Cars used to have obvious national idiosyncrasies, but they have become harder to define with the increasingly global homogenisation of manufacturing and design. Yet there are still some decorative hints and driving habits that reflect certain countries and their cultures. You not only need to know what these are, but you also need the backstory as to why they endure.
French cars were, for a while in the 1960s and 1970s, la plus haute aspiration for British drivers numbed by the stunningly dreary offerings of their own national car industry. For years French cars had softer rides than models made in other countries, as well as sometimes endearingly quirky appearances. Utility cars like the Renault 4 and Citroën 2CV might both have looked like suitcases on wheels, but they had extraordinarily comfortable suspension and drove like sofas – an essential prerequisite because of some uniformly awful French roads.
This also meant that while a lot of French cars rolled like drunken matelots when they went round corners, that didn’t stop many of them doing this better than any other car. Now, France has some of Europe’s best roads, which means that manufacturers have taken their eye off the virtues of a great French ‘ride’, and most of its cars now ride like the horse-drawn tumbrel carts of the French Revolution.
For years a lot of French cars looked wilfully odd, and had yellow headlights so they stood out even in the dark. Later, the headlamps became white like everyone else’s and many of the designs got quite bland, although Renault went very peculiar with its bustle-backed Mégane, which had a boot shaped like a monkey’s arse in a metal crinoline – a look the company has wisely since abandoned.
But whatever you say about French cars, they once had a distinctive identity. Models such as the Citroën DS and the Peugeot 404 Cabriolet were more unmistakeably French than Gérard Depardieu (before he became a Russian), but today the most likely national characteristic of a French car is that it will have a diesel engine. Otherwise it is so lacking in identity that it could be German, or South Korean, or frankly – who cares?
And to think that the mass-production Citroën DS was once voted by Classic & Sports Car magazine as the most beautiful car of all time.
Despite BMW wigging out a bit style-wise in recent years, German cars generally have a sober aesthetic, with clean lines and easy-to-spot visual iconography (Mercedes and BMW grilles can’t really be mistaken for anything else).
A lot of German cars are sold on the subtle marketing premise that they are better made than their French or Italian equivalents, even if this isn’t necessarily true, and a lot of their appeal is about one-upmanship. This means that the more expensive the German car, often the more buttons, lights and buzzers it will have. Indeed, the Porsche Panamera, a huge saloon resembling a 911 that’s been sat on by an elephant, has a button for absolutely everything.
German cars always come with huge instruction books with more badly written words than a Dan Brown thriller. They are also often very bossy, more or less warning hapless owners that they face imprisonment if they forget to check the tyre pressures.
Frequently the cars themselves are just as prescriptive, pinging audible warnings and flashing instructions at their owners for every possible misdemeanour.
Because Germany has had Autobahn motorways since the 1930s, some of which still have no speed limits, a lot of its cars can be driven flat out for hours on end without blowing up, and have firm, not to say hard, rides because potholes are forbidden.
This characteristic is enhanced by the German car making habit of fitting wide wheels and very stiff, low profile tyres to their cars, which give them sometimes eyeball-rattling rides on less forgiving British roads.
Even the cheapest Italian cars used to have a distinctive verve and panache to compensate for a tendency to rot away in minutes and a habit of stuffing electrics like knotted tagliatelle haphazardly behind door panels.
This is a country where car style has always been infinitely more desirable than ensuring that the things start or stop. Generations of blokes have looked at Italian cars and gone ‘Phwoaaar!’, which perhaps explains why it’s the home of Ferrari and Maserati, makers of some of the world’s fastest and most sensuous exotic cars. Even cheap cars like the old, rear-engined Fiat 500 Cinquecento had a cute, unthreatening pertness that rivalled and, some would say, outmatched the Mini.
More recently, Italian cars have grown up. They’re not especially prone to rust, and their electrics seem to have improved, too, but despite some still-dashing styling, many of the less exotic supercars have lost their characteristic air of la dolce vita and no longer feel distinctively Italian. Of course, this is a mixed blessing, as part of that feeling once used to involve an excessive degree of mechanical frailty.
There’s also a residual sense that Italians love dreaming up cars and driving them, but the day-in, day-out monotony of actually building and servicing them remains a bit of a chore, and as a result their cars still aren’t quite as well screwed together as German or Japanese ones.
The USA is such a vast country that a lot of cars that appear to be foreign imports are actually made there because it’s cheaper than shipping them over. These include Honda, Toyota, BMW and Mercedes models, which these days look indistinguishable from their Japanese and German counterparts.
