One of the highlights of the 2011 New York International Auto Show was the speech by the CEO of the Chrysler Group, which a year and a half earlier had been taken over by Fiat. The presentation began like an old fashioned revival meeting, with a gospel group laying down a heavy hand-clappin’ rhythm before the carmaker’s executive took the stage. He talked about the revival of an American city, its people, and the automobiles it produced. It was a stirring speech, and especially compelling because the speaker’s voice was laced with a French accent as thick as Bearnaise.
But that should have come as no surprise; for decades, industry watchers have seen the line between “American” and “foreign” become increasingly blurred to the point that in 2010, foreign automakers produced more cars in the U.S. than did the Big Three – if we can still call them that. Even so, there’s something poignant about the message “Buy American” delivered in a foreign accent.
More to the point, it begs the question: what is an American car? Detroit’s car-making troika have long skirted the issue by referring to "North American" production—which includes Canada and Mexico, where they build about one-third of their cars. The snappy new Chevy Camaro, for instance, is made in Canada, while the popular Ford Fusion sedan is assembled in Mexico.
The matter of national identity has been muddled ever since 1982 when, in Marysville, Ohio, the Honda Accord became the first Japanese-branded vehicle to be built in the United States. Some competitors and critics labeled the Japanese factory a “transplant” built to avoid import tariffs and taxes that might otherwise apply. Nonetheless the marque has expanded its operations since then to the point that 80 percent of the Hondas and Acuras sold in the USA are built right here.
But does that make them American? Not necessarily. According to the U.S. government, to be an American car, 75 percent of a car’s parts must come from the USA or Mexico or Canada. Including Canada and Mexico allows the Detroit 3 to claim they still build the majority of their cars in North America.
In the case of the Honda Accord, its 80% USA content makes it as American as prom night. More so, in fact, than the Chevrolet Cruze whose content is a mere 45% American made. Likewise the Mitsubishi Eclipse whose 80% American content eclipses – no pun intended – the Lincoln Navigator’s 50% content.
Ultimately, for all the talk and statistics about place of manufacture and borders and tax breaks, for the car buying public it all comes down to one question: what difference does it make?
For a long time a car’s country of origin made all the difference in the world. American cars weren’t just vehicles, they were baseball and hot dogs and the Beach Boys. For loyal Englishmen Rolls-Royce and Bentley were on a continuum with the Battle of Britain and stiff upper lips – they were what Britain was all about. Italians, for their part, saw Ferraris and Alfa Romeos as something transcendent: “The car, she is like a woman.” For Germans the element that elevated their auto industry beyond all others was the Autobahn, where speed limits were more a matter of horsepower and nerve than law.
How could you duplicate these ineffables in a plant thousands of miles away?
As for the Japanese, absent a motoring tradition, how could they compete? As a Munich-based BMW executive once confided to Town & Country magazine, “We drive to work at 140 miles an hour. Japanese carmakers ride the train.”
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