How Good Are the Foreign Cars? (Jan, 1947)

How Good Are the Foreign Cars?

Endlessly people keep asking. “Why are the foreign cars better than ours?” Here is the true dope.

BY TOM McCAHLL

WHICH are really the best?” I’ve often been asked, “American or foreign automobiles?” And readers have written and asked flatly, “Why is it we can’t build as good cars as they do in Europe?”

If you have been around automobile enthusiasts, you know that arguments on this subject have been going on for over 30 years. There is only one truthful answer when asked if imported cars are better than ours, and that is, “Yes and no.”

I will explain. I have never felt more qualified to write any article than I have this, because I don’t believe any one in this country has ever, over a period of years, personally owned more imported cars of various makes than I have, in addition to owning cars made by every leading manufacturer in this country.

In America today we only build one type of car, the American family car. In Europe there are two distinct types and a hybrid—the family car, the sport car and the semi-sport car. The family car, like ours, is designed for family use, and the sport car is designed primarily for sport driving and contests. Now, don’t start hollering that some of our American cars are sport sedans or sport convertibles, because this is only a stretch of the manufacturer’s imagination. There is no such thing as an American sport car being made today, outside of race cars. The “sport”-labelled convertibles we make would show up like battleships in the Gold Cup races in a real sport event. Are they better? No. They are different, But, as we are comparing our one type of car with their two and a half types, let’s make the comparisons one at a time.

First, let’s compare their family car to ours. Are the cars the same? For the most part, no, and for good reasons. In Europe the price of gasoline averages four to five times more than here, so that economy becomes a much more important factor that it does with us, and the manufacturer catering to the low-priced-car buyer must stress economy of operation. To accomplish this he must sacrifice some of the features our manufacturers shout about, such as performance and horsepower and roominess. And what have they given in their place? Usually workmanship and quality. These are far superior to ours. The doors of their low-priced cars fit like the doors of our expensive ones, and the assembled parts in general are of a much higher quality than those we turn out. The upholstery is often genuine leather of the finest quality, even in the cheapest cars.

So, how do the products of America and Europe stack up? Does the little, jewel-like car of superb workmanship surpass our big, low-priced cars put together for the most part by stamping machines? The answer is still, “Yes and no,” Yes, they are a much better car to own in a country where gasoline costs around a dollar a gallon, and they are just as sensible to own where the majority of roads are narrow and winding and where excess horsepower couldn’t be used in safety anyway, For this type of driving, typical of European conditions, the fine little continental car seems the best.

But for America, no. This car is not for the American driver who thinks nothing of driving 400 miles in a day’s run, in contrast to most Europeans who couldn’t drive 400 miles from the center of their country without crossing an international boundary line! Nor is it for the American business man who has a lot of stops to make and must travel fast regardless of bad road conditions. The American driver wants comfort for his family, horsepower and snap for his long trips, and a car that can be used 365 days in the year irrespective of location or weather. For Americans, no other car in the world will give the service we get out of our own cars today.

“Hold on,” you say, “how about the big foreign cars such as the Rolls Royce, Minerva, Hispano, Lan-chester or Bentley?” My friends, now you are thinking about the world’s unquestionably best-built automobiles, but these are strictly luxury products. There isn’t an American car that can hold a candle to any of them from the standpoint of workmanship and comfort—but then, look what they cost! and remember I just said best-built automobiles, not best automobiles for Americans. These cars are made to give years of service and in this nothing we build can approach them. I could take you in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York or the Breaker in Palm Beach and show ! you quite a number of cars of this type ranging in age from 20 to 25 years and they’ll all look like new and be in perfect condition; but think how many Cadillacs you could have owned in this time for the $20,000 one of them would have cost you, delivered here! If we are not considering price, only quality, then the Rolls must get the nod, even though a Lincoln or Cadillac would beat the pants off it in a performance test.

What really starts all these “Which is better?” arguments is the contest between the American (all purpose) car and the foreign sport car. The foreign sport car is primarily a racing car-meaning road racing, not track. In performance it is so far superior to the best American stock car that comparison is ridiculous. These cars run in price from the poor man’s sport car, equal to our low-priced machines, to the double SS Mercedes Benz which costs from $20,000 up. They are usually so underslung that in getting in you feel as though you were getting into bed, but they are often much longer in wheelbase than some of our largest limousines. For the most part the expensive sport cars are supercharged, and the great majority are either four-place open phaetons or roadsters, which doesn’t assure much comfort on a sub-zero night unless you are an Eskimo. About the performance difference: when you hear an American car owner brag that he was doing a hundred you may rest assured he’s either stretching the truth to the breaking point or he has a very slap-happy speedometer, but when you hear about a Talbot, Maz-zaratti, Alfa Romeo or Mercedes Benz doing close to 150, don’t smirk, because they can do it. If you owned one of the fastest American stock cars and the owner of a Bugatti, for example, offered to bet you that on Park Avenue, New York City, he could go two blocks from a dead standstill while you were going one, don’t bet him, because you would lose. These cars are supercharged dynamite that can whip up close to a hundred before you get out of second, and if it wasn’t for the law they could do 20 laps around Central Park before you went 10. Does this make them better, you ask? The answer is, far better for this type of driving.

