The 5 Least “American” American cars
I've seen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at least 300 times since the age of six, and for years, I was convinced that the vehicle Terry-Thomas drove was a Land Rover. The Willys Wagon he actually drove just seemed so, well, "British," I guess, especially with Lt. Col. Algernon Hawthorne behind the wheel. Since European and Japanese cars began to arrive here en masse, there have been many examples of cars that have broken the traditional “American car” mold and been seriously influenced by vehicles from around the world. BoldRide.com presents five of the least “American” American cars: Germany – Chevrolet Corvair
When the Corvair first launched in 1960, car companies like Renault, Fiat and Volkswagen were just getting a toehold in the American market. Chevrolet’s Ed Cole had seen the products and understood that Americans were interested in economical transportation – like that coming from Ford in the form of the Falcon – but with the spirit and fun-to-drive character of the cars from Europe. The Corvair was the answer.
Think about this: at the very zenith of the “longer-lower-wider” school of automotive design, Chevrolet debuts a rear-engine, air-cooled, pancake six-cylinder with turbocharging. The very idea of any car company launching such a revolutionary product would be unheard of today, but in 1960, Chevrolet had the wherewithal to try some things.
If it hadn’t been for Ralph Nader’s 1965 PR campaign that addressed a suspension issue that had been addressed for the 1962 model year, today the Corvair would probably be remembered as one of the most successful small cars on the market. In 1964, Chevrolet sold 220,000 Corvairs in coupe, sedan, convertible, wagon, van and pickup truck formation, all of which offered better drivability, handling and performance than anything Volkswagen ever produced until the mid-1970s.
Italy – AMC AMX/3
The AMX/3 was never a production car, so we’re cheating a bit here, but considering five cars were completed before the massively expensive program was canceled, there are almost as many of them around as some of the more rare cars from Ferrari, Lamborghini and all the other –inis.
The AMX/3 was produced by one of those –inis, namely Giotto Bizzarrini, who spent so much of his time working on Ferrari’s great 1960s products. Similar to cars like the Iso Griffo, the AMC’s alluring proposition was Italian design and suspension technology with the balls-out, tire-smoldering, bullet-proof torque of an American V-8. In the case of the AMX/3, it was the awesome 390-cu.in. V-8 from the standard AMX. We’ve never produced anything that was more Italian than this car.
Czechoslovakia – Tucker 48
Preston Tucker hoodwinked a bunch of investors into producing a car that the Czechoslovakian automaker was already producing. The 1946 Tatra 600 Tatraplan had all the earmarks of Tucker’s vision: aircraft-inspired steel monocoque, air-cooled flat four-cylinder engine mounted in the rear, streamlined body, fantastic handling, high-speed efficiency.
The difference was that Tatra actually built a few, and continued to refine the design throughout its automotive history. No government plot killed Tucker. It was just a case of a lot of bad business decisions. It’s too bad, though, because Tucker’s and/or Tatra’s designs and construction techniques may have made a much earlier impact on American car production.
Japan – Saturn SL
The Saturn brand and the cars it produced early on were a direct challenge to the success of Japanese cars on American soil. Everything about the earliest Saturn SL was anathema to the way cars were produced in the United States at that time. It was built in Spring Hill, Tennessee, first of all. Nissan beat GM to the punch by opening its Smyrna, Tennessee facility in 1983. Just like the Japanese company that went before it, Saturn approached suitors to develop a high-tech, state of the art facility with significant tax breaks and concessions from state government.
The SL was exactly the kind of bland transportation module that Toyota and Nissan were producing to such success in the 1990s. The brand had a loyal following, but mostly from GM loyalists who would rather buy a cheap, uninteresting car from an American company than the Japanese.
Great Britain – Chevrolet Vega
After Chevrolet was forced to kill off the Corvair due to declining sales, it still had to produce a small, fuel efficient car to take on the vehicles coming to America from Europe and, suddenly, Japan. Its response was the Chevrolet Vega.
I’m not one of those people who hate the Vega. I owned a Kammback wagon and always thought it was an absolutely beautiful car, bringing Chevrolet’s fantastic second generation Camaro design to the small car market. The competitive Pinto, for example, always looked like it was designed by people who had day jobs designing staplers. If you strip out all its mechanical history, and just look at the design, the Vega is one of the most attractive compact cars ever built.
But it rivaled everything that British Leyland ever produced in terms of absolutely abysmal quality. It leaked oil like an MG, and fouled plugs like an Austin Maestro. On top of that, it rusted exactly like a Hillman Avenger, meaning in weird places like the roof and the middle of the door.
Owning it was like having a very attractive girlfriend who had an insatiable appetite for methamphetamines. No good could come of it.