America faces up to the invaders

At the time our Editor road-tested the Ford Maverick, the American car makers and the public were getting ready for Detroit’s next step in the fight to curb the 13-15% share the foreigners had carved out for themselves in America’s car market. We have now seen what the American motor city’s answer was to be, although it is too early as yet to gauge how successful Chevrolet’s 2,287 c.c. Vega and Ford’s 1,599/2,003 c.c. Pinto have been in combating the ever-rising alien sales in the USA.

The Maverick was really a second-wave compact, for the American manufacturers had already tried to fight the imported cars with a wave of so-called compacts in the early 1960s. Perhaps you remember them? Well, if not, here’s a summary: Ford and Chrysler went for maximum utilisation of existing parts and a conventional layout with the Falcon and Valiant respectively. Chevrolet chose the unorthodox route with the rear-engined, flat six-cylinder Corvair.

At first the compacts did well (the Corvair sold nearly two million), but gradually Detroit succumbed to pressure from the dealers, and to a certain extent the public, to titivate and power boost what were meant to be economy cars to the point where a Falcon with a V8 Mustang engine was an FIA homologated car—in which form it put up some fine rally and saloon car performances in Europe when modified by Alan Mann. As the compacts grew, the manufacturers introduced a second wave of intermediate-size cars (approximately of Vauxhall Cresta size) to cater for the grown-up compact owners. The result was predictable, the VW went on selling in even greater numbers and Detroit steadily pulled out of the under-$2,000 market. The next fashion, so far as the home manufacturers were concerned, was the introduction of the nimble Pony Cars such as the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, Chrysler Plymouth Barracuda and American Motors Javelin. This wave of sportiness was accompanied in recent years by a breed known as the Super Cars, consisting of full-sized models with 7-litres of V8 engine, seven- or eight-in. rimmed wheels, stripes, plastic bucket seats, “four on the floor” manual transmissions, and so on. Logically the latter market could be seen as extending the performance idea to the family man who did not want a “funny furrin car”, referring to a Mustang! However, this segment of the market was somewhat naturally a small one, as even Americans’ fabled wealth blanches in the face of up to £420 p.a. insurance demands and a petrol thirst that was approximately equal to nine UK miles to the gallon.

Another significant influence on the overall domestic sales was government safety legislation (one reason Ford have recently given for withdrawing from all forms of motor sport inside the USA) and laws on exhaust emissions, which are somewhat more difficult for a big engine to comply with, just on the score of capacity, not combustion chamber efficiency.

In fact, the smallest American volume manufacturer, American Motors Corporation, were the first into the latest compact market with a device known as the Gremlin. The car is somewhat weirdly, but attractively, styled and this is combined with its ability to hold two people in comfort. The same company were also first into the original small-car market, rather from economic necessity than having the proverbial prophet’s powers. Chrysler have imported the Mitsubishi Colt and Hillman Avenger (known as the Cricket!) as temporary stop-gaps until they can make their own small car, which is clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs, for the American magazines warn their readers about cars like the Cortina and Cricket on the grounds that when they are dropped as the manufacturer introduces his own car, spares will become very difficult to obtain and expensive.

Before we move on to the most significant benefactors in the import game a quick look at the Vega and Pinto, for they could well appeal to the European driver. The Vega is the more original of the two, Chevrolet having invested heavily in tooling for the all-aluminium (bores as well) inline four-cylinder engine with its single belt-driven overhead camshaft and long stroke. Ford were lucky in having the Cortina 2-litre o.h.c. unit and the faithful crossflow 1600 GT engine to call upon, together with attendant transmissions, for the Pinto. The Vega is sold with either 90 or 110 claimed horsepower, whilst the two Ford engines are rated at 75 and 95 b.h.p. respectively. Using a Cortina as a yardstick to size shows that the Pinto is five inches shorter and 4 1/2 inches wider, while the Vega is an inch shorter and just half an inch wider. Both cars look attractive from the outside, but the interior is typically American in both cases, though nowadays that doesn’t mean the garish cockpit of the past, more a slightly upstage Zodiac. Styling has always been a real sales point for USA customers and both cars are particularly clean in their lines, though the Chevrolet has caused a lot of comment to the effect that its styling leans heavily on the Fiat coupés.

Now to the significant newcomers: the Japanese. Significant because their rapid establishment has been at the expense of the British in some cases. Within the last couple of years the Japanese Toyota and Datsun concerns have moved in rapidly on the east and west coasts to gain an overall sales volume sufficient to rate them amongst the top five imported car firms, though VW are still the comfortable leaders according to our information. However, this will not always be the ease for the Beetle is something of a fad and though it will always sell extremely well to those who want no airs and graces, just economical and reliable operation, even the immortal VW could find that the ever-expanding Japanese dealerships and service facilities will overtake them one day. Frankly the outlook for British cars looked a little bleak at the time of my visit, even the Rover 2000 having incurred wrathful comment from readers of the influential Road and Track magazine.

Our first-hand experience of the imported sales side was confined to using our eyes, visiting both Datsun and Fiat headquarters on the west coast and finally borrowing the popular 1,600 cc. Datsun 510 SSS saloon with i.r.s. and single overhead camshaft engine rated at 96 b.h.p. in days gone by, though the addition of air pump exhaust emission devices has probably reduced the current model’s horsepower. The price of the four-door automatic version is a trifle over $2,000, £840 6s. 8d., which means it is right in the battleground with the 2-litre Pintos and Vegas. The three-speed automatic transmission was apparently specially manufactured for the Japanese concern by an American firm, but even so it felt rather rougher in its action than the Mustang’s auto that we had just left at a Hertz depot.

Over the 1,300 miles that we explored the Datsun’s qualities it impressed us from both a British and American point of view. Straight line performance is approximately the same as that of a 1600 GT Cortina, though the automatic doesn’t let the Datsun exceed an indicated 90/95 m.p.h. on a flat road. The brakes, ventilation (by Ford Cortina style Aeroflow balls and ducts) and ride were truly excellent. For British roads, and there is a very similar style of terrain along the California coast to judge this by, the roadholding would be adequate with none of the hopping off-line that can be experienced in a hard-driven live axle machine.

The whole car really struck me as a superior sort of Mk. II Cortina, but in certain areas—notably in the restrained dashboard layout and high-speed cruising ability (65 to 90 m.p.h. on the speedometer for 200-mile spells)—it was better than the old Cortina and at least the equal of the new model. However, the steering had a lot more slack in it than any modern British saloon that we have tried, so the Japanese are not invincible, just careful to market an attractive package along proven lines.

British Leyland sell quite a variety of cars in the United States, but our reputation on the west coast could still do with a lift so far as quick and efficient parts supply is concerned. I just hope that BL have allowed someone at Abingdon’s MG factory to design a sports coupé to meet the impressive Datsun 240Z (pronounced Zee over there) because this o.h.c. six, with Ferrari-like body, Chapman patented strut rear suspension and price label of $3,500 is going to hit the potential Stag market and the established TR6’s sales.

The American’s volume production cars come in a bewildering profusion of names, marketed like cigarettes: let’s hope for all our sakes that American goodwill for our products can be retrieved by cars which are not just cigarette cartons.—J. W.