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August 2, 2013 12:09 PM   Subscribe

How German car industry beat British motors - and kept going. 'The UK car industry was once one of Germany's biggest competitors' 'by contrast, Britain's car industry is a shadow of its former self.' 'Half a century ago' 'this would have seemed unimaginable. But the sad truth is that Britain's car firms only have themselves to blame. Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, Germany was on its knees. After the fall of Hitler's empire, its car industry lay in ruins.'

'In August 1945 the British Army sent a major called Ivan Hirst to take control of the giant Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, which had been built under the Nazis to produce 'people's cars' for the German masses.

Ignoring his sceptical superiors, Hirst could see the potential amid the shattered debris of the Wolfsburg factory.

Rebuilding Volkswagen, he thought, would be a step towards rehabilitating Germany as a prosperous, peaceful European ally. And of course he was right.

In the next few years, Hirst restarted production of a car we know today as the Beetle. And from then on, VW was flying.'
posted by VikingSword (105 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would like it if the article explored some specifics about labour relations. A lot of right-leaning folks that ai know just have it in their heads that the 70s recession was entirely the fault of big labour unions.

I wish the Germans still made these.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:22 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I blame Lucas.
posted by jwest at 12:25 PM on August 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


The bad labour relations were at worst a symptom of the decline of British industry, not a cause. Not just in the car industry, but everywhere, British capitalists were always more interested in being cheap and authoritarian rather than innovative.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:25 PM on August 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


While BMW experimented with the quirky and now highly-collectible Isetta, the English car industry gave us the Reliant Robin.

jwest: Why do the English drink warm beer? Because Lucas makes their refrigerators.
posted by workerant at 12:27 PM on August 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


Because British cars liked to catch on fire.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:32 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Germans still don't manage to sell too many cars in the US. Not a single vehicle in the top twenty best selling list.
posted by octothorpe at 12:32 PM on August 2, 2013


You know why the British don't make computers? They couldn't figure out how to get them to leak oil.
posted by thelonius at 12:35 PM on August 2, 2013 [44 favorites]


The Germans still don't manage to sell too many cars in the US. Not a single vehicle in the top twenty best selling list.

That's because the default middle-class/upper-middle-class car in Europe is a comfortably appointed sedan, which is what Germans excel at making - your Audis, your Volkswagens, your Opels, et cetera - and the default middle-class/upper-middle-class car in the US is an SUV or luxury crossover, which Germans don't make because they correctly recognize that SUVs and crossovers are stupid fucking cars. (Ten of the cars on the US bestseller list are, surprise, trucks and crossovers.)
posted by mightygodking at 12:47 PM on August 2, 2013 [34 favorites]


The Germans still don't manage to sell too many cars in the US. Not a single vehicle in the top twenty best selling list.

True, but they also aren't competing in the US in a lot of very big categories - pickups and cheap econoboxes are pretty much entirely lacking. The least-expensive German car I know of in the US is a VW Jetta, which starts at $16K and goes up fast from there. And Mercedes and BMW are flat-out pure luxury brands in the US, despite the existence of things like the A-class elsewhere. You aren't really losing a game you're not playing.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:49 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would like it if the article explored some specifics about labour relations.

I was wondering this myself. It's interesting how often management's errors are the fault of one guy's lousy vision, while labor's error usually boils down to "labor thinks it has rights." Not saying this guy is saying that, but there was kind of a whiff.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:51 PM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


As the owner of more than 30 different British cars in the past 25 years, I'd have to say that the British have excellent engineering...as examples, the original Mini is quite a feat of forward-thinking engineering, and Jaguar had some very good ideas with regards to independent suspension. The mechanical pieces themselves are quite robust, if not particularly efficient (and the XK engine is a lovely beast to look at). Disk brakes were largely developed in England, and were standardized on British cars. The cutting edge of racing development is still largely an English industry, to this day.

Even much-maligned Lucas built pretty nice equipment. When people talk about "shitty Lucas electrics" they're really talking about "shitty bullet connectors for the wiring" which are problematic, to be sure.

Where the Brits fell down was through complacency (we build the most x now, why wouldn't that be true five years from now? Time for a dividend), lack of ongoing investment (the aforementioned XK engine was designed in the mid-1940s and was built, largely without change, until 1987!), and what I'd characterize as an investment in maintaining class distinctions at all costs. Management was very resistant to listening to the line workers, and the workers had little incentive to manage quality in an environment where every advance in working conditions was fought, hard, along the way.

What the Germans did to the British, the Japanese did to the US.
posted by maxwelton at 12:56 PM on August 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


the default middle-class/upper-middle-class car in the US is an SUV or luxury crossover, which Germans don't make because they correctly recognize that SUVs and crossovers are stupid fucking cars

Audi absolutely does make crossover SUVs for the upper middle class.
posted by jeather at 1:07 PM on August 2, 2013


You know why the British don't make computers?

The first commercially available, "mass production" computers that ran actual business applications were made for the Lyons Teashops. 1951.

In technology as in sports, the British are incredible at inventing things, not so much in exploring their full potential.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:08 PM on August 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


What the Germans did to the British, the Japanese did to the US.

Well, except, in Japan (as I dimly understand it), Labor was almost completely suborned by Management, which worked fine as long as the economy kept expanding. This had to affect the dynamics of the two comparisons somewhat.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:11 PM on August 2, 2013


I like that an article about why German engineering out-competed Britain's auto industry is all about the British and a Brit rebuilding Volkswagen. Even when criticizing themselves they still can't really see other peoples.

Germany significantly out-engineered the rest of the world even before a Brit organized the rebuilding of Volkswagen. It's why they were so damned hard to beat in WWII. It's called a Jerry Can because it was designed by the German military.
posted by srboisvert at 1:12 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


maxwelton: I was being glib, for sure. I currently own two vintage British cars, both with electrics issues. "Lucas!" is more a reflection of reliability that anything else. British cars suffered mightily from reliability and that hurt the industry. Too often, perception is reality. There may have been plenty of British cars that did not have electrical issues but many did.

The XK and original Land Rover engines were wonders to be sure.
posted by jwest at 1:13 PM on August 2, 2013


Audi absolutely does make crossover SUVs for the upper middle class.

As does BMW and Porsche. And Mercedes has the G-Wagon which is sometimes a military vehicle and sometimes a luxury SUV.

But like most German cars, they take the Apple approach (or Apple has taken their approach) which is to sell a higher price point product and not compete to just get sales volume. It's profitability over market share.
posted by GuyZero at 1:28 PM on August 2, 2013


This maybe should be titled "and kept going--so far". Global capital may be capable of turning Mercedes and BMW into total shit if you give it just a little more time.
posted by bukvich at 1:31 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I haven't read the article yet, but British Leyland and unions yeah?
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 1:35 PM on August 2, 2013


Global capital may be capable of turning Mercedes and BMW into total shit if you give it just a little more time.

Luckily, the people who oversee global capital seem to really, really like the products Mercedes and BMW make. I doubt they'd want to fuck that up.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:42 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Germans still don't manage to sell too many cars in the US. Not a single vehicle in the top twenty best selling list.

That's because they have wider profit margins so they don't have to rely on volume to make money. They also don't have to worry about CAFE in the same way that U.S. companies do.
posted by The World Famous at 1:55 PM on August 2, 2013


Gosh, interesting subject. Possible Reasons For Britain's Relative Decline: posted by alasdair at 2:08 PM on August 2, 2013 [13 favorites]


In the US, Daimler and Volkswagen (and Volvo) produce a lot of heavy vehicles like commercial trucks and buses, markets the Detroit automakers got out of years ago. So the Germans do quite well in another segment of selling machines that travel on roads.
posted by riruro at 2:11 PM on August 2, 2013


Huge debts incurred during the First and Second World Wars (which we paid off in full, unlike the Germans: we paid the last of our debts in the 1990s, I think.)

Actually, you made your final payment at the end of 2006. For WWII at least. The WWI debt is in default since the 1930s.
posted by srboisvert at 2:15 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Volkswagen owns MAN, which makes commercial trucks and buses but not in the US. Daimler's US commercial truck business is actually a bunch of US companies they bought in the 80's and 90's and have very little overlap with their European trucks. Volvo is actually the closest to a pure import from a design and management perspective, although they also own Mack.

