The "Buy American" Movement
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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
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Like anyone wants to admit that they built the Neon anyway!
The loud "buy American" movement hasn't got anywhere near the strength now that it had a decade ago, and that's a good thing: it means people can once again buy American cars on their own merits, not just in support of some politico-economic cause.

I'll admit that I was fully caught up in the buy-American gusto when you couldn't escape the adverts admonishing you to buy American to support the American auto worker; to keep manufacturing jobs in our country and support our economy. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable attitude, and since the only cars I could afford at the time were those nigh-indestructible Yank tanks of the 1960s and early 1970s, the complaints of modern-day build quality seemed to me unfounded.

The car that permanently broke us of our Buy American ethic. Thanks GM!
It wasn't until I was driving American cars from the late 1980s that I understood why Honda was selling so many cars: middling fit-and-finish, goofy ergonomics, iffy quality, and paint that would neither remain the proper color nor remain adhered to the bodywork. Though I've had a few cars from that era, all of which suffered from the same general ailments, the one that finally broke me of my Buy American attitude was a 1990 Pontiac Grand Am.

The Evil Grand Am, as we called it at home, was a good enough car when it was running right, but it was plagued with maddening intermittent failures that made the car difficult to rely on, and the design of the switchgear was just plain bizarre. When we finally got rid of it, we had no regrets.

But this is not to say that I immediately jumped to imported marques; my next two cars were also Pontiacs, and being newer designs they were far superior cars. The Bonneville probably saved American cars from total banishment in our home, as it went beyond 150,000 miles without the slightest engine trouble and precious few other failures along the way. Interestingly, my Firebird was also my first import: it's sent to us from Canada.

The Firebird symbolizes the problem of a "buy American" ethic in the modern global economy. Many foreign carmakers responded to the cry by investing heavily in the United States even as Detroit automakers started abandoning homegrown assembly lines for cheap foreign labor. The lines are impossibly blurred: Camaros built in Canada using American parts; BMWs built in South Carolina using German parts; Toyotas built in Japan using American engines; Chryslers built in America using Japanese engines; Mercurys designed in America and built in Australia using Japanese engines; Cadillacs that are half-assembled in America, shipped to Italy to be finished, and then shipped back again; Toyota Matrixes that are jointly American/Japanese-designed, assembled in Canada with engines designed in Japan but assembled in West Virginia. So what's American?

If we restrict our list to cars where both chassis and drivetrain are designed and assembled within the borders of the United States, then our options become breathtakingly small. The Mustang makes the cut, as does the Thunderbird; the Mercury Marauder and the ubiquitous cop car Crown Victoria don't. But the Toyota Camry does.

And it's surprisingly difficult to figure out which cars make the list. Manufacturers don't bundle point-of-assembly information for each major component along with the rest of a car's stats. The information is available, but it's not compiled anywhere and it requires painstaking research -- research that would have to be renewed each model year. Worth it? Apparently not -- no such list seems to exist.

The plain fact is, those who care about whether a car is American or not usually just give up on the notion of learning a car's actual origin, and fall back on the "traditional" division: the Big Three are American; everyone else isn't. This completely begs the question of whether a foreign marque owned by the Big Three (such as Mazda) or one of the Big Three owned by a foreign marque (Chrysler) is really American, and in fact completely defeats the purpose of buying American in the first place.

After all, if the premise of buying American is to support the American economy and American workers, then an American-based company that chooses to build its family sedans outside our borders is surely as worthy of boycott as any foreign-based company that also builds its family sedans elsewhere. Conversely, a foreign company that has invested in our nation and helps our economy through local manufacturing and assembly surely is as worthy of support as an American company.

Buying a Chevrolet just because parent company GM is based here, even though the car itself is manufactured outside our borders, serves only to reinforce GM's decision to move that car's assembly line outside the country. It's not helping at all; it's making the problem worse.

Fortunately, most people don't buy cars based on point of manufacture. They buy them based on price, quality, and features. This is as it should be; consumers voting with their dollars send a clear message to manufacturers about the value of their offerings. Those who disregard marque loyalty, examine the entire market, and select the car that best suits their needs is doing a far better service to the quality of American cars than those who buy Fords because they always buy Fords. The latter group allow their pet marque to wallow in complacency while the former group demand that the marque improve to remain competitive.

The most unfortunate casualty to the "buy American" movement is the car enthusiast who thinks he is fulfilling his patriotic duty by totally ignoring untold numbers of enthusiasts' delights: the Porsches, Jaguars, and Miatas of the world that beg to be sampled by the auto connoisseur. This is not to say that a Miata is necessarily better than a Z28; only that it would be a shame for a car lover to miss out on sampling one or the other due to misplaced geopolitical loyalties.

For the "buy American" car enthusiast to free himself from this marketplace tyrrany, he needs only to follow his own logic to its reasonable conclusion and he will see that it is an exercise in futility. Then he must discard his preconceived notions and examine the global marketplace for its many treasures. But for this to happen, he first must shut up long enough for a free thought to percolate in his brain.