A lot of the discourse on automobiles -their individual characteristics, their histories- uses nation-states as an analytical lens. There are a variety of reasons for the prevalence of interpreting cars with regards to their countries of origin.
Home markets offer a lot of sales for carmakers, so while a British car would be designed and built to cope with the specifically British landscape and address the needs and purchasing power of the specifically British consumer (producing a specifically British car), the French company just across the Channel would be primarily designing its cars for French drivers and French roads, addressing a different set of design criteria. That is one theory.
Another goes on national characters themselves. I was talking to a German with close ties to the automobile industry and he needed little more explanation for the reputation of Mercedes and Porsche for engineering precise vehicles than “The people who live around Stuttgart are just natural tinkerers.” Presumably there’s something in the water down there that makes those West German cars come out one way and the cars south of Alps in Italy come out another. While the technical traditions of some regions over others affected the early development of automobiles, today this theory plays heavily on stereotypes, as Top Gear found out recently.
Plenty of decisions that influence the shape and qualities of automobiles are made on national and international levels, as discussed in a previous article on US-trade restrictions helping to change the Japanese cars on sale in America, as well as this article on the ability of national regulation to define the shape of cars in one country and not another. The international ramifications of US emissions- and safety-standards of the 1960s and ’70s is a far-reaching topic that will have to be discussed at another time.
And while all of these theories make sense on some levels, they struggle to stay relevant in today’s extremely international car market, with the auto industry and regulators alike pushing for as uniform a series of legislation as possible across as many different markets as possible. Common markets and common production cuts costs, as Econ 101 will tell you.
That old discussion of national character (like geography, culture, and socio-economic standings) influencing automobiles still holds true, if in a slightly modified form than as previously discussed. You see, if I hadn’t grown up where I had, I doubt I would think anything like the way I do about these two old Toyotas parked on my block.
I didn’t really grow up in a small town, but it felt that way and I wasn’t more than a few minutes from a broad, flat horizon and a low, domed sky stretching out over California’s Central Valley farmland. That space is beautiful, but it asks a series of mobility questions that cars give great answers to. Distance wasn’t an opening to new places; it was what closed things off.
Two feet and two wheels will only take you so far, and by high school I felt I’d seen all there was within their radius. I affixed many of my dreams of escape to cars, spending countless hours with friends driving without a place to go, subtly thrilled at the idea of being able to go somewhere, to be able to do something. This drawing gives a sense of the kinds of dreams that spawned a thousand notebook doodles, wanting only to leap out into the hyperspace.
And what cars did I have before me to stick my dreams to? Any car, every car, the one that had four wheels. Fast cars, sports cars were unattainable; four wheeled spaceships come with rust and teenager price tags. The more invisible a car is on the streets, the more brightly it shines out in the cosmos.
Sometimes I even see three of these second generation Camrys on my block and I don’t know how many I walk past in a day; a more anonymous car is hard to find. That they are still a normal, everyday sight speaks to their durability, a perfect quality for gliding through the countryside at night, amongst the stars. From Maine to California, this is a quintessentially American car, that Model T kind of vehicle, that four wheeled conveyance and little more to which all kinds of American dreams are attached, especially when those fantasized wide open spaces are involved.