The People’s Republic of Cars

The people’s car is ready to invade America … again. First it was the Nazis, then corporate Japan, then the Eastern Bloc, and now the People’s Republic of China is ready to send its hordes. Media attention surrounding the imminent Chinese invasion has focused on the self-promoting schemer Malcolm Bricklin, a serial failure in the auto import business. But the real story is the shrinking space for the people’s car in modern America.

In June 2001 China issued its tenth Five-Year Plan, which focuses on improving the nation’s competitiveness in world markets. Among the Plan’s most important elements are the “Policies on the Automotive Industry,” intended to make the industry internationally competitive. It has helped create three automotive giants: Shanghai Automotive, First Automobile Works, and Dong Feng—perhaps they looked to the American oligopoly of GM, Ford, and Chrysler for inspiration.

But this is a new century, and the Chinese have heard the news about the triumph of free markets. They are hedging their bets by quietly allowing small ventures to build cars destined for export. That’s where Malcolm Bricklin comes in, with his limited liability company “Visionary Vehicles.” Bricklin’s string of failures ran from Subaru USA (a success only after he left the company) through the Canadian-built Bricklin, a couple of Italian sports cars, and the infamous Yugo, before he arrived in China with a plan to hawk a quarter-million cars in the US by 2007.

The concept of a “people’s car” has been a favourite of imperially minded national socialists for generations. The original people’s car, of course, is the Volkswagen. Hitler’s brainchild, realised by Ferdinand Porsche, was originally known as the Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or “Strength through Joy Car.” The dream was to create a German car, rolling on synthetic German rubber over German roadways, arteries of a blossoming industrial power.

Motoring for the masses was part of the Nazi Labour Front’s strategy to provide leisure for working families—the “Strength through Joy” program. The union built cruise ships and financed travel holidays by rail and motorbus. The plan was never to chain workers to the wheel for the daily commute, but to provide a means to escape the forge of industry for the redemptive power of the German countryside.

Ferdinand Porsche began building prototypes in 1935, and production began in 1938. Some brave souls tried importing Bugs to the US in the late forties, but Americans weren’t keen on German cars that soon after the war. By 1954, however, tempers had cooled enough for the VW to carve out a beachhead in California.

The genius of the design cannot be overstated. Looking for all the world like a beetle with big dewy eyes, it featured a quasi-monocoque body half a century before most carmakers abandoned the body-on-frame concept. The last Beetle—updated but fundamentally the same as the original—rolled off an assembly line in Mexico in 2003. Meanwhile, VW revived the shape of the car, if not its underlying architecture, for the “New Beetle” in 1998.

Hitler’s Volkswagen idea came from his fellow Jew-hater, Henry Ford. The Model was the T. But National Socialism never took hold in the US, so Ford had to halt production in 1927 to fall in line with General Motors. Instead of a socialist utopia, GM’s head Alfred Sloan promised “a car for every purse and purpose.” GM delivered a stable of shining brands—Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, and Cadillac—along with glitzy fall fashion shows for the annual model-year change. If the workingman wanted a truly affordable car, he could buy a used one.

Japan Inc. tried its hand at the people’s car in the 1950s, as Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Mazda all built their own versions. But it wasn’t until the revolutionary year 1968 that Fuji Heavy Industries tried to transplant the Subaru 360 to the US. Fuji’s fifth columnists were Malcolm Bricklin and Harvey Lamm. A 25-horsepower, 925-pound car didn’t stand much of a chance on American roads (the typical domestic car in 1970 weighed 4,000 pounds); in any case, Consumer Reports sank the 360 immediately with a rating of “unacceptable.” Bricklin bailed out, leaving bad debts. After he left, Lamm rebuilt Subaru as a niche marketer of four-wheel-drive cars. Today Harvard Business School celebrates Lamm among its “Great American Business Leaders.” He never brought us the people’s car, but he did achieve more than 55 percent return on equity for investors.

In the neo-Cold War 1980s, Soviet satellite Yugoslavia tried retaking the people’s nation for the people’s car. Remarkably, they too made a deal with Bricklin, to import their version of the Fiat 127. Consumer Reports weighed in again—”one of the worst cars [we have] ever tested”—and the very idea of an Eastern Bloc car seemed to have become too comic for America to bear. Unimaginative comedians came up with “Yugo through the windshield,” while the ingenious SNL spoof advert for the Adobe, a Mexican hatchback built of mud, called the Yugo clearly to mind. Yugo America filed for bankruptcy in 1992, though the company gasped along until NATO finally put it out of its misery by bombing Yugo’s Zastava plant in 1999.

The number of communist countries producing cars is dwindling, but China makes up for that problem through sheer size. After all, if your country accounts for one in five of the world’s people you don’t need a lot of Fellow Travellers to call yourself a movement.

The Chery QQ has all the hallmarks of a people’s car: small stature, cute rounded nose, doe-eyed headlights, and a Low! Low! Price! What remains to be seen, however, is whether the American people will get a chance to buy this car. GM has buried the name “Chery”—too much like Chevy—under piles of lawyers, and so the QQ, if it’s sold in the US at all, will be sold by “Visionary Vehicles.” Somehow the name seems appropriate; if ever there was a Laputan with an airy scheme to sell, it’s Malcolm Bricklin.

As of this writing, Bricklin has yet to tell Chery what cars he wants built. Along with the QQ, Visionary has promised a minivan, SUV, and hardtop convertible—all in the $20,000-25,000 range. The Visionary website claims they will launch a four-door sedan to compete with BMW, Mercedes, and Volvo. The usual game is to sign up dealers and then use their capital to build the cars. So far Visionary claims fifty dealers, but only one has been confirmed. If you’re looking to gamble, you can find their World Headquarters on Duane Street in Manhattan.

In any case, the odds against a people’s car making it in the US are overwhelming. There have been only two successes in American history. The Model T was the original people’s car, small, cheap, easy to repair. But it sowed the seeds of its own destruction by creating a nation of drivers. The Beetle rode a second wave of opportunity, which arose when we moved from the one-car to the two-car family norm. The counterculture, meanwhile, embraced the Bug precisely for its people’s car status, a thumb in the eye of Sloanism and the establishment.

The media drumbeat of a dominant China grows ever louder, and surely Wal-Mart can find the shelf space for a Chery between the Barbies and barbeques. But the communist hordes won’t take over the American highway. Instead, American highway culture will spread to China, turning them in to us. The Chinese news service describes downtown Beijing’s perpetual traffic jam as “mind-numbing,” and the city expects its number of cars to increase by 50 percent in the next two years. Most Beijingers, of course, blame poor urban design, not car ownership. Everything is going to plan.

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