It Must Be The Water
Why American and European cars are so very different
"It must be something in the water", the old saying goes. And well, maybe sometimes it is. There is definitely something in the roads, that much is certain. In America, with its long and often straight lumps of tarmac, the driving premium is placed on power, where in Europe, with its snakelike labrynth of highways and byways, the premium is placed on balance and handling. Power takes a notable back seat. But is that the root of it? Is it really just that simple?
When I was a kid growing up in rural New York State, the ideal car was a car of muscular power. Like most American kids, the image of the Mustang or the Chevelle filled me with excitement. Flipping open a hood to see a big ol' lump of engine made my heart race (still does), and feeling a classic American V8 rumble in the seat of my pants was the pinnacle. Performance was measured purely by how many horses and how much torque. That was it. Nothing else mattered to me, and perhaps that's why it didn't matter to Ford or GM. They knew that the poster on my wall was there because the car had tons of power, and that's it. Handling? Who cared about handling? The car steers? Great. It has wheels? Even better. At the end of the day, it was a cool color, it was tough, and it was BIG. Size mattered.
There is no shortage of cliches about Americans and our fascination with size and grandeur. And frankly, it's all true. Look at our cityscapes and the skylines of America. Even the smallest and sparsest cities have tall buildings, as if to say "we are here". There is a conquistador mentality at work, I'm convinced. It probably comes from the oldest lie we're taught in public schools, about Columbus and the early settlers. But, it isn't all for naught. We also have big mountains, and vast spaces between towns. We have massive canyons and even bigger expanses of ruler flat plains with fertile soil and plentiful resource. These are the things that man had little or no control over, and they define at least a part of the American sense of 'being'. It arrives from simply existing in this place called what it is. An accident of history, as it were.
But I think it's actually something different, ultimately, that is at the root of the American sense of size and grandeur. It's the inception story of America, the origin of this political reality that we know as the United States. Even amongst the notable and undeniable faults of the founding documents of this country, we were the first place in modern history to declare freedom from the old ruling systems of Europe and beyond. We went 'big' with our rhetoric, and from there, I think, the rest is history. Whether or not this country lives up to that political promise is altogether a different conversation and one I'm loathe to have here. But I think it serves as an important touchstone in any discussion about cars. I know, it sounds funny...
We have a strange way of conflating 'freedom' with space, here in the States. There is a premium placed on owning lots of land, and a large house. The perception being that it frees us from the oppressive hand of authority. And while that may be true to an extent, it manifests itself strangely in the development of the modern American car. It's as if when the powers that be take everything we own, at least we'll have a big car to haul our shit in. Really, I don't judge. We own a Jeep Grand Cherokee, for our annual road trip out west with our dogs. I get it. Space matters; somehow. In fact, the best selling vehicle in the US is reliably always the Ford F150 truck, and that is followed by SUVs in most areas except for the Northeast, where the streets and roads more closely resemble Europe.
I think this came about largely as an organic evolution of domestic travel. Most of the truly breathtaking bits of the US are located in the western part of the country, and a far bit away from the rest of the country. Camping culture is very big here, and that's because millions of us take to the roads every year to visit these places, often thousands of miles away from our home, just to experience the great majesty of the American west. And what better way to do that, than with a massive car and an RV? We'd be mad to cram our families into little 2+2 coupes, especially when the trip calls for driving on a dead straight carpet of bumpy asphalt for miles upon miles. So, an SUV or a pickup truck serve as a tool. A boring and perfectly functional tool of the modern American traveling family.
It wasn't until I traveled Europe as a touring musician, that I began to understand that the difference in our cars was not just a perverse cultural argument, as is often the case. Though that frames some of the way Americans and Europeans talk about each other's cars, it doesn't account for it all. It took riding in an airport taxi service Audi for me to feel the difference. It was a Quattro, and although I was just the passenger, I totally understood. It felt more alive somehow, and more 'in touch'. It didn't feel like simply a tool. It was a creation. And for the rest of that tour, I made mental notes about the cars I saw, and the roads and the way people drove. I pondered it for years afterwards.
