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Automotive Anthropology

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Automotive Anthropology

Bill Crittenden
The Crittenden Automotive Library
July 1, 2011

History beyond the fenders...

That's what I've been trying to compile in this Library.  Finding bits of the past for the current generation and preserving current events for future generations.  But automotive history has so much more to it than cars.  Cars do not exist in a world apart.  They are part of our culture, both affecting society and being affected by it.  How so?

Well, would Mercury have ever created a "Turnpike Cruiser" if there was no turnpike?  That might be a little simplistic.  Cars are created for the roads they're driven on just as much as automotive design influenced how roads were built.  There is a modern day example of this that shows how society affects automotive design.

Take the average American car.  Say, the fairly common Chevrolet Impala.  Front drive, V6 engine, fairly powerful for good acceleration but soft suspension hurts its handling.  Big, roomy, comfortable for long road trips on the flat open interstate and the soft suspension can absorb the potholes of Chicago winters.  Drag racing and circle track stock car racing are the American motorsports, engine power and quarter mile times define performance for the street while the full size is the car Chevrolet chooses to mimic on its NASCAR race cars.

Now take the average German car.  The BMW 3-series sedan.  Quality materials and quality construction are the defining characteristics of a premium car here instead of size and space where even Mercedes-Benz makes minicars for the tightly packed European city streets.  Handling is excellent, and power is sacrificed for fuel economy (unless you opt for a high-performance version).  These cars are able to navigate streets that were built centuries before cars were dreamed up, and do so at an efficiency befitting a continent that pays through the nose for its "petrol."  The defining road of Europe is the Autobahn, where acceleration is nice but top speed and the handling to do it safely are key performance factors.

Then there are the Japanese.  Space is even tighter.  There is no Autobahn, but there are plenty of winding mountain roads, such as the ones where drifting was invented.  Drifting, a motorsport that can even be done in a parking garage, where top speed isn't nearly as important as throttle response and handling.  The best selling car in Japan was the Honda Fit a few years ago, small, good handling and high revving, but front-wheel drive.  Rear wheel power is required for drifting, and the car that defines Japanese performance to many Americans is the Nissan Skyline, a wheeled wizard of technology with a relatively tiny straight-six engine, huge turbochargers, ridiculous levels of handling, and no one I know can name its top speed.  Which is irrelevent if you're always driving sideways.

Now I must add the Chinese market.  The Chinese automotive industry didn't begin until 1947 with the Hongqi CA770, a Communist government state limousine.  As the Chinese economy began to grow, the automotive industry was opened up.  At first Chinese cars for the general public were, like the electronics, toys, and many other products manufactured there in the past, cheap knockoffs of quality merchandise made elsewhere.  Over the years, as in other industries, the price-conscious have supported the Chinese automotive industry as it developed into a competitive system capable of producing its own designs and looking to compete in other manufacturers' home markets.  Now, as with Lenovo's purchase of IBM's ThinkPad business in the computer industry, Chinese industries are taking over established brands to gain a foothold in what is to them foreign markets.  In the automotive industry the most prominent examples are America's Hummer and Britain's MG.

In each major automotive producing marketplace, the culture of the people, geography, road construction, and in one prominent case its economic system have dramatically affected the types of cars produced and how they're driven.  Those differences have, in turn, affected culture right back, as automobiles become an inseparable part of both our lives and our cultures.

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