James May

James May

May Day protests

This month I have been aware, somewhere deep in my bowels, of a growing anti-war sentiment. It’s not that I’m a pacifist, it’s just that war is obviously no longer the answer.

A much more convincing solution to world peace, or at least a very good ambassador for it, has been parked outside my window for the last few days. It’s the Chrysler 300C Hemi.

I was very excited about this car because it seemed to represent everything I want in one. Largeness, and a large engine. All it had to do was avoid the two traps of excessive Germanic sportiness and the extra cheese that has come to symbolise so much that is American, and it could become the first Yank Tank in my top 10.

They’ve failed, obviously. The ride is still too firm, while the steering is far too vague, whereas I’d have preferred it with stiffer steering and a floppier suspension. And some of the interior plastics were correctly described by my woman as being ‘a bit old Vauxhall Cavalier’. And yet I still hanker for it. It’s up there with the Maserati Quattroporte for being essentially wrong, but so overwhelmingly likeable that it doesn’t matter.

Of more relevance to the point I’m eventually going to make here, is that everyone else loves it. I thought the era of small boys poking their heads through car windows to ask what it will do were long gone, but they’ve just returned in the shape of a lad, probably no older than 10, who danced around the 300C at the traffic lights clutching his private parts. The Chrysler is a very quick car but journey times are effectively doubled once you factor in the amount of time spent explaining to teenagers what ‘Hemi’ means. Dozens of them have delayed my journeys this week. One day they’re all going to want a car.

And it seems clear to me that the motor industry will be far more persuasive than moral rectitude and its associated militarism in shaping the future of the world. If anyone is still seeking an argument for economic rather than weapons-based warfare, I would suggest looking no further than the car business. Here, in no particular order and with no intended bias, are a few historical titbits suggesting that the automotive industry is rather more than a matter of life and death.

We’ll begin with the Pacific conflict in World War Two. At the end of the war, a sizeable proportion of the American public advocated the complete extermination of the Japanese. The ethical debate over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will rage for ever, but in fact it is largely irrelevant. Japan would soon produce much more devastating weapons, such as the Honda Civic and the Lexus LS400. Both of these cars became best-sellers on the West Coast of the USA within the lifetimes of the war’s survivors and wreaked almost irreparable damage upon the domestic industry.

“Material goods – particularly cars – are more potent than any exploding projectile in uniting and stabilising the world”

Experience proves time and again that you can’t bomb a nation’s people into submission. Offer them a nice car, however, and they’re yours. And when you consider that just one round for a piece of artillery can cost thousands of pounds, it’s hard not to conclude that the money would be better spent in the design offices of MG Rover.

Still, some old colonel will soon be writing in to tell me that winning the war is more important than selling some cars. But is it? Here’s my favourite quotation from a car maker, uttered in 1939 by Alfred P Sloan Jr, chairman of General Motors: “We are too big to be inconvenienced by these pitiful international squabbles.” He was merely reassuring shareholders in the world’s biggest automotive manufacturer that they would continue to profit from its operations inside Germany, despite America’s assumed entry into the war. Its German operations included Opel, maker of the Blitz lorry, standard transport for the Wehrmacht and a vehicle that certainly carried thousands of troops and guns to the invasion beaches in readiness for the slaughter of our lads.

If that sounds a bit much, consider that both GM and Ford, at the end off the war, were granted enormous tax concessions by