There isn't actually very much in common with making a big truck and making cars.
posted by JPD at 2:21 PM on August 2, 2013


I'm fairly sure that Germany paid off its WW1 debt (by then sold off to private investors) a few years ago, to bemused announcements in the press that WW1 is finally over.
posted by acb at 2:21 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a slight tangent: in his book about Anglo-German relations Keeping Up With The Germans, London-raised German journalist Philip Oltermann recounts the urban legend that the British figure of speech “bog standard” came from the acronym “British or German standard”, referring to the two great car-making powers of yore. (He then mentions that this is not the case, but instead that the phrase comes from Meccano sets coming in two boxes: “box, standard” and “box, deluxe” (spoonerised to “dog's bollocks”).)
posted by acb at 2:25 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nah, acb; dog's bollocks is printer's term for the colon character, because it was often used next to the em-dash, or dog's cock.

If you want to read a fictional but apparently atmospheric tale of the UK car plants, Jeff Torrington's The Devil's Carousel is great. Torrington worked at Linwood (where they made the ill-advised but cheap and wildly tunable Imp) and the aggro between workers and management was horrid.

(I can't believe we haven't had an FPP on Torrington. His 30-years-in-the-writing debut novel Swing Hammer Swing is epic.)
posted by scruss at 2:37 PM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


When I was an urbanite, we leased Passats for four year stretches. Long story but now I'm in a rural area with two Mercury Grand Marquis, big ass Detroit land yachts. I so miss that German handling, design, that little split second before the turbo unleashed and you were slammed back into your seat. Next car I get is going to be German.
posted by Ber at 2:42 PM on August 2, 2013


I can't believe we haven't had an FPP on Torrington

Be the change you want to see...
posted by MartinWisse at 2:49 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know why the British don't make computers?
ARM seem to be doing ok, just designing processors
posted by Z303 at 2:50 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Instead of embracing new technology and tapping the expanding European markets, they shrank from Continental competition and preferred to sell cheap cars to Britain's former colonies.

More evidence of the corrupting and weakening nature of having dominance over others. As London was able to demand that Rhodesia and Jamaica buy Hillman Minxes and Morris Minors, and strongly hint that Australia and New Zealand do the same, by weight of imperial authority, they didn't need to make an effort at being competitive on their own terms. Soon enough, the only reason anybody bought a (generic, non-luxury) British car was because they were in some way coerced into doing so.

A similar thing happens to slave-owning societies: labour's dirt cheap, so no point in saving it or indeed efficiency. Hence, apparently, the antebellum US South's inefficient use of agricultural land.
posted by acb at 2:57 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the biggest tragedy of Britain's absolutely dogged determination to do things wrong is that when they do come up with a piece of just flat-out glorious for-the-ages genius like the Mini, which has yet to be beaten in terms of packaging brilliance (the 2CV gets the nod for overall clean-sheet design in my mind, however), they get beaten by a lousy handling, dangerous, strength-thru-joy propagandamobile like the Beetle (which Ferdinand Porsche had basically stolen from Hans Ledwinka to begin with) that went on to stink up the world for fifty-eight years while the Mini got stuck being cute on a much, much smaller scale before being replaced with a gargantuan and miserably packaged insulting parody of itself from BMW (with a French engine to complete the humiliation).

They were once some of the world's greatest automotive engineers, then just sort of...stopped.

In their defense, the Germans lucked out an awful lot.

BMW exists today because, while they were on the skids, they licensed a car designed by an Italian refrigerator company, marginally improved it, came up with their own special flavor of flop, then finally managed to create something worthwhile by using their excellent motorcycle engine and a lot of design help from Italy with the cash they'd saved up from all those Isettas.

VW prospered in spite of floundering in their attempts to replace the dog-tired Beetle platform with the unserviceable Type III, then with the stunningly awful Type IV and a whole mess of forgotten atrocities like the poor unlamented K70, for which they destroyed an entire company. By the time they hit their lucky strike thanks to technology bought in from Auto Union (and Italy, again), they'd had a nice head start given to them by the Brits and their descent into engineering WTF territory.

Had Italy not bought their pre-rusted steel from the Soviets, and had the French not gone for either dull-weird (but influential without a lot of appeal outside their home market) or sweet haywire pie-in-the-sky weird, and had Europe not locked Japanese carmakers out of their markets for a lot longer than we did, things might have been different.

As it stands, it's telling that German carmakers outside of the bought-it-for-the-label marques have not done particularly well in the US market, where we have terrible, terrible, unforgivably bad taste in cars overall, but coupled with almost zero patience for unreliability, which is why the VW Golf/Jetta is not the official middle class standard issue commuter here.


[In the interest of full disclosure, I own both a British vehicle and one with a blue and white spinner, albeit of convoluted ancestry. Also, I get very cranky and opinionated about cars because Citroën should rule the universe, but clearly does not.]
posted by sonascope at 3:08 PM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


That's because they have wider profit margins so they don't have to rely on volume to make money. They also don't have to worry about CAFE in the same way that U.S. companies do.

IIRC, when the CAFE regs were introduced there were accusations that they were protectionist in nature because they applied on a fleet wide basis because the German manufacturers didn't have the volume cars to bring down the fleet fuel consumption average, while the US manufacturers did. Not followed this so no idea what the situation is now.
posted by biffa at 3:08 PM on August 2, 2013


IIRC, when the CAFE regs were introduced there were accusations that they were protectionist in nature because they applied on a fleet wide basis because the German manufacturers didn't have the volume cars to bring down the fleet fuel consumption average, while the US manufacturers did. Not followed this so no idea what the situation is now.

As I recall from conversations with friends who do legal work in that area, the U.S. companies are concerned that violations by U.S. entities will lead not only to fines but also director and officer liability. It's been a while, though, and my knowledge of CAFE is far from comprehensive.
posted by The World Famous at 3:25 PM on August 2, 2013


but instead that the phrase comes from Meccano sets coming in two boxes: “box, standard” and “box, deluxe”

"That BS folk etymology is wrong; you should believe this BS folk etymology instead!" (Bog Standard is one of those perennial etymological mysteries to which people love proposing solutions; but none of them has a shred of supporting evidence.)
posted by yoink at 3:41 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


>> Germans.... Not a single vehicle in the top twenty best selling list.

> pickups and cheap econoboxes are pretty much entirely lacking. The least-expensive German car... VW Jetta, which starts at $16K


smart fortwo $12,490

Wikipedia: "Smart now operates under the Mercedes-Benz Cars division of Daimler AG". They've been "Swiss" at times, but about as Swiss as BMW's Mini is "English."
posted by morganw at 3:45 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


> When people talk about "shitty Lucas electrics" they're really talking about "shitty bullet connectors for the
> wiring" which are problematic, to be sure.

Never had a British car but I did have a British bike, a Triumph 650. It was lovely to ride when it worked. But after several years of untraceable electrical faults I got pissed enough to try to solve the problems once and for all. I stripped it down to the frame, and while all the dismounted parts were soaking in solvent and then being repainted I tore out the entire wiring harness, de-greased and de-gunked it enough to trace all the connections and measure all the conductor gauges, and used that as a model to hand-build a new harness wire by wire and connector by connector. I eventually wore that bike out and had many other issues with it, but never again electrical ones.

The rebuild didn't happen overnight, of course, and while the Triumph was out of service I bought another bike to ride, a BMW R75/5. In all honesty I never learned much about beemer internals because I never had much excuse to work on it. Like Hondas and Macs it just worked.
posted by jfuller at 3:51 PM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


I would like it if the article explored some specifics about labour relations. A lot of right-leaning folks that ai know just have it in their heads that the 70s recession was entirely the fault of big labour unions.

When Ford bought Jaguar, they were specifically barred from touring the plant pre-sale as a condition. When they got in there they found equipment from 1895. It was 1990. http://www.google.com/search?client=ms-rim&hl=en&q=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jaguarforums.com%2Fforum%2Fxk8-xkr-17%2Fdidnt-ford-buy-jaguar-1333%2F&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&channel=browser

Ford excs called the plant the worst car plant outside of the Soviet Union.

