Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 6...

The US is a very young nation when compared to those in Europe and Japan. Even though the US was industrialized there were factories that were barely a generation old whereas in Japan and Europe come companies could be traced back centuries. This history gave those nations some sense of culture and refinement. They found themselves looking down on the US and its upstarts. Of course people like Henry Ford cared little for what foreign competitors thought of him so long as his cars were the fastest selling. The post war boost allowed US auto makers to go after every walk of life. The daily commuter, the executive, the farmer and even the performance driver had something to look forward to year after year.

The Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang were young and sporty brands. They could be used for the commute to work but were light enough and powerful enough to make driving fun on weekends. The two cars ran circles around the steel behemoths from a decade earlier. The Mustang and Corvette were the predecessors to the Muscle Car. By definition the muscle car was a mid-sized car with a full-sized engine, it generated far more horsepower than it actually needed. Sports cars also had excess horsepower but since they were lighter they also maneuvered much better than muscle cars. Stylistically the US sports cars were very unique. They did not really poach the look of overseas manufacturers.

In Europe and England the sports car was much more "refined." Often much pricier too! They often came with a more distinguished racing pedigree as well. If we were to compare body types between the nations then a British race car would be long and lean like the captain of the Oxford Rowing Team, while the American race cars were big and brutish like a football player from Alabama State. Enthusiasts from overseas did not always consider US cars to even be on the same level as their global counterparts. There was a class divide at play. The US had no aristocracy. They did not have lords and ladies, estates or palaces. The US would never recognize that only true gentlemen drove race cars (because they were the only ones that could afford to). The best people in the US could do was drive trucks on the farm and pretend that they were real racers.

The divide was even more pronounced when comparing the US to Italy. Italian sports cars were filled with fury and passion. Likened to a powerful woman running a gamut of emotions. The curves on the Ferraris were considered essential by the racers but sensual to the fans. It was hard to argue with the racing empires of Jaguar, Ferrari, Mercedes and the other manufacturers had built in over half a century. Ford, Chevy and Dodge had a long way to go before they could be considered rivals. The sports cars from overseas had performance and style in equal measure and this was something that Japanese designers found very appealing.

A single generations worth of time had passed since the end of the war. Despite the rapid recovery in Japan there was still not a large enough community to support a very expensive sports car. Compromises had to be made, or rather compromises were assumed to have been made. Many drivers desired a sports car that had the handling and looks of a European model but with the reliability of a Japanese daily driver. To borrow the classic metaphor Toyota stepped up to the plate and knocked it clean out of the park. The company came up with the 2000GT. It was a limited run car that met the demands of fickle audiences. It was expensive for its day but it featured the performance that was on par with the Porsche 911, considered one of the great all-time racing cars. The era of the Japanese sports cars (and one could argue the Japanese supercars) began while the US was creating the muscle car movement.

It took a large and powerful V8 engine to move around the post WWII steel body 4-door cruisers. One day a trio of people at Pontiac, including engineer John DeLoeran (of Back to the Future DeLorean fame) decided to shoehorn a full-sized V8 engine into a mid-sized 2-door car. It would become a non-standard option for the Pontiac Tempest. This option would go over well for performance enthusiasts while skirting the company policy banning divisions from involvement in auto racing. DeLorean was taking his beast directly to the people and had it badged the GTO after the classic Ferrari 250 GTO. The GT label was reserved for Grand Touring cars that were meant to be converted into actual race cars. DeLorean had the audacity to label his boxy monstrosity after one of the greats without it even being tested on the European circuits. As the Europeans cried foul the Americans wanted more. The muscle car era had been born. There were pioneers that were willing to show the rest of the world that the Americans were serious about sports and racing cars. The next blog will highlight one and see how he helped change the perception about the west.

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