Monday, May 26, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 3...

Technology for production automobiles had received a bump following World War II. The "Big Three," General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had converted most of their factories to create weaponry, aircraft and vehicles for the military. During that time they tended to work closer together by sharing technology and innovations than at any other point in history. Following the war they changed operations back to automobile manufacturers. The cars they released reflected the status of a "victorious" nation. When compared to previous models the new cars were larger, more powerful, more stylish and some would even compare them to rolling works of art. These vehicles were often packed with features that would only be found on luxury automobiles a decade earlier. Some design cues and patents were stolen from the upstart Tucker with some help from the US government by way of contracts during the war.

The grand cars from the US following WWII were all-steel behemoths. The US had the fortune of being on the winning side of the war and did not waste any time showing that off. The nation had more resources, more technology and more manpower at its disposal than just about any other nation that saw combat. Unlike Great Britain it did not have to spend anything to rebuild its infrastructure from the German bombing campaigns. The US did not suffer nearly any number of casualties that the Russians, Chinese, Koreans or Japanese had either. The psyche and economic repercussions favored the US greatly in the two and a half decades following the war. As such it can be argued that the Big Three had become complacent with their status. It was a sort of microcosm of what was happening to the nation. Public education standards seemed to be on the decline and the next generation of engineers and designers would not have the necessary tools to compete against their global counterparts. Piece by piece the Japanese, Germans and Italians would not only catch up to the US in auto production and innovation but surpass them in some regards.

 Foreign auto manufacturers, especially that those that fought against the Allies during the war did not bounce back with rolling works of art. Those whose plants were not completely destroyed found it difficult to get the manpower, capitol and resources to start up again. Many companies folded or were restructured simply for the sake of staying alive. Some moved into other industries to pick up the slack. Subaru for example was a company that made planes during the war but had to find a new source of income. Their engineers followed the cues from Europe during reconstruction and made a small, inexpensive unibody car with a small 2-stroke motor called the 360. The Japanese auto industry was demonstrating that they were not only keenly aware of what was happening in the rest of the world but were willing to keep pace even during the hardest of times.

While the Americans were enjoying enormous rides and suburban expansion the rest of the world was trying to dig itself out of a financial, cultural and industrial nightmare. The first thing that the major European players did, whether they were for or against the Allies, was to get people back to work. Rebuilding the roads and bridges that connected the continents together was a top priority. The cars that would use these roads had to be sturdy and inexpensive. Even England could not avoid the fact that they needed a utilitarian car that was small, inexpensive and durable. People had to get to work and families had to travel as quickly and independently as they did before the war. Subaru found success in the 360, nicknamed the Ladybug, as England did with the Mini, Italy did with the Fiat 500 and Germany did with the Volkswagen Beetle. These tiny cars had the most basic features, did not require high tech components, were solid daily drivers and could be mass produced. While they may not seem as fancy as what Ford, Dodge or Chevrolet had on the road at the same time they certainly made up for it in sheer volume.

 The boomers from overseas grew up with the tiny cars. They embraced their simplicity and durability. Part of the appeal that the cars brought to each nation had more to do with what they were capable of rather than they were built locally. Part marketing and part British stubbornness were the Minis that became race cars. While they lacked the raw horsepower that the US had in NASCAR-type stock cars they made up for in performance. Hill climbs, rallies, dirt, asphalt, snow, none of that mattered to the drivers. With a little ingenuity the horsepower could be bumped up, frames and shocks strengthened and potent racers be made out the cars. By competing in and winning several high profile rallies, including the famed Rally Monte Carlo in 1967, England demonstrated that their auto industry was very much alive and well.

The British Motor Corporation rode the Mini to great success for a decade before merging with the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968. The car lasted until 2000 when the Rover Group decided it was time to retire the car. Advances in technology, safety and manufacturing had made the car nearly obsolete. Something new would have to replace the car that won the hearts of several generation of Brits. Ironically it would be German engineers that came to the rescue. Germany had also taken a long road to automotive success. We'll look at this in the next blog.

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