British cars were terribly unreliable. German cars run like a top. Had zip to do with unions.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:58 PM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also, don't forget the classic Richard Lewis car bit. Talks about how terrible his British car was, and that the lawyers won't let him say the name--"rhymes with Maaguire"
posted by Ironmouth at 4:01 PM on August 2, 2013


The thing you have to realize is that there were two industrial revolutions. One was about steam, which Britain pioneered. The other was about internal combustion, which Germany pioneered.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:07 PM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Clarkson did a neat piece on Clarkson's Car Years back in 2000, called "Who Killed The British Car Industry?" that's pretty interesting. You can find it on YouTube from various sources, and, considering Clarkson's awfully conservative, it's compelling that he doesn't lay it all on the unions as too many do. Of particular note, there are a lot of internecine squabbles between former competitors united under the grim BMC, then British Leyland, banner that tell us more of the story than the obvious angles would suggest.
posted by sonascope at 5:48 PM on August 2, 2013


The British car industry was killed by the incompetence of British management, not labor unrest.

It's not labor that was never able to figure out what "interchangeable parts" means, making every variation of every model require completely different parts (i.e., different models of Austin, say, all requiring different inside door handles or brake bolts). It's not labor that decided that the solution to high rates of defects on the line was to run them through to the end anyways, then send mechanics to go fix them in the lot afterwards, leading to famous incidents like the entire shipment of Triumphs that arrived on a boat in New York sans engines or windshields.

Britain had -- has still -- some of the best mechanics in the world. There were guys who could have made you a working automobile out of trash lying around in the yard, cutting parts by hand that fit perfectly, working around the ludicrous operational mistakes of their bosses, but their opinions were never sought, never listened to, because they didn't have plummy Oxbridge accents. Yes, there was unrest -- because the bosses were driving the industry into the ground, and kept doing it for decades.
posted by Fnarf at 5:51 PM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


British cars were terribly unreliable. German cars run like a top.

Not when compared with Japanese cars, they don't.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:06 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The German cars run better than any other car when they're perfectly tuned. The Japanese cars run better at all other times. So, yeah, if you can afford to pay the mechanic every three months and whenever you go over a pothole, get a BMW and keep it tweaked. Otherwise get a Honda and when the fuel gauge gets low fill it up again.

My dad loved little British cars. We always had one in the garage. In pieces.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:20 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm British, and I am constantly bewildered by our ability to come up with stuff that's really cool and our inability to ride that bronco over the finishing line. You know, like America. (Canada, while a decent consolation prize, did not go on fo invent the atomic bomb, Police Academy, or the martini.) Or the English language - sure we have Shakespeare, the King James Bible and The Knights Who Say Ni. But those are ancient history compared to the unknown unknowns, the hashtag and Nibble Nobby's Nuts. Queen Victoria supped on cannabis tinctures; now it's Uruguay and Washington State who are bringing the T to the H to the Common people. James Clerk Maxwell invented radio - check him out - but now I've got a choice between stuff made by a company created and still wilting under the shadow of a Syrian adoptee, and a bunch of miscellaneous hardware all running software that can be traced back to a Finn (at least he once used a Sinclair QL).

Cars. Pah. Don't give me cars. Give me the welfare state built on the ashes of a broken country that was designed to fight the evils of poverty, sickness and ignorance, and did a damn good job; give me the Enlightenment that shrugged off medieval superstition and subservience and made sovereign every man's mind (we got to the women later - sorry about the delay); give me the country that could look at itself and its empire of slavery and dominion and say - oh, so slowly - no thank you, there is better to be had. Because we were that country once, and we're losing it, and I will give you every damn Mercedes and BMW ever made in exchange for getting that country back.
posted by Devonian at 6:27 PM on August 2, 2013 [14 favorites]


German cars run like a top.

Having spent some time in and around BMWs and MINIs and Toyotas and Hondas, I would say BMW has a lot of room to improve in reliability vs Japanese cars. At least two consecutive generations of the BMW 1-series had major fuel pump issues, and the MINI S hood scoops melt from turbo heat.
posted by zippy at 6:27 PM on August 2, 2013


German cars run like a top.

My neighbour's have various German autos and to me they all sound like grocery carts full of old mufflers. My '93 Honda Civic still runs like a top.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:39 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Back in my wayward youth, I was absolutely desperate for an MG, and not just any MG, but my favorite everyman sport coupe, the MGB GT. The GT was a gorgeous looking little thing (the elegant revised glasshouse by Pininfarina, naturally), and was a joy to drive despite the absurd coal cart leaf sprung live axle ridiculousness of the underpinnings. It was a cozy, lovely place to find oneself, and I paid $1200 for a twelve year-old example with 80k on the clock in 1986.

Electrics were a problem. Windshield wipers worked perfectly when it wasn't raining. Headlights were flawless, except sometimes at night. It was rusting, particularly in the place where the powers-that-be at BMC/Leyland thought it would be cool to weld six layers of ungalvanized, unprimed, unpainted metal into a box section right where every drop of rain water would funnel straight in. The ignition switch would occasionally jam in the start position, leading to a panicked run to whip open the hatch and unhook the battery in the trunk.

It never failed to start, and never required a tow, but Ms. Peel, as I called my old MG, was pretty much designed to do something annoying to ruin almost every lovely drive.

Eventually, rust got the better of Ms. Peel, and that was about it.

I went Swedish, then French, then to adulthood and dullsville.

In 2009, a friend of a friend offered me a well-kept twenty year-old 1990 Mazda Miata for $1200 with about 120K on the clock, and while I'm not much of a convertible fan or even a sports car guy anymore, I couldn't say no.

The difference between the two was absolutely astonishing. Every single design or engineering detail on the Miata was brilliantly refined and clearly the product of a lot of thought. Despite 40K more miles and eight extra years on the MG, the Miata felt tight, together, and almost new. The MG felt like a cool old car at 12, and sort of squeaky, creaky, and needy.

Those twin-cam engines in the Miata are bulletproof and the owners clubs track people in the 400K range and up. I can well believe it. The thing was unstoppable. Drove gorgeously, the top worked beautifully, and it turned in excellent mileage. If I weren't four inches too long in the trunk for the thing, I'd still have it, but bearishness and a nerve impingement that made it painful to drive sealed its fate.

The thing I came away with was the sense of "why?" to any question answered with a British car, and the same for a German one, too. I'm a romantic, a happy happy gearhead with a lust for the peculiar most of the time, and I love grand old things, but you'd have to be a bit dim to buy anything built in the UK whenever there's a Japanese comparable model.

I've owned three German cars, a '72 Beetle (Autostick, ugh), a '64 Mercedes 220sb with bizarre all-europe glass headlights the size of toilet seats, and a virtually perfect '81 VW Scirocco (the lovely Guigiaro one, not the krautstyling mumpy horror of the next rendition) with 80K on the clock and some residual scratchy damage from being buried in three feet of ash by Mount Pinatubo while it lived at the base there. Got it free from my Navy dentist cousin in '98, when it was seventeen years old.

Great car to drive. Unbustable engine, nice snappy gearbox, nice comfortable interior. Thing was—everything else broke. Window winder handles broke all the time (they were potmetal wrapped in cheap German plastic), window regulators died, dash components broke, more—just every little fiddly thing would break off, fall apart, or wildly overheat and break, most likely if it was a Scirocco-only part and therefore long since unavailable. You always had this sort of sense of precision, but with awful materials engineering. These days, they're supposed to be much better in that regard, but almost everyone I know who's bought a recent VW has had the experience turn them into spitting VWphobes (and god help the people with hippie inclinations that bought the diesels).