Europe's roads were here long before American roads. American roads developed as a reaction to the way we travel, not the other way around. And because our cars didn't have to navigate hairpin turns and claustrophobic city streets, we built them bigger. And because our cars were bigger, the roads were straighter. And because the roads were straighter, the cars didn't have to be nimble. And so the cycle goes on and on until the modern era, where American cars are still woefully dreadful in anything but a straight line. Which leads me back to the poster on my wall, as a young and lusty teenaged boy.
The funny thing is that many American engine designs, while grunty and powerful, have always been woefully inefficient. Take the classic and ubiquitous Chevy small block. It is quite likely one of the most transplanted engines in history - even our personal Jaguar XJS has a Chevy 383 stroker in it - and it is largely considered one of the most reliable engines ever made. But, it is heavy. And it's large. American engines will often take almost 6 litres to make 400bhp, where Europeans have been making that kind of output with far smaller engines, for decades. Now of course, this is where the boffins come in and discuss the tradeoffs of turbocharging and the virtues of making more torque at lower RPMs, like American designs do. And that would all be valid. But it doesn't diminish the criticism that American designs have always been a bit too big, heavy, and inefficient. This argument has been going on for decades, and it won't die anytime soon - much like a Chevy 350.
That all said, I don't want to make the mistake that many people make, and imply that American auto manufacturing was rife with lazy thinking and bad ideas. Far from it. America gave the world the electric starter, cruise control, air conditioning, automatic transmissions, power steering, and believe it or not, turbocharging (although a very bad example of it). But this shines a light into the way American car makers evolved, and subsequently, how the American driver evolved. The American car evolved mostly from a place of convenience. This is evident in regular statistics that show Americans tend to use their cell phones and eat food more frequently while driving, while their European counterparts tend to drive manual cars in far higher numbers. In fact, recent studies have shown that over 75% of cars sold in Europe have manual transmissions, while almost 98% of cars sold in the US are automatic. That says a lot. The European driving experience is much more dynamic, and the cars reflect that.
We own a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, and it was the first classic that my partner and I found together. It is a lumbering, floating, and extremely heavy car, and while it looks absolutely beautiful from a design standpoint, it handles like an oxbow plow, and is about as elegant in the corners as a sledgehammer. But, it rumbles and it gurgles and it makes all the noise that you'd expect of the mid-60's Detroit relic Ford 390FE. It's almost double the length of my '74 Alfa Spider, and it is easily more than double the weight. I do love it, but boy is it an oaf. I would never want to sell it, but if given the choice between driving it or my Alfa, the Alfa gets the nod 99% of the time. The Tbird is just so goddamned big and heavy. And I don't fully understand why it needed to be. It does absolutely nothing better than our Jaguar XJS, Alfa Spider, or the BMW 733i, but it's handsome, and that does count for something.
Most American drivers don't drive on twisty hillside roads, and through narrow cobblestoned streets. We drive to work and back on straight and uncompelling motorways, and through multi-lane suburban shopping districts. We tend to put our vehicles in Drive, and not think about them again until we put them in Park. Our cars are simply colored boxes that we use to go to the grocery store and cart our kids to school. And I'm sure there are plenty of Europeans who harbor the same indifference to their cars that we do. For the rest of us who live and breathe cars, we're all wired differently. My wife likes the rumbling power of the Tbird yacht, while I prefer the delicate precision of the Alfa. There are still young American kids with posters on their wall of unwieldy and vulgar American muscle cars, and there always will be. That's the beauty of it, really. And it's a testament to the ingenuity of man, that we can have nuanced pissing contests about the trivial faults of any given hunk of metal that does the magic of combining fuel, air and fire into the power that transports us thousands of miles yearly and in some modicum of comfort.
That all said, American cars are lumbering wastes of space, and I still love them.