Let us take, for the sake of the argument I am busily constructing, three marques (all of which are regular visitors to DTW’s virtual pages) that could be said to be both iconic and closely associated with their countries of origin: Citroën, Lancia and Rover.
In addition to being already tragically dead or slowly dying, these brands also tend to be strongly identified with certain engineering and design principles. One of them is famous for its pioneering work with advanced self-levelling and roll-resistant suspension systems (I am thinking of course of Rover and their remarkable P7 prototypes), whilst another is known for its commitment to modern high-performance engines (Citroën were an early investor in rotary technology and even went as far as buying Maserati to gain access to superior engines). Lancia, meanwhile…
Before this all gets too tendentious, let me state my case explicitly: All three brands shared, in their heyday, the characteristic of pursuing a degree of excellence and modernity (in a broad sense) that engendered the exploration of radical engineering solutions that others would only get round to copying many years later: Front-wheel drive, independent suspension, rotary and gas turbine engines, self-levelling and anti-roll mechanisms, advanced construction techniques…
Our three heroes were early to arrive to such technologically advanced parties and did much to advance the investigation and adoption of these innovations. This, I would argue, indicates they have more in common with one another than they do with most of their geographically-bound contemporaries.
As with any argument based upon examples, counterexamples will be easy to find and I have no doubt the commentariat could (and hopefully will) fire some well-aimed rhetorical arrows at my feet themselves. Besides, what company are we actually talking about when we discuss ‘Rover’? Was Lancia under Fiat’s ownership still Lancia? When did Citroën cease to be recognisable as Citroën?
Whilst many such criticisms may be valid, I believe that for every supposedly national characteristic shared by car makers hailing from the same country, one will be able to find both counterexamples and examples of characteristics shared with car companies in different countries. I would further posit that the latter commonalities are more fundamental than the former. In the interests of (civilised) debate, would anyone care to pick up the gauntlet and argue the opposite case?