I don't understand who buys them now, beyond the prestige value. There's nothing they do that much better than the equivalent Honda to justify the expense and regularity of weird repairs, IMHO, and there are plenty of unbiased metrics to show that they're not as reliable as their Asian competition. Granted, I'm a bit poor, cheap, and inclined to spend what little extra I have on synthesizers, dogs, and sponsored children in exotic lands instead of bragging rights, but that little bump of quality feel really works for some folks (and VW now includes secret speakers in the engine compartment that make aggressive engine noises in some models, so they've definitely taken that lesson and run with it). To own the market like they do, despite their quality problems, they've got to be doing something right.

Whether they're building superlative cars anymore is a distinct question.
posted by sonascope at 7:44 PM on August 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


give me the Enlightenment that shrugged off medieval superstition and subservience and made sovereign every man's mind

But you didn't ride that one to the finish line, like those guys across the channel. And now you have Catholicism-lite for a state religion and hereditary peers, instead of a glorious history of civil war and murder.

The Gauls dearly for that ride. They finally overpowered the Germans, but woke the Beast of nationalism, and got thoroughly beaten in '15 and '70. And then the Beast got Germans acquainted with defeat and revolution, which made their upper classes understand that buying social peace was worth it.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:48 PM on August 2, 2013


(and VW now includes secret speakers in the engine compartment that make aggressive engine noises in some models, so they've definitely taken that lesson and run with it)

As long as they don't do this.

(Toyobaru has also put a tube from the intake to the firewall of the GT86-FR-S-BRZ, just to transfer the noise to the cabin)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:56 PM on August 2, 2013


> It's not labor that was never able to figure out what "interchangeable parts" means

Ha. Somebody in management or design wasn't even able to settle on a standard set of fastener units. Most of the nuts and bolts on my britbike were metric but enough of them were Whitworth that I had to buy a socket set in Whitworth sizes to work on it. But even that doesn't beat the little nugget I just picked up from wikipedia in the British Standard Whitworth article which this thread made me go read. For which I am now grateful.

British Morris and MG engines from 1923 to 1955 were built using metric threads but with bolt heads and nuts dimensioned for Whitworth spanners (wrenches) and sockets. The background for this was that the engines were produced using machine tools of a previously French-owned company that was set up for metric production; for the average British motorist to be able to service his car, the bolt heads had to fit imperial-sized spanners.


So really it's all the fault of the Average British Motorist.

Before the Roman came to Rye, or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling Englisg road.

posted by jfuller at 8:03 PM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have a very clear mental image in my mind of helping a friend reinstall the front bumper on her early 90's VW Jetta in the rain. (Note bene: the best way to do this was to roughly align it, then kick the shit out of it) After my first well-placed kick, causing half the bumper to hang in place, I looked over to see her kicking randomly with gleeful abandon, yelling "Stick, stick, damn you! ...and start correctly!...and stop flashing lights at me!" This is why the only German vehicles I peruse on craigslist these days are two wheeled things that precede their displacement in centiliters with an R.

My distrust of British vehicles needs no explanation to anyone whose have spent a fair amount of time under a hood (or bonnet). I have spent a lot of time on admiring various MGs, usually in parking lots while trying to figure out where my Whitworth wrenches are.

My irrational fear of the current generation Mini is a product of these two anecdotes.

Even though I have grown up around German and British imports of two and four wheels, I currently own a Volvo. I fear if I kicked it, it would a) hurt me and b) not hurt it.

One further joke, since this seems to place for it: The British philosophy on cars was that if it broke down, you walked to the nearest pub and had a pint while waiting for the local mechanic to show up. Then you'd chat with him over another pint, then he'd look at it and send you on your merry way. The German philosophy on cars was that if it broke down, you wandered into the woods and were eaten by wolves.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:05 PM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


I fully intend to never buy anything besides Japanese cars. My childhood full of terrible American boats has recommended this course to me.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:15 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know why the British don't make computers? They couldn't figure out how to get them to leak oil.

Actually, the first disk drives were the size of a washing machine and had hydraulic actuators for the heads -- and leaked oil, of course.
posted by JackFlash at 8:23 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Volkswagon also made the Karmann Ghia, which is a very groovy piece of design. There needs to be more art put into the making of cars. I think most (in Canada, anyway) are pretty boring.
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:39 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


sonic meat machine: "I fully intend to never buy anything besides Japanese cars. My childhood full of terrible American boats has recommended this course to me."

I do actually own a vintage VW but for actual transport, I'll never buy anything but a Honda or a Toyota. And who knows, I may never buy another car. My Honda Fit has only 30K after four years at that rate, I'll be retired before the damn thing dies.
posted by octothorpe at 8:57 PM on August 2, 2013


sonascope, I still have an MGB GT, a 1969 example. And yes, it baffles me why, other than pure bloody-minded cheapness, those damned box sections were not primed, not painted, and not treated in anyway except with the tears of laughter of whoever it was that nailed them together. They are designed to rust, and they were in production for long enough that the problem became evident while they were still being made and yet nothing was done to solve it. And the electrical system may have been acceptable in the 1930s, when those bullet connectors were considered perfectly fine for use in automobiles, but by the 1960s and 1970s sending them out of the factory without even dialectric grease to protect them from the elements was a sin. My car is currently being stripped down to individual atoms in a vain attempt to prevent it from committing suicide yet again, but I know that just like the change of seasons it'll be back in the shop getting completely refurbed again in 10 years, assuming there's enough of it left to strip without the steel just falling to pieces.

But I'll tell you something. That ain't shit compared to my 1966 FIAT.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:29 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


1f2frfbf: "the only German vehicles I peruse on craigslist these days are two wheeled things that precede their displacement in centiliters with an R."

Confused USian here. Centiliters? I have the BMW USA motorcycle site open in another tab, and it looks to me like the number scheme is good old cubic centimeters (aka milliliters). I've never hear the unit centiliter mentioned when discussing engine displacement sizes. Can someone help me out here? TIA.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:58 PM on August 2, 2013


The R75, for example, has a 750cc motor.
posted by Wolof at 11:06 PM on August 2, 2013


Zach_replica, if you like Karmann Ghias, I suggest this, a beautiful example with an air-cooled 911 engine powering it. I am not a big car person, but it is stunning.
posted by roquetuen at 1:02 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


One thing to keep in mind was that none of the British cars we consider classics were designed to last more than about ten years. Nor were many other countries cars, either.

The difference is interesting: though an old American land yacht might only last as long as a mg or a vw, the us car would still largely have everything working even as it rotted out from under you, whereas an mg well keep running long after all of the very limited number of gadgets have given up the ghost.

Another cultural difference is that taking a car half apart each year to grease 68 different fittings was considered just a part of car ownership in blighty, whereas i have known people who bought us cars back in the day and literally never changed the oil or even opened the good in 100k miles.
posted by maxwelton at 1:46 AM on August 3, 2013


As a German I find the BBC Article and many Comments amusing as well as lacking essential "Ingredients" about Deutschland.


1. The Myth of German Efficiency

Still good old Propaganda that goes back even before the War ...

"Made in Germany" has become a strange Myth that goes Hand in Hand with the strange Notion of Teutonic Efficiency and solid Standards:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Made_in_Germany

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DIN

Germany was historically a highly fragmented Country not only with different Dialects, but also Units and Measurements.

Remember that the modern Germany as you know it was united in 1871, so the Unification of cultural and economic Standards was an important Part of a unified Germany.

Since Germany as a Country came late to the Age of Colonialism it had to focus more international Trade and Industry to get it's Riches - not like the Brits, French or Spanish that had long built (and often plundered) their Empires.

So Germany was and still is a highly fragmented Country, that is why the drive for Unity and Standardization is so strong, but Germans are not by Default more Efficient.

The German Attitude that makes the Differences is best summed up by "Nicht kleckern, sondern klotzen!" (Boot'em, don't spatter'em!), which ironically was also the most beloved Motto of the Inventor of the Blitzkrieg.

This often leads to Overengineering and Overthinking, which is hardly efficient.


----------------------


2. The secret German Weapons: Mittelstand, vocational Training and sozial Marktwirtschaft

The most important Difference between Germany and Britain (and almost all other industrial Nations) are cultural and political:

First of all is that Germany is a social Market Economy - that is very Different from Anglo-Saxon Capitalism. After the Nightmares of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Fiasco (which called itself the Party of the Workers) it was obvious that "little People" needed a Seat at the Table.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_market_economy

Compared to Unions in France, Britain and Italy Strikes were really seen as the last Resort and Finding a workable Consensus was of the utmost Importance for both Sides.