Just a few years ago on Roosevelt Raceway, Long Island, a track was built for an international road race, and what happened? Some of our best drivers who competed with American cars looked like kids from the soap box derby against the German and Italian drivers and cars. The course twisted and turned and did everything but loop the loop, and the foreign drivers made our boys look like the rank amateurs they were at the contest of shifting gears, fast acceleration, and fast braking called road racing. Several oceans of water have gone over the dam since any foreign entrant has won the famed Indianapolis classic, however— an almost top-speed race all the way. There were several foreign cars in the first ten this year, but only one foreign driver, and he finished seventh; so you see it’s a case of making the car and driver fit the conditions.

If you still ask how we can compare our cars to such machines of super-performance, the answer is easy. The others are made, as pointed out, for sport driving—something we would almost call an obstacle race—but the biggest difference is seen in their normal life, so get a grip on your hats, foreign car fans, here it comes. The average sport car, regardless of how much it costs, is through, washed-up, worn out, useless, before it has gone 20,000 miles. I don’t mean it needs an overhaul, I mean it is through! Compare this with many American cars that have gone several hundred thousand miles and are still going. Exceptions are found only among high-priced semi-sport cars that are never raced, but used like American family cars.

My objection to the semi-sport foreign car for American use centers around its cost of upkeep and temperamental nature. We in America expect to walk out to our garage on a cold winter morning, turn on the ignition and start. The semi-sport job may start right off, but then it may not. These cars are made like fine Swiss watches, compared to our dollar ones, and a little thing like a moist day or a drop of twenty degrees in temperature sometimes makes it almost impossible to get them running right. I used to own and operate a machine shop that specialized in servicing expensive foreign cars, and I can tell you, they are as temperamental as prima donnas. If you are an expert automobile man you might get a lot of fun out of catering to their whims, but if you are not, they can cost you a mint of money. In fact, they are just too fine a piece of machinery to be hacked around on trips to market or station or to the movies after dinner. To give an idea, I drove a Mercedes Benz to the West Coast one time, and on cold days at high altitudes I often had to change the spark plugs to a hotter type, to say nothing of making complete carburetor adjustments for every change of altitude and weather. It was fun being able to cruise at 100 in open country and it was fun to hear the roar of the engine that always announced my arrival to some prairie town five miles before I got there, but such fun has to be paid for, either in money or in hours under the hood.

No one ever loved sporty cars more than the late composer, Vincent Youmans, and few men have known how to drive them better. Vince, when he died last spring, owned a Lincoln Continental, a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes Benz, the last, one of the fastest cars ever built. Twice a year, usually, he would drive from New York to Los Angeles in four and a half days; it was a game with him to try and beat the train’s time. He would drive at night, from six P.M. until seven or eight the next morning; then he would sleep all day until it was time to go again. Which car do you think he used? That’s right, the American Lincoln Continental, in spite of the fact that his own Mercedes won one of the last great road races held in Germany before the war. He knew the Lincoln Continental would keep going, hour after hour, without any fits of temperament. Even though he couldn’t cross the prairies at a cruising speed of 100 or better with it, he could hold a steady 75 to 80 most of the night, and brother, that gets you places.

I’d like the chance to bet on our three most popular low-priced family cars, in a race from coast to coast against three of the best foreign sport cars. They’d streak far ahead when it came to high-speed cruising; but the steep climbs to high, cold altitudes, the sudden descents, the western mountains, the searing deserts which go on for hundreds of miles—these would produce just about every known driving condition. I’d back our cars every time. fo the cars that take old Doc Jones to meet the stork at three on a Vermont winter morning; they’re the cars that deliver the mail along the Rio when the temperature is well over 100; and they’re the cars that take thousands of Americans to work and back five days a week the year round. They are American cars, rough, tough and full of fight, not so fast and maybe not so pretty, but they keep going somehow even after the last fender has fallen off.

This is America and our cars are right for Americans.

7 comments
  1. Bob says: November 26, 20079:37 am

    I want a car that looks like the P.L.M.

  2. Orv says: November 26, 200711:54 am

    The P.L.M looks like a VW Bus viewed through a fisheye lens. ;)

  3. Chas says: November 26, 200712:50 pm

    It’s not an Alfa Romeo! It’s a Talbot Lago.
    See: http://www.automotoport…

    And: http://www.conceptcarz….

  4. jayessell says: November 26, 20071:34 pm

    What?
    No VW?
    I guess that was a few years later.

  5. Don says: November 26, 20072:48 pm

    I want the 200-hp Maybach . . . for $10,000!

  6. Bob says: November 26, 20075:38 pm

    Tom Mc Cahill was a fixture on Mechanix Illustrated from the forties thru the seventies. He really knew his cars, too! Great to see some of his writing highlighted on this great site. Would love to see some of his car reviews here!

  7. Hirudinea says: September 9, 20135:56 pm

    Yea Jayessell, the VW didn’t come about till the Maybach and P.L.M. made sweet, sweet love.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.