One of the most common ways to define a car is by its country of origin, and the world readily acknowledges that American cars, Japanese cars, German cars, Korean cars are categories defined by the national home of a particular car’s marque. This categorization has been questioned since the late 1970s and early 1980s as automotive production began a transformation of globalization There is, however, another challenge to the national characterization of automobiles that deals more with culture than economics.
To digress for a moment into the aristocratic pages of history, let me tell the story of a car brand that had bit of a national identity crisis. That most British of automobiles, the Rolls-Royce, began manufacturing in a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1920, a year after founding the company Rolls-Royce of America.¹ The factory closed in 1931, but had produced a few thousand cars with slightly different specifications as their English-built counterparts. but of also quite high standing. Rolls-Royce experts consider these Springfield Rolls-Royces with high standing in the pantheon of classic Rollers, but they recognize them as subtly non-English in character. Their identity as either British or American cars is not quite certain.
Automotive manufacturing in foreign nations was hardly a new concept even in 1921, let alone when Volkswagen, Honda, and the rest of the world’s automakers began relocating manufacturing to cut production costs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.² Ford had been producing cars in Europe as early as 1911, though international production was typically in the form of what are called knock-down-kits of domestically manufactured parts shipped overseas for assembly.³ Recently in America, the Americanness of cars on sale in the United States has been a bit of a hot button issue as federal funding has gone to Detroit’s Big Three, most of whom source their components from Canada, Mexico, or elsewhere in contrast to the once-reviled foreign makes from Japan and Germany who build cars in non-unionized plants in the South.
Aiming to cut not only production, but development costs, automakers are increasingly designing “global” car platforms that can be sold in a variety of markets with different preferences and regulations. Ford’s new Fiesta and Focus have drawn attention for their international shape, and the 2012 Focus you buy in Spain looks the same as the one you buy in Arizona. But then, cars have always been international, and the number of stories of car design being licensed across borders before the turn of the twentieth century is too great to cover here, and the international diffusion of engineering know-how and styling trends has been a fundamental aspect of the automotive world since its genesis.
These stories of national production, however, only tell part of the story. The question at hand is Is this El Camino an American car?
It’s an inane question, as even in this fashionable corner of Berlin Mitte has a good three or four examples of using big US-built trucks as US-built billboards for American products. Red Wing work boots, with an outlet down the street from this 1970 Chevrolet, kept a massive old Chevy pickup parked outside its storefront for the whole year I was in Berlin, and I’d found a gargantuan 1959 Ford Ranchero advertising some corn-fed jeans only a block or two away.
But these Berlin-bound American cars aren’t really the same as they are back home. In Mitte 10119, they’re Ami Autos, and they have their own histories and perceptions that relate to, but do not equate those in the United States. It means something different to drive a big-block muscle car truck like this black gold El Camino through cobblestone streets than on the open interstate. A different light shines on it, reflected down from the gleaming Fernsehturm. The burble from its 7.4 liter engine reverberates off the narrow confines of Alte Schönhauserstrasse with a louder tone than it ever might have in America.
There’s more going on with this Chevrolet than just a transplant of US national identity across the Atlantic, but more of a transformation into something more style conscious and deliberate. It becomes completely obvious when you look at who drives these Ami trucks and how they’re used. If I had found this Chevrolet parked out in South Dakota, I might call it a real cowboy Cadillac, but here in Berlin, it’s a much more referential vehicle.
What’s interesting about this Lastkraftwagen in particular is its relation to the utility of its truck bed. The SS 454 El Camino isn’t built expressly for hauling around stuff in its bed, as its heavy fuel consumption and glossy paint preclude it from serious work-related abuse. nor is the Chevrolet a particularly wise choice for the performance-minded driver, as the lack of weight over the rear wheels would make this El Camino a less capable drag-strip performer than a related coupe or sedan. It’s just build for being loud and wild, for seeking out a particularly steroidal agricultural ideal, and for doing copious, excessive burnouts.
And this design brief attracts a different customer in Berlin than in America; I doubt that a high-fashion designer would so readily rock such a brash ride in the States. The El Camino draws the eyes of passersby differently in Berlin as well, as few expect a real wifebeater-wearing American behind the wheel, and rather someone more upper class and referential.
This specific breed of ex-pat car isn’t really the same as an identical El Camino in America, and I would go so far as to say that this Chevrolet is in fact a German car, even more than a Springfield Rolls is an American car, or a Ford Fiesta is a Mexican car. The kind of people who imports a restored muscle truck to Germany are very different from those who buy them up at a classic car auction in America or those who build up a car like this from a forlorn Craigslist ad. Owning a big-block El Camino in the States is more of a one-dimensional affair, and involves at least some idolization of Detroit’s glory years through to 1970. When I photographed this metalflake and racing stripes truck in Berlin, it’s ironic poise and gas-inefficiency cool was obvious. A 1970 SS454 is really just the platonic ideal of one such car – the biggest engine, the least practicality, the most good-ol’-boy mythos. The myth of national identity of cars has its own history and should not be completely discredited, but nor should it be recognized as absolute.
1. http://www.rolls-royce.com/northamerica/na/about/heritage/ lists the acquisition date of the factory as 1919 and the date of beginning production as 1920, whereas other sources give 1921 as the starting date of the factory’s operation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolls-Royce_Phantom_I, http://www.conceptcarz.com/vehicle/z11374/Rolls-Royce-Phantom-I.aspx
It is possible production began in 1920 and the first chassis was completed and/or delivered in 1921.
2. VW’s Westmoreland factory started in 1978 and Honda began producing the Accord in the US in 1982. Similar production reshuffling was becoming the norm in Europe at this time as well, as VW looked far East to China, and Ford and other European manufacturers looked to Belgium and then later to Eastern Europe.