There was always also a lot of strong social Laws based on the already "traditional" social Security System established by the Prussian State and later for the new Germany under Otto von Bismark.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck#Bismarck.27s_social_legislation

Which brings is to the Mittelstand:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mittelstand

Germany might have many giant Car Manufacturers, but all of our Industry relies on small and medium Business called the Mittelstand, which is fiercely competitive as well as innovative. Many tiny German Companies are global Leaders in technological Niches.

While Britain and the US have killed of most of it's small Companies especially in the 80's, because the Future was supposed to be digital or the Service Industry the Mittelstand was not touched, but supported. Today Britain, France and many others want to copy the Mittelstand, because they see the Advantage of not being Slaves to Corporate Giants ...

To illustrate the Fierceness of the Mittelstand let me tell you that Walmart pulled out of Germany, because they couldn't compete with the Locals ...

The Mittelstand always had a more Family-like Relationship with it's Workers, this is partly based on the also pretty unique Dual Educational System for all Professions ...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_education_system

... but also, because many Mittelstand Companies rather rely on _Kurzarbeit_ than firing Workers just for the sake of saving Money. So when Demand slows down, the Company goes into _Kurzarbeit_, during which the Worker usually get full Wages. As soon as Demand picks up the Company can respond in full Force with a well trained Staff.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurzarbeit

So even when you are only a Plumper you get tested and certified by the State. Vocational Training is considered important across all Levels of Industry - once again it's something many Countries tried to copy ...

It is no Surprise based on the historical Facts I pointed out at the Beginning that German Companies also were more required to go out and flock their Stuff, while especially Britain did bother to understand other Markets and People. Even today the British Foreign Secretary William Hague constantly reminds it's national Industry to "go outside" ...

This Pressure to Export and Innovate has made Germany the top Export Nation (together with Japan) for many Decades - and is simply driven by the Reality that Germany has hardly any natural Resources to speak of and needs Trade more than anything.

http://www.therichest.com/business/the-10-biggest-exporting-countries-in-the-world/


----------------------


3. Vorsprung durch Technik

Like many of you have already pointed out that German Cars were not always the best in the World, but they often were the best Products for their targeted Audience.

Just as the VW Beetles appealed to it's cost concious Post-War-Audience, so do BMWs to Middle Class Wankers and Porsches to Guys with small Dicks.

This has more to do with Marketing than Engineering. Anglo-Saxons always consider Germans as uncreative (and unfunny) - but reliable, sturdy and solid ...

... but Marketing by BMW and others has used exactly these Preconceptions and the Propaganda of Übermaschinen. Fooled ya!


----------------------

I am not saying Germany or German Cars are superior, nor it's Culture.

By sticking to classic Industry and having the Mittelstand as well as many big Car Companies Germany didn't drop the Ball in that particular Field - unlike Britain.
posted by homodigitalis at 2:38 AM on August 3, 2013 [20 favorites]


Well, yes, British cars in the 1960s and 1970s were epically rubbish. Blaming Thatcher is misguided - British Leyland was in severe trouble in the prior Labour government. The underlying issue was that at the same time Britain was producing unreliable, unremarkable and often very thirsty cars (during a fuel crisis) German manufacturers were cornering the middle and upper parts of the market and Japan was making serious inroads with cheap, reliable vehicles that were much more efficient.

Despite this, Britain actually produces more cars now than during its heyday. Ok, these companies aren't British owned. In this respect, the openness of British industry to foreign ownership is not just a feature of cars - some of our leading banks, phone companies, water utilities, power companies, airports, airlines, retailers, brewers, food companies miners, heavy industry and oil companies are wholly or partly foreign owned. By contrast, for example, German law protected Volkswagen from foreign ownership.

Meanwhile, aside Germany, the rest of Europe is hardly roses: PSA survives through support from the French government and dogged patriotic support from French consumers. Fiat is on its knees. The Spanish car industry is foreign owned. Saab is dead and Volvo is no longer Swedish. Germany is the outlier and prevailed because of canny and consistent management from families like the Quandts and the Piechs.

An interesting footnote: I don't know if the stat still holds, but Britain used to produce around 90% of motorsport vehicles in the mid 2000s. McLaren, for example, has income of over £2bn. The narrative of the 1970s is that Britain's car industry was uniquely and irrevocably destroyed. The reality is it hasn't suffered uniquely and flourishes, albeit mostly under the foreign ownership that characterises a lot of the British industrial and service sectors.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:10 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Despite this, Britain actually produces more cars now than during its heyday. Ok, these companies aren't British owned.

How much of the production is done in Britain? I heard that Vauxhall, for one, has most of their car parts made abroad (in Germany and/or cheaper countries in eastern Europe), with only final assembly taking place in the UK. Not quite like putting together an Ikea wardrobe, but not quite like building a VW in Wolfsburg either.
posted by acb at 4:23 AM on August 3, 2013


As an English person, the German concepts that Homodigitalis and others have explained in this thread are just fucking fascinating. There just aren't similar ideas in the UK, which might explain why the linked article is so weak - a sort of gloss over anything that isn't the mere idea of sales and trade.

The fact is that cars are really just a stand-in for "high end industrial capital units". One "car" is a measurable unit of production and consumption that can be used as a yardstick to measure how the area that produced is doing. External factors like the health of the society that produced the car-unit obvious improve production, but don't expect that sort of navel-gazing from the upcoming documentary.
posted by The River Ivel at 5:21 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I decided that I was once again flush enough to dabble in idiosyncratic vehicles with more than a purely functional interest, I took on the noble task of retrieving my father's '72 Triumph Daytona T100R from a shed in Pennsylvania, carefully relocating dozens of mice, and delivering it to Baltimore's most amazing deranged BMW bike mechanic for a going-over. I did this at the suggestion of my regular riding buddy, a bluff character for whom the airhead is the only way to ride, and who'd been threatening to boycott our absurd country rides on our comically dissimilar bikes (his '95 R100R and my '08 Stella, which is a bolt-for-bolt Vespa PX built in India) unless I found myself a vehicle that could sustain speeds over 45 MPH.

Said mechanic was unhappy with the Triumph, which incorporates about three dead thread systems and other stubborn British hallmarks of denial that the once-mighty Empire would ever fade, and constantly explained insane engineering choices the designers made, like the ridiculous "ticklers" needed to start the damn thing, which basically just sink the carb floats until gas dribbles out onto your fingers. He got it up and running, except for a few electrical problems, and I picked it up one night after work, taking the bus from my clock tower to the shop. Started on one kick, and that was the last easy start I ever had on that bike.

Part of the problem was an old injustice my father had pulled on my mother, buying what he called "a little commuter bike" in '74, but which was actually the rare flat track racing variant with all sorts of weird profiling in the engine designed to make it go like stink, at the cost of a wild idle and a complete inability to just putter happily along (puttering happily along being my primary interest in any vehicle). I did my best to use it as a practical thing, but after it slowed and stranded me on the side of I-95 on an attempted trip to buy pillow covers from Beyond, I called my childhood piano teacher and made her an offer for her BMW. Other than successfully quenching my lifetime's worth of nostalgia and eating $2K in renovation costs, the Triumph did little but give me an apocalyptic Anglophobia that, among other things, got me called out for harshness in a previous gearhead post for my over-the-top suggestion that Britain's mechanical crimes warranted a return of terrorism to the jeweled isle (meant as histrionic invective, of course).

I realized my mistake early on, with every trip making me so angry I cut them short because I believe you can't ride safely if your mind is occupied with apocalyptic Anglophobia, and was considering other approaches.

Because my riding buddy is an airhead guy, and because, as a former A-series Citroëniste and Panhard 24 daydreamer who believes the boxer twin engine is the best thing ever deployed in an engine compartment, I love the boxer sound, I figured I'd find a /5 or /6 or maybe an R65 to move me into motorcycling satori, but there was a hitch.

