At Witz’ End: What’s an American Car?

February 27, 2007

So what is an “American” car?

If it is simply one built inAmerica, as most foreign makers and U.S. media would have you believe, then vehicles built in Canada are Canadian, those assembled in Mexico are Mexican and Porsches built in Finland are Finnish.

 

But we know intuitively that’s not the case. And yet in this global age of autos, some people insist on sticking to the idea of purely “American,” or “German,” or “Japanese” cars — when in many cases, today’s vehicles are polyglots, products of the same global industry.

 

But that doesn’t change the political nature of the question.

 

Say General Motors decides to build Chevrolets in Japan. If the cars are competitive (could happen), that might make sense to escape expensive barriers the Japanese government puts in the way of imported vehicles to protect its own automakers.

 

So GM buys some land outside Nagoya, builds a plant and hires some local workers and managers to run it. Say it builds a GM Powertrain plant next door, hires more locals and — since it would be cheaper to source parts and components locally than import them — sources most of them with Japanese suppliers. Say it starts cranking out enough appealing and carefully assembled cars to put a meaningful dent in the Japanese market.

 

This would be good for the local economy in and around Nagoya. However, assuming that the Japanese new-car market was not growing, it would displace sales of cars built by weaker Japanese makers and hurt employment elsewhere in Japan. And as those companies’ sales and shares declined, the jobs displaced would not be limited to factories; a lot of better, higher-paying headquarters jobs would be lost as well, most of them in and around Tokyo.

 

Would the Japanese people and media see this displacement, and net loss, as okay because “home-built Chevrolets are as Japanese as anything from our own makers”? Would they see profits from increasingly popular Japan-built Chevys going back eastward across the Pacific as okay for their own (currently struggling) economy? What do you think? MORE--

 

 

Protection or barrier?

 

Let’s carry this scenario a few steps further: Say GM’s success with its first Japanese plant and its growing penetration of the Japanese market leads it to build more plants there. Say Ford and Chrysler Group follow, and their American suppliers are encouraged to build parts plants there to support them…and to win business away from Japanese suppliers.

 

Japan’s highly protective government, of course, would never allow any of this to happen. And even if it did, few highly nationalistic Japanese would buy American-brand vehicles at the expense of their own coveted makers regardless of where they were built.

 

But say, just for a moment, that they would. Would those Japan-built cars and trucks — most designed and developed in North America -- qualify as “Japanese?” Would those parts built in American-owned Japanese plants be considered “Japanese?” Would the assembly and sales of those vehicles in Japan be perceived as good for Japanese jobs and the Japanese economy? Could their U.S. makers get away with advertising them as such? Would the Japanese media endorse and recommend them as such? What do you think?

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