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What is an American Car, Anyway?

by James Joyner on 6 August 2009


Recent news events have renewed a question that’s nagged me for years, What is an American car, anyway?

GM is selling Hummer, the instant classic vehicle based on the U.S. Army’s Jeep replacement, to a Chinese firm.  Assuming the deal goes through, will we think of Hummer as a Chinese car?

Chrysler, the “American” company that was recently owned by Germany’s Daimler is now co-owned by Italy’s Fiat and the  Canadian and U.S. Governments.  Even when its ownership was American, some of its major assembly plants were across the border in Canada.  And many of its key parts were made overseas in Japan and elsewhere.   Do those count as American cars?

The U.S. Government is bailing out GM and Chrysler in order to help save the jobs of American auto workers.  Yet tens of thousands of Americans are gainfully employed making cars right here in the U. S. of A. for companies with names like Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota.   Some of the cars they make are sold only in America.  Are those Japanese or German cars?  Or are they American?

Despite the fact that my government now owns two car companies that make cars that haven’t captured our imagination (although I’d take a Corvette if it wasn’t  ridiculously overpriced) our streak of buying cars made outside of Motown continues.  We recently replaced the wife’s Acura SUV (made in Maryville, Ohio) with another American-made vehicle, a Toyota Sienna minivan manufactured in the American heartland (Princeton, Indiana). The last two American badge cars I purchased, both Fords, were manufactured in Claycomo, Missouri.

Indeed, my wife, my parents, my mother-in-law, and myself own five vehicles between us:  Three Nissans and two Toyotas.  Of the five, only mine (a Nissan 350Z roadster) was made outside the United States.  None was made in Detroit or the state of Michigan.

The law (the American Automobile Labeling Act of 1992) provides a rather arcane formula whereby manufacturers are required to label the “domestic content” of their cars based on where the parts were manufactured and assembled.  Canada counts as “America” for this exercise, although Mexico does not.

Kelsey Mays at Cars.com lists the top “American” cars for 2008-2009:

  • Ford F-150: 80% domestic content, down from 90% for ’07
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500: 85% for ’08, down from 90% for ’07
  • Toyota Camry/Solara: 68% for ’08, down from 78% for ’07
  • Honda Accord: 60% for ’08, down from 65% for ’07
  • Toyota Corolla: 50% for ’09, down from 65% for ’08
  • Toyota Matrix: 65% for ’09, down from 75% for ’08
  • Dodge Ram: 68% for ’08, down from 72% for ’07
  • Honda Pilot: 70% for ’09, same as ’08
  • Honda Civic: 70% for ’08, up from 55% for ’07

That’s a rather amusing list, since only three of those vehicles — the Ford, Chevy, and Dodge full size pickup trucks — naturally come to mind as “American.”  And they’re not cars! But the truth of the matter is that they’re all much more “American” than most of the U.S. nameplate vehicles whose parts are primarily manufactured in low-wage foreign countries and “assembled” domestically.

What’s more, it turns out that, while people say they care whether they’re “Buying American” or not, their buying behavior says otherwise.  Most of us just want a good car at a good value.

And what could be more American than that?


BONUS: P.J. O’Rourke

About James Joyner

James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of a DC think tank. He's a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

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8 August 2009 at 07:38


1 jsallison 6 August 2009 at 21:07

Wife’s son curses Hondas (he’s an ASE mechanic). Says he never sees them in the shop for repair work. Guess what I bought…

2 Trumwill 6 August 2009 at 23:55

One factor you don’t really get into is “Who designed the car?” I think it comes down to corporate ownership and engineering. When we think “car jobs”, we tend to think “factory line”, but there is a lot more to it than that. So GM and Ford are still “American cars” (generally) with Chrysler being “Sort of” like it was when it was with Daimler. Of course, if I am wrong and Hyundai and Toyota do actually do their engineering over here, then I guess it just comes down to a mailing address :) .

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