R.I.P. – The American Motor Industry

Is it to be the miracle that lifts Ford out of the red? Plenty are clamoring to purchase Ford’s 2007 Mustang Shelby 500 – the ‘500’ designates the horsepower of this latest sports leviathan from the US motor company – but is it all it’s cracked up to be?

No, not according to the British TV car magazine, “Top Gear”, who tested the vehicle back in August and found, firstly, it was lacking horsepower – the car only delivered 447 – and, secondly, the handling was downright atrocious.

To quote one reviewer:

“Ford say this car has a live rear axle, which basically means it is a whacking great girder with a wheel at each end.”

While the Shelby 500 may be fast in a straight line, put it in any situation where it has to go around corners and it has the handling performance of a drunken elephant on roller skates.

But, “Hang on!” I hear you cry, “Sparrow Chat has never been a motoring blog. What’s it all about?”

Quite simply, the Mustang Shelby 500 is the epitome of everything that is wrong with the US automobile industry today.

For years we’ve been hearing of GM’s decline from No 1; Chevrolet’s gradual demise into the abyss of rusting hulks, and Ford laying off so many workers they may soon be down to one man working in his own garage – part time.

Toyota and Honda are sweeping the board in America while US car company executives scratch their heads and look more and more bemused. But they still insist on turning out huge six and eight liter monstrosities that would be laughed off the road in Europe.

European and Asian manufacturers like Renault, Citroen, and Volkswagen have been churning out small, turbo-diesel engines in their family saloons for fifteen or more years now. Engines that would blow the socks off a Ford Taurus or Chevy Malibu, even though they’re diesel-fueled and only half the capacity. My wife’s Honda Civic has a 1.6 liter engine that beats my 2.5 liter Pontiac away from every light.

Why? Better build quality; better engineering, and more priority on R & D than on lining US investors pockets.

For years, Americans have been tricked into believing US vehicles were superior to the European, or even Japanese models. Meanwhile, crazy DOT and EPA regulations made it uneconomical for foreign motor companies to compete dollar for dollar with home-produced brands in the US marketplace.

All that is likely to change given the high cost of fuel; even the new bio-gas and bio-diesel isn’t going to be cheap. How long then before the American consumer realizes a two-liter family saloon car is capable of returning a better performance than the 3.5 – 4 liters they’ve been used to, and with gas returns in excess of forty miles per gallon, and diesel consumptions of over fifty?

All this is nothing new. Let me make a personal comparison from twenty years ago. In 1987, Toyota was manufacturing a small, two-seater, sports car with a 1.6 liter, aluminum, twin-overhead cam, gas-fueled engine positioned behind the interior seats. They called it the MR2. It was capable of 115+ mph, cruised at around 5,500 rpm at seventy mph, and took your breath away. I know, because I owned one.

Development of the MR2 began in the 70’s, but was delayed and eventually given the green light in 1980. The first production model rolled off the lines in 1984.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Pontiac was also developing a mid-engined, two-seater, sports car – the Fiero. Their first production vehicle also appeared in 1984. The one advantage of the Fiero over the MR2 was its plastic body. While Pontiac copied much of their design from the MR2, the mechanics were a total disaster. Toyota built a new 1.6 liter power unit specifically for the MR2; Pontiac used the old “Iron Duke”, a four cylinder, 2.5 liter, cast-iron mammoth from the 1970’s that barely returns thirty miles per gallon and was used in the Grumman USPS delivery vehicle from 1986. At it’s best it only managed around 85hp, compared to the 122hp of the much smaller MR2 power unit.

Toyota’s vehicle could accelerate from 0 – 60 mph in eight seconds. The Fiero? Well, I suppose it got there eventually.

I now own a 1987 Pontiac Fiero, so I’m well able to compare these two vehicles. As is often the case, the foreign car was just so much better than its American counterpart.

In fairness to Pontiac, they did produce a V6, 2.8 liter GT version of the Fiero, which is the vehicle most often seen in photographs today, but fuel economy was way down on the 32 mpg stated, as was the bragged 40 mpg for the “Iron Duke”. My Fiero, (38,000 miles) returns no more than 34mpg on the interstate, driven lightly.

The US motor industry’s obsession with huge, gas-guzzling, monsters will be its undoing. The premise: if you want to go faster build it bigger, is no longer the case. It can only be a matter of time before European manufacturers gain a US foothold. Volkswagen sales in this country are already rising steadily. Unless Ford, Chevrolet, and GM stop lining their own, and investor’s, pockets for a while and invest heavily in research and development to catch up with their European and Asian rivals, it will take more than the fancy looks of the ungainly Ford Mustang Shelby 500 to prevent them from sinking further and further into the motor manufacturing sunset.

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6 Replies to “R.I.P. – The American Motor Industry”

  1. I think, RJA, that we are at the dawn of a new age. I was looking at a solar powered bike there during the summer. Our cars are far too big for one. I’ve driven a Yaris (used to be Echo) since they were produced, a marvellous little machine. Twenty five years now for me of Toyotas. I often wonder what our roads would have looked like if we hadn’t abandoned rail and if we had banned tractor trailers, etc. and forced freight to the rail systems where it belongs. A much more sustainable world, I would think. Carting the solar bike on to the train and off at the other side of where we’re going. Clean energy. it seems to me like we veered right off the path of sustainability with the advent of automotive corporate control (ever expanding highways to accommodate the asinity of suburban living – don’t get me started!) I just hope it’s not too late…..

  2. As a non-driver, one of the very few in the US , I can comment only as an observer.

    What is significant, as well as the size and power the cars on the roads of the USA, is the number of vehicles per family. Everybody has to have their own, because that’s the only way to get to school, college, work,or wherever. In our area, and most areas I’ve travelled in, there is no public transport – zilch! A family of 4 = 4 cars, 1 person in each! Things are so far apart – no chance of walking – no sidewalks anyway. No car? No go.

    For many years prior to my moving to the US I had no access to a car, I walked, bussed, taxied or trained it. It worked out fine. My carbon footprint must have been tiny!

    I agree with Wisewebwoman that reinstatement or introduction of public transport systems ought to be a priority, for freight as well as people carrying.

    With regard to motor cars, we’ve found compatibility with a Chevvy Monte Carlo. It suits us. Drivewise,it meets all the requirements of himself, and has a nice big trunk for hauling stuff around. I feel as though we’re doing our bit to support the US motor industry rather than buying foreign – oddly, that was my idea rather than my US husband’s. Just an extension of the “buy local when you can” idea, which I try to uphold as far as poss.

  3. Anan – I might have guessed you’d have a Harley Davidson 😉

    WWW – poor old Henry Ford. Little did he realize he started us on the path to self-destruction. I often wonder how life would have been had he invented an electric car that ran on a track in the road, rather than the ICE. I guess ExxonMobil would now be a small cottage industry somewhere, making lubricants for sewing machines.

    TOB – Like you, I’ve given up hoping. If global warming doesn’t get us the religiots will.

    Twilight – the lack of walking facilities struck me when I first arrived here. Sidewalks just stop without warning; underpasses have no means of pedestrian access; no-one stops their car at pedestrian crossings (assuming one can be found).

    I was quite impressed with the railroad networks in the US, at least in the Heartlands, and the amount of freight they carried. Overall, I believe there are far fewer big trucks and semis on the roads than in Britain, which decimated its railway system back in the 1950’s. Public transport is pathetic, but given that everyone owns a car that’s not surprising. I don’t think taxing cars off the road and improving public transport is a politically viable solution; neither do I believe we have to. Technology is available to provide vehicles that don’t pollute, and not just WWW’s solar bicycle 😉 All that stops them from being built is the oil companies and their subsidiary industries.

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