I sometimes have to cringe when I write the news stories because TopSpeed has items from around the world. On a daily basis I see plenty of cars that don’t make it to the U.S., and how many more are available to our cousins in the U.K. Although I know we already have the best the Europe has to offer (German cars), I know I’m missing out on cars like the cool little Fiat 500, the fast and frugal RenaultSport Twingo, or all those Alfas.
There are plenty of European companies who at one time sold fun cars to the U.S., but have since retreated to the home continent. These cars were distinctly European, so they were stylish and dynamic, but they were also less reliable than some of the competition. Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Renault, Peugeot, Citroen and many others sold the same cars to the U.S. as the U.K., but the difference is that they are still in business in Britain. Although there are multiple reasons that are rooted in the pay and tax structure of the U.K., I think there is an underlying tone over there that allows for them to forgive car companies easier than we do.
By the 1970s, the British car industry was continuing to earn a reputation of horrendous build quality, from which it would never recover. The company that would become British Leyland had let the British people believe that cars were not always reliable, and occasionally you would need to walk to work.
Then the Japanese invaded. All of England rejoiced when they discovered that a reliable car was not just a pipe dream. But everyday driving came at the expense of the car’s soul. I don’t know if sturdy parts effect spirited driving, or if people lost the connection with their cars because they no longer had to work on them, but something got lost in the translation. Japanese cars became appliances instead of part of the family. But while people were discovering the joy of worry-free driving, there were always a handful of European purists driving European cars (when they started).
At the same time the U.S. was building larger cars, and the Japanese invasion introduced everyone to quality smaller cars. Once the gas crisis was over, a new door was opened. Although Detroit went back to building larger cars with some success, a number of Americans had embraced the idea of a small car. Aside from Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Volkswagen, the rest of Europe was only importing a handful of cars. America’s emerging love for the small car made Europe want to take the opportunity to try and launch some of the smaller offerings over here. The U.S. had a flood of sportier options from Brittan, France, and Italy.
While the British car industry faded on its own, the Italians and French died a slow death in the U.S. The cause – Americans discovered small cars during the Japanese invasion, so they expected Japanese quality for all imports (and most domestics.)
Furthermore, the cars from France and Italy were imported in small numbers. While this gave owners exclusivity, it also meant expensive sticker prices for somewhat everyday cars. Also because of the low numbers, parts were expensive and hard to come by. This meant that your fancy European auto could be in the shop for weeks instead of days.
This is unacceptable to Americans, and sales became non-existent. The “quirky” European brands started going home. Alfa Romeo was the last to leave in 1995, and the failed Euros in America have been weary of the states ever since. Part of the reason companies like Alfa Romeo hint at a return to the U.S. but never commit to it is because its afraid of getting hurt again. As Americans we love the idea of a sleek European car, but that doesn’t mean we are ready to put money down on it.
Today, the top ten vehicles in the U.S are all from America or Japan, but in the U.K. the once unreliable brands like Citroen, Renault and Fiat all have cars in their top ten. So what happened? Besides the fact that these cars are cheap on gas and may even pay for your insurance, I also think it is about driving passion. These car companies are still not the most reliable makers, but I think the people of Britain are a little more tolerant because they have lived with it before. For the same reason we dismissed these cars as “quirky” are the same reasons that sell them to England. British Leyland gave some people the idea that a car was not supposed to run whenever you needed it. But when the car ran, your heart raced.