First, I'd spent twenty years, off and on, with Vespa PX models, and when Corradino D'Ascanio managed to solve the problem of motorcycles, he'd done it right, and I'm used to a scooter that doesn't break, doesn't fuss, and doesn't need a lot of doodling around in the engine to keep it going, so my standards were awfully high. Also, I've spent a lot of time with my riding buddy and around the mechanical wonderland of that secret BMW garage in Baltimore and reading BMW forums and…man, do those guys fuss a lot. A BMW motorcycle, well-tended, will last goddamn near forever, but it's Volvo-like in that it will do it only with the constant application of capital and attention, and those guys who love them also find, but will never admit, that they love being needed by their bikes like doting motorcycle parents.

For me, the killer was the lousy mileage. If a motorcycle gets worse mileage than a car, I'm just not interested, and an R100, for instance, will very rarely beat the mileage my Miata got, despite being a quarter of the weight.

"Joe, what you're failing to account for is that BMW designed the bikes to be slightly less efficient to reduce engine stress to achieve increased longevity," said riding buddy, and the fact that he thinks and speaks this way is why I love technowonky riding buddies like him, but a Honda will last as long as a BMW, but without all the fuss and bother. I stood around the garage and watched all those guys scratching their heads and bullshitting about this and that and realized that, as much as I wanted to hear that boxer sound again, I wanted something reliable, so I could go places and see things and, above all else, not constantly spend money.

I came very close to buying a Honda PC 800, which was close to D'Ascanio's motorcycle-hating ideal and one of the most legendarily reliable motorcycles ever built, wrapped in eighties Tron plastic to horrify and amuse people for whom a motorcycle is a tool of machismo reinforcement. I didn't, because Honda is not good with maintaining a parts stock for older vehicles, but it still boggles my mind that the vast majority of motorcyclists are not on Hondas, Yamahas, or Suzukis.

In the end, I went with an international mutt, the BMW F650, because it's transnational in the best possible way, and because my childhood piano teacher had a perfect one with 2500 miles on the clock for a very good price.

My mechanic tried not to roll his eyes, and my riding buddy insists on calling it "The Rotax," but it is steadfast and reliable, a happy little workhorse that embodies the best of several national approaches to design. The chassis is designed by BMW Motorrad and Aprilia (which also builds the complete bikes), the visual and ergonomic design by Martin Longmore (UK), the detailing and peripheral engineering by BMW, and the engine is by Rotax, the world's best engine designers (IMHO), in Austria. It sounds completely unimpressive, of course, like it should be pumping well water in Namibia, but it sounds and feels like it could do it forever.

BMW is very Applesque in creating an object that feels right, and they're almost unique in the motor industry in maintaining parts and supplies for vehicles decades out of service because the Quandt family has a lasting sense of the importance of their products. Watching my riding buddy order parts for his R69S and get most of them right out of stock, price notwithstanding, is a revelation.

Still, Japanese bikes are just better. They're more efficient, less expensive, less troublesome, and easier to live with in every practical sense. They also don't suffer from the dullness virus that's laid Honda Automotive low, because motorcycles are still pretty much what they've always been, with manual transmissions and a high barrier to ownership. The Brits are sort of back in the game with neo-Triumph, though I'm not sure who would care if they didn't own the rights to the swoopy Triumph logo, and the Germans are still at it for those that can afford it, but the rest of the world has moved on.

A few times a month, I drag the old Daytona out of the basement, hold the ticklers until my gloves stink of gasoline, spend a good twenty minutes kicking the fucker over until I tear my pants on all the jagged mess sticking out the sides of the bike, get a ragged, unhappy idle, then climb on, cursing that sceptered isle and how they let it all just fall apart, and take it out for a bombing run over Berlin, singing "Oh England My Lionheart" at the top of my lungs and trying to outrun the gremlins, at least for a while. When it will run, it is truly a splendid, poised thing, if only for moments.

Oh! England, my Lionheart,
I'm in your garden, fading fast in your arms.
The soldiers soften, the war is over.
The air raid shelters are blooming clover.
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes—
My London Bridge in rain again.

Then, of course, something breaks, and I'm back in the Pooh once again.

Oh bother.
posted by sonascope at 6:24 AM on August 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


The Mittelstand has been very successful for the last twenty years because of huge demand in Asia (China) for its products: business-to-business engineering products like high-quality machine tools for factories to make consumer goods for export from China to the USA. The suppression of the German currency within the Euro, preventing appreciation of the German currency, has also kept exports competitive. It remains to be seen whether this will survive China's move up the value chain and the declines in demand from elsewhere in the Euro zone. The German coal industry is now pretty much as dead as the British one, and German large-scale industries like car assembly are also moving to low-cost countries like Eastern Europe and Turkey.

I expect the German focus and tradition of engineering and their good technical education system to give them a continued competitive advantage in high-value engineering exports, but it is hard to go from that to a prescription for other economies and societies.
posted by alasdair at 7:21 AM on August 3, 2013


> Corradino D'Ascanio managed to solve the problem of motorcycles

Why can't people manage to leave solved problems alone? My kid bought a generic Craigslist Chinese Scooter to get to his job because it was dirt cheap. There are zillions of brands of these but virtually all of them use the Honda GY6 engine or knockoffs of the same, licensed or unlicensed. Which uses a goddam rubber band belt to drive the rear wheel. Which in turn shreds unexpectedly at inconvenient moments, especially if you ride two up, which he does with his GF. I have seen more of the inside of a GY6 belt/clutch housing than I ever dreamed possible.
posted by jfuller at 7:38 AM on August 3, 2013


1adam12: They are designed to rust, and they were in production for long enough that the problem became evident while they were still being made and yet nothing was done to solve it.

I always wanted an MGBGT too - I'm very grateful that I ended up with a Volvo instead. One of my friends was a body mechanic in London for a while in the 70's. He said his first job was working on a bunch of new MGs that had rusted so badly at the dealership that they couldn't be sold.
posted by sneebler at 8:20 AM on August 3, 2013


The Mittelstand has been very successful for the last twenty years because of huge demand in Asia (China) for its products: business-to-business engineering products like high-quality machine tools for factories to make consumer goods for export from China to the USA.

In the list of the top countries germany is exporting to China is above Austria but below the Netherlands.
The next asian country on the list at place 17 is Japan, but he rest is mostly Europe.

Here's an interesting interactive map that does not seem to work 100% though.
posted by ts;dr at 8:44 AM on August 3, 2013


Ah, looking through the tables, the list for "Maschinen" (machines) is quite different though:
1 China 18817
2 Vereinigte Staaten (US) 13256
3 Frankreich 11837
4 Russische Föderation 7813
5 Vereinigtes Königreich (UK)
6 Österreich 7006
7 Italien 6997
8 Niederlande 6259
9 Polen 5445
10 Schweiz 4835
And for cars the list is 1) US, 2) UK, 3) China, 4) France, and 5) Italy.
posted by ts;dr at 8:48 AM on August 3, 2013


InsertNiftyNameHEre: Sorry, I was being intentionally obtuse by using centiliters. Next I'll tell you milage in rods per hogheads with my tongue fastened securely to my cheek using ISO spec tongue sealant.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:51 AM on August 3, 2013


Germany's superior trade training and its highly competitive small businesses can help explain its car's fussiness: a German car in Germany will be maintained by a German mechanic working in a German garage. A car requiring special tools and skills isn't a problem when that infrastructure is in place.

When that infrastructure isn't in as developed, like in the US, it means that a cheap Volkswagen will be much more expensive to maintain than a Honda, and will only appeal to a certain set. For luxury car it matters less, since people who have the means to buy them have the means to pay for their maintenance.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:04 AM on August 3, 2013


I find your collective faith in Japanese cars . . . hilarious.

All due credit to Toyota Buyers Guide Consumer Reports, who apparently persuaded a whole generation that buying Hondas and Toyotas was somehow a political act.

I always wanted an MGBGT too - I'm very grateful that I ended up with a Volvo instead

My third worst car was the MGB-GT. We replaced every part at least twice. (Except for all the diodes down the left side -- they're still original. If there'd been a HHGTTG then, I would've called it Marvin.)