Basically, a lot of US cars, including such familiar names as Chevrolets, Dodges and Cadillacs, have shrunk – as indeed has the country’s auto industry. Things don’t look too promising when Detroit, aka ‘Motor City’, is fighting off bankruptcy with debts of $18 billion, a population that has dwindled to a third of what it was in its 1960s heyday, and thousands of shops and houses abandoned and derelict.
But some parts of the US car industry remain seemingly impervious to economic realities. The pickup truck is alive and well. Some are capable of accommodating an extended American family and enough construction materials for a small town. These road beasts, with subtle names like Ram or Silverado, are almost lorry-sized and boast lorry-style engineering, with massive engines and sub-structures made from steel girders capable of supporting an office building.
With giant freeways and plenty of space, US cars had historically grown and grown. Many were pretty crudely engineered, had seats like armchairs, and velour and leatherette-lined interiors with all the subtle appeal of a strip club. They handled like three-legged camels but were surprisingly relaxing when covering vast distances in straight lines which, most of the time, is what they did.
By European standards the average US car is increasingly astoundingly good value and laden with kit, but one thing that sets even their most prestigious marques apart from their non-American rivals is the way they feel inside.
There’s something about the plastics and fabrics used that feels, well, more Walmart than Waitrose; you can even smell the difference. The USA is the home of mass produced consumer durables, and that’s something that the insides of its cars still won’t let you forget.
Here’s another country where a distinctive automotive national identity has been subsumed into something, well, bland.
In the past, Japanese cars were easily identifiable because they were made from reclaimed, imported steel which went horribly rusty, but they very rarely went wrong because they were mechanically bulletproof.
Many from the late 1960s to the late 1970s looked vaguely like scaled-down US cars, with madly chintzy interiors decked out with weird little crests and swirly patterns embossed on their plastic headrests – but customers put up with nonsense like this because the headrests were standard, unlike their rivals.
In a world where the likes of Ford sometimes charged extra for a passenger sun visor, a perma-reliable Japanese car with tinted glass and an AM/FM radio had a lot of appeal, even if it looked fussy on the outside, mad on the inside and, thanks to often very basic engineering and steering, was pretty ropey to drive.
Despite the derivative nature of much period Japanese car styling, many of these early machines had a curiously Oriental appearance. This had something to do with window, light and grille shapes, and it’s fair to say that many Japanese cars do appear to have faces – apparently quite deliberately.
These days, with leading designers engaged in global career bed-hopping from one carmaker to the next, and Japanese – and, more recently, South Korean – car producers setting up design studios in the USA and Europe, this design trait has been watered down as cars have become increasingly internationalised. But unearth a Japanese city car and it will look like nothing else. There’s a big market for models, known as Kei cars, that are under 1.48m wide and 3.4m long with engines no bigger than 660cc. Cars like the Nissan Roox and Toyota Pixis Space often resemble cardboard boxes on which surprised faces have been drawn – and really couldn’t come from anywhere else.
Would it be very unkind to say that the average ‘British’ car is made by a Japanese car producer?
Toyota, Honda and Nissan all have long-established British factories and churn out vehicles by the hundreds of thousands, but there’s nothing very British about any of them, other than the people who ensure that they roll off the production line.
Ford still makes diesel engines in the UK, but all the vehicles they go in are built elsewhere – like Spain and Germany. Vauxhall makes cars in Ellesmere Port, but they are mostly designed and engineered in Germany. Since the mid-1970s, most Vauxhalls have been designed in Germany by its sister company Opel. Both are owned by the American giant General Motors which, incidentally, took over Vauxhall in 1925.
A lot of Jaguars and Land Rovers are made just up the road from Ellesmere Port in exotic Halewood, at a factory that once assembled Ford Escorts. Although both brands cheerfully trade on past glories, their products have ditched the tweedy and Barbour-jacket-wearing country landowner image with which they were once synonymous.
The average new Jaguar or Land Rover is an entirely modern ‘lifestyle choice’, and comes to you courtesy of a giant Indian steel conglomerate.
German-owned Rolls-Royce’s current, mostly vast saloons and convertibles have slab-sided styling that mixes the visual brutality of a Stalinist office block with visual winks and nods to the Rolls models of the 1950s and 1960s – ensuring that the car stands out in Moscow or Shanghai, which are both places where you’re most likely to see one.
Inside, there’s a modernist take on the leather-lined, wood veneer-panelled, private club drawing room look that the car made its own for generations. But in recent years all the under-the-surface plastics and fire-retardant materials have meant that Rolls has had to find ways to make its interiors smell as if they’re made from walnut trees and cowhide rather than industrial extrusions.
Do cultural slurs and motoring journalism go hand in hand? Find out in The Bluffer’s Guide to Cars®.