Once upon a time, American companies built cars that were unmistakably...American. For many around the world, these vehicles are epitomized by the cars of the 1950s. Those cars, I believe, were reflections of the exuberance of a post-war period in which the world operated in an American vacuum. As a result, excessive chrome, fins, and wide whitewalls became synonymous with what it meant to be an American.
This exuberance continued through the 1960s, and grew to encompass the tastes and styles of the youth market. Imports had their adherents, but the majority of American youth still bought what rolled out of Detroit. All this began to change rapidly in the 1970s, however. National tragedies, war, and the twin scourges of pollution and gas shortages combined to shake American confidence, and allowed imports to make a significant inroad into the American market.
Companies like BMW and Mercedes never forgot who they were, even as they moved from minor players to segment icons. There is no mistaking the nationality of the automobiles these two companies produce. Nor is there any doubt as to their personality or character. Is it any wonder car buyers looking for sportiness and luxury (or vice versa) wrapped with an air of superiority aspire to a BMW or Mercedes?
The Japanese, meanwhile, have been assailed for building perfectly anonymous, but high quality, automobiles. Isn't this also consistent with the image of Japanese expertise in refining concepts into practical, near-perfect products? Doesn't that describe their vehicles as well? Is it any wonder buyers looking for a high-quality, high-value, reliable car buy Japanese?
Why, then, are the broad majority of American cars formless lozenges built around a common front-drive architecture? What do they stand for? What do they say? What sets them apart? As far as I can tell, nothing. That's pretty pathetic when you think about it, and says volumes about the value consumers attach to what they see as four-wheeled commodities. Is it any wonder that buyers looking for incentive money to "sweeten the deal" or people in charge of rental fleets invariably buy American?
As a people, Americans are perhaps best characterized by the phrase, "Go big or go home." We are a people of hope and self-reliance, compassion and character, trust and experience, politeness and profanity. Our heritage includes Doughboys, GIs, civil rights marchers, and dewy-eyed optimists. When cars like the PT Cruiser or Thunderbird remind us of these traits, we can only smile. Yet what we should be asking is, "Why can't our cars capture the values inherent in these images, and interpret them in a modern form?"
The challenge for today's designer is to establish a connection with those positive aspects of the American character, without leaning on the overwrought themes of the 1950s. In other words, turn away from retro pastiche concepts like the Chrysler Hemi Super8, and build a modern interpretation of domestic design by taking into account Americans' desire for:
Build cars with these values, and the buyer will respond. Not only on this continent, but on others as well. The world is waiting for the return of the American automobile. Go big or go home.