It wasn't the mere susceptibility to rust, bad as that was; it was the stubborn employment of 1940s automotive technology throughout the vehicle. Everything needed constant adjustment, lubrication, or replacement. Owning a British sports car did not supply you primarily with transportation so much as a hobby, or more accurately, a pass-time.

It is now starring as a parti-coloured yard planter in rural southern Ohio.

My second worst car was the Volvo 142 whose right front wheel once caught on fire. Ten points for being the only car I ever drove to the junkyard.

The very worst car I ever owned was the Honda Civic that disintegrated in the driveway and blew away in the wind. (Can you say 'laminated steel'?) The MacPherson struts sagged and pushed the front-hinged hood permanently open. The engine sagged on its mounts and caused the front axle to repeatedly saw through the lower radiator hose. The big MPC that passed power and signal between the engine compartment and instrument panel repeatedly shorted out, causing the engine, instruments, and lights all to stop working.

Hondas -- don't talk to me about Hondas.

The few remaining rolling parts were towed away before its sixth birthday.

= = = = =

My third best car was a Volkswagen Squareback (EFI): 37 mpg for 137,000 miles.

Second best: Volkswagen GTI (16V): 146,000 miles of Fahrvergnügen (the next owner got to 198,000). I will admit that everything about that 16v engine was much more expensive than the corresponding Golf engine.

Best: the Passat I drive now. I'll know in another ten years or so if that holds.

There's Consumer Reports reliability, and then there's real-world reliability.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:31 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find your collective faith in Japanese cars . . . hilarious.

It's nothing to do with faith -- we're talking science here:

http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/car-reviews/64280/most-reliable-cars
http://www.reliabilityindex.com/top-100
http://www.which.co.uk/news/2013/07/which-car-survey-the-most-reliable-cars-of-2013-325668/
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:44 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think you have funny ideas what counts as science, too.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:25 AM on August 3, 2013


There's Consumer Reports reliability, and then there's real-world reliability.

They don't make that stuff up, they base it on consumer surveys. Do you have any actual data to contradict that Hondas are reliable other than that you had one bad one many years ago?
posted by octothorpe at 10:56 AM on August 3, 2013


...and then there's real-world reliability.

Well, I guess my 20 year old Civic and 18 year old Corolla anecdotally canel out your anecdotal data point. Yay science!
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:06 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


FWIW, my choices of cars are a 1963 MGB or a 1973 XJ6. One or the other gets used most every day, though summer sees one of the motorcycles (modern Triumph or 60 year old BSA) get used frequently, too.

They're not without issue, of course, but generally just keep keeping on.
posted by maxwelton at 12:42 PM on August 3, 2013


I'm not being funny or nothing, but for those who wonder why worker-management relations are so prominent in explenations of the Decline of British Industry, watch some Are you Being Served episodes. Ignore the campness and bad comedy and what do you have?

An overstaffed, completely inflexible warehouse department stuck with outdated, complete useless working methods, where the front and backroom staff are completely separated and the shopfloor employees are completely forbidden from using their own initiative, the management are jobsworths and the owner is a doddering old fool. That, in a nutshell, was the state of British industry in the seventies.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:07 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Citroen, you say?

Too much chance of getting a lemon.
posted by atchafalaya at 4:03 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


1f2frfbf: "InsertNiftyNameHEre: Sorry, I was being intentionally obtuse by using centiliters. Next I'll tell you milage in rods per hogheads with my tongue fastened securely to my cheek using ISO spec tongue sealant."

No worries. I was pretty sure that was what you were doing, but centiliters just sounded off to me. I'm always a fan of whacky units of measure. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going crazy.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 4:04 PM on August 3, 2013


I think you have funny ideas what counts as science, too.

Yeah, I hadn't realized that multiple replicated surveys using different methodologies count for less than a single anecdotal data point.

Presumably, all of those scientific methods courses that I took were just plain wrong.

So I'll counter with my own data point. I'm not sure why you'd be surprised that the bugs have been ironed out in a seventh generation Passat. Or why you're surprised that a car you bought last year is better than a car you owned -- wnat, more than twenty years ago?

I've just got shut of a sixth generation Civic that I've driven for the last ten years that never needed anything other than tyres, exhausts and batteries replacing. The Civic I owned before that went from 15,000 miles to 200,000 miles, again, without ever needing any work other than, again, tyres, exhausts and batteries. The biggest fault with that previous Civic when I sold it, was that unattended birdshit had eaten through the paint on the hood. But the metal underneath wasn't significantly corroded, even though it had been that way for at least five or six years.

I've owned Volksvagens. A Beetle, a Golf and a Polo. The best (and most reliable) was that 1967 Beetle. They aren't bad cars. Most cars these days are pretty reliable -- even the British built Fords. But the small Hondas and Toyotas have been designed to be reliable, even when people neglect them and never change the oil or do any maintenance. In driving them for over 20 years, the only time I've had a Honda fail on me was when the battery was flat or I had a puncture.

So, good luck with your Volksvagen. But I've had enough of cars that don't work when I need them to. I'm sticking with the Japanese.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:07 AM on August 4, 2013


I've always wondered if "buying a lemon" had any thing to do with Citroen :)
posted by Spumante at 3:42 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not in France, I suspect, where the pronunciation is markedly different.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:37 AM on August 4, 2013


It's all about the trema: Citroën: See-Troh-Enn, with the o flowing into the Enn.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:42 AM on August 4, 2013


Plus, a lemon is a "citron," not a "citroën," which is Dutch for...oh never mind.

When it comes to the anecdata, my Citroën experience has been thrice perfect. Have (will be had, soon, though, I think) a '68 Dyane (the oldest one in the US), which I found behind an abandoned dentist's office with a tree growing through the engine compartment and jimmied up into a working car, an '83 GSA that was just a insane techno tour de force until Customs caught up with me (not allowed to have those in the country at the time, even with valid plates from the desirable "75" arrondissment), and a '70 DS that was my impossibly glorious daily driver until the clutch finally wore out at 360K miles.

In my direct experience, Citroëns are reliable. Never once left me on the side of the road, never once needed a tow. Needed a couple small-scale roadside repairs (2 on the DS and 2 on the Dyane if you count the time I hit a great big subsidence wump on the Taconic State Parkway and yanked the steering column clear of the steering rack at 60 MPH), but other than that—I can vouch for Citroën reliability.

Except, well, I'm generally lucky and cars seem to like me, so my stats are not transferrable.

I was awfully surprised to see the Citroën at #4 in euro reliability ratings until I remembered that it is actually a Toyota.
posted by sonascope at 10:44 AM on August 4, 2013


I always find it strange that people get so tongue-tied pronouncing "Citroën" when they can pronounce "Chevrolet" and "Brougham" just fine.

If you're French, it's "seet-roh-EN."

If you're American, it's "sit-roh-en" if you can be bothered and a "sit-ROY-en" or even "sit-ROLLY-en" if you're just determined to be annoyingly disconnected from the simplest rules of language.

If you're British, and therefore pronounce things in whatever demented provincial way you feel like (see also "Per-zhoh" and what dicks the English are about how Americans pronounce "Jag-youer"), it's "sitron," which is just wrong. Bear in mind, this is the same dialect group that, because they can't pronounce "Lancia" properly (It's "lahnsha"), at least were able to make a clever quip out of it—"A Lancia is like a Fiat, only fancia."

For the record, you don't really pronounce the "H" in Panhard, either, though it seldom comes up.
posted by sonascope at 10:55 AM on August 4, 2013


Britain continues to dominate engineering in Formula 1.

Formula 1 teams in 2013:

Caterham F1 based in Leafield, Oxfordshire, U.K.
Scuderia Ferrari based in Maranello, Italy
Force India based in Silverstone, Northamptonshire, U.K.
Lotus F1 based in Enstone, Oxfordshire, U.K.
Marussia F1 based in Banbury, Oxfordshire, U.K.
McLaren based in Woking, Surrey, U.K.
Mercedes based in Brackley, Northamptonshire, U.K.
Red Bull Racing based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, U.K.
Sauber Motorsoprt based in Hinwil, Zurich, Switzerland
Scuderia Toro Rosso based in Faenza, Italy
Williams F1 based in Grove, Oxfordshire, U.K.
posted by chrchr at 12:01 PM on August 4, 2013


Those British F1 teams are not making their own engines. They're buying them from Mercedes and Renault. And in the past, they were buying them from Ford, Honda, Ferrari, and others. Now, that's not saying they're not doing some amazing engineering of their own.
posted by The World Famous at 3:59 PM on August 4, 2013


Don't forget Cosworth, though this will be the last year of their F1 operation. Many of the Ford engines you refer to were designed and made by Cosworth with funding from Ford.
posted by chrchr at 4:22 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that I've ever heard Citroën said out loud so I have no idea how to pronounce the word. Actually, I think that I've only seen one in person two or three times at the most.
posted by octothorpe at 4:29 PM on August 4, 2013


Of course, as long as there's Caterham and Ariel, there will always be a mechanical soul left in the UK.
posted by sonascope at 5:59 PM on August 4, 2013


Those British F1 teams are not making their own engines. They're buying them from Mercedes and Renault.

Mercedes F1 engines are made in the UK. Honda engines for the next season will be built in the UK.

Coincidentally, Top Gear have just done a piece on this and yesterday's episode had a big section on Britain's 'hidden' vehicle manufacturing sector.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:11 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


> I'm not sure that I've ever heard Citroën said out loud so I have no idea how to pronounce the word.

In the UK, as if offering Ronald a chair: "Sit, Ron."
Everywhere else, as if incorrectly identifying furniture: "Seat, wrong." (kinda)

They are glorious cars. A friend had a clapped-out CX Turbo. It went like a rocket, and potholes were unknown. You could change the ride height as you drove, and we would amuse nearby children (including we two engineers) by making the car bop up and down while stuck in traffic.

Re my Jeff Torrington comment, I'd love to do an FPP, but I'm far from any copies, and Torrington's Joycean style needs a less mechanical reviewer than me.
posted by scruss at 9:57 AM on August 5, 2013


No one's sold any French cars in the US for decades now. Peugeot and Renault gave up selling here in the eighties and if Citroen's were ever sold here, I never saw a dealership.
posted by octothorpe at 10:04 AM on August 5, 2013


Thanks MuffinMan. I haven't watched TopGear for about a year but will give that episode you linked to a watch.
posted by Spumante at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2013


if Citroen's were ever sold here, I never saw a dealership.

Nor I. Nevertheless, here's the Guide to Citroens in North America.

It appears they had a North Am dealership network until about 1973, when they became unwilling to keep up with US safety and pollution requirements.

Some model highlights below.

(The site author spells the marque without the diaresis mark throughout. I have left these, but I have done some paraphrasing. "Best viewed with Netscape Navigator", it says on the FAQ page.)

D-series through 1965
First officially imported by Citroen around 1957 and the American car buying public was underwhelmed . . . seemed to sell exclusively to either European expatriates or American servicemen who'd seen them while stationed in Europe. There are probably fewer than 300 in the USA.

D-series post-1965
[Though they look similar, these are] mechanically substantially different from the earlier version. Imported from 1966 to 1972, there are probably 2,000 to 2,500 in the USA.

DS23
Never officially imported into the USA by Citroen. But . . . a small but notable number have managed to make it to our shores. There are probably fewer than 40 in North America.

DS/ID Cabriolets
No more than 100 imported, although more were brought in by private collectors and Citroen enthusiasts.

DS Wagons
Imported from 1961 to 1972, most surviving examples will be of 1968 to 1972 vintage. Probably 400 to 500 in the USA.

2CV
A tremedous success throughout most of the world, when it was introduced to American it became quickly apparent that the 2CV was an impossible sale to the average American driver.

[I]n 1970, several dozen were destroyed by Citroen when left-over models from the previous model year [could not be sold without modification to] meet DOT standards. Citroen decided that destroying them was more economical than shipping them back to France.

Much of the USA's current 2CV population was imported in later years by enthusiasts.

There are probably between 800 to 1,000 still on the road in North America.

GS
A few dozen 1971 GS models were brought in and distributed to larger Citroen dealers who prominently displayed them in their showrooms. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of orders were taken before Citroen pulled the rug out.

DOT and EPA requirements (which hastened Citroen's withdrawal from the US market) doomed the GS in America. All orders were cancelled and the display models were promptly sold to employees of the dealers. Probably fewer than 30 left in North America.

SM
More than 2,000 of the Maserati-powered Citroen SMs were imported to the USA in 1972 and 1973. Probably between 800 to 1,000 are left on the roads of North America.

CXA
CXA (CX Automotive, based in New Jersey [described elsewhere as a 'grey market importer']) and, to a lesser degree, CINA (Citroen Importers of North America, based in Georgia) tried to re-introduce the Citroen nameplate to the USA.

Although they never managed to comply with California's strict EPA standards . . . they still managed to sell about 400 of them in the USA without the backing of Citroen (CXA didn't even call them Citroens). Probably between 200 to 250 left on the roads of North America

XM
When Citroen discontinued the CX in 1990, CXA turned to the XM. After several years of tests, modifications and battles with DOT and EPA, CXA released the XM on the American market. Fewer than 20 were sold between 1992 and 1994. Most replacement parts have to be ordered directly from Europe.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:35 AM on August 5, 2013



If you're British, and therefore pronounce things in whatever demented provincial way you feel like (see also "Per-zhoh" and what dicks the English are about how Americans pronounce "Jag-youer")

Northern Ohio: JAG-you-are; pyoo-ZHOW
Southern Ohio: JAG-wire; POO-joe or PEW-jit
 
posted by Herodios at 11:44 AM on August 5, 2013


I've owned Volksvagens. A Beetle, a Golf and a Polo. The best (and most reliable) was that 1967 Beetle.

In the US market, at least, 1967 was probably the best Beetle model year all around. VW'd hit some kind of sweet spot they wouldn't get near again until the Mark II Golfs. This is all US market: I can't remember how much of this was also true for VWs in the right-hand-drive world. When I was in England in the 1970s, every vehicle I drove was either BL or Ford of Britain.

Most cars these days are pretty reliable -- even the British built Fords.

Agree with you there, at least on the world market. You can't really compete anymore with a truly lousy product. The general run are much better than they used to be.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:21 PM on August 5, 2013


As someone who grew up in Longbridge, but whose only two owned cars were new-school old-school oleopneumatic Citroëns, the turn this thread has taken has delighted me.

Here's to Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Opel and MINI, Britain's 5 remaining mass producers of cars.

And here's to the last British-produced Ford vehicle rolling off the line two weeks ago.
posted by ambrosen at 2:33 PM on August 5, 2013


Noting of course, that Opel chose its Ellesmere Port factory (belonging to its UK subsidiary, Vauxhall) over its Bochum factory (c. 200km from its HQ in Rüsselsheim, both in Germany) for its western European production of the latest series of the Astra due to far higher productivity.
posted by ambrosen at 2:41 PM on August 5, 2013


As an aside, I watched the Top Gear episode that MuffinMan suggested here and I'd recommend it too.
posted by Spumante at 12:45 AM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


if Citroen's were ever sold here, I never saw a dealership...

It appears they had a North Am dealership network until about 1973, when they became unwilling to keep up with US safety and pollution requirements...


Well, actually, um:

Wikipedia:

In 1974, the final nail in the coffin of Citroën selling autos in North America was delivered—the decision by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to prohibit passenger vehicles with height-adjustable suspension. Citroën actually built 1974-model-year cars for the U.S., but was barred from selling them. For many years, Citroën had been running into issues where U.S. design legislation fixed older technologies in place, and prohibited certain engineering innovations "not invented here", including items in many automobile designs today, like mineral oil brake fluid, aerodynamic headlights, and directional headlights. The wisdom of these regulations has since been reconsidered and most have been repealed in the light of developing technology.
posted by ovvl at 4:17 PM on August 7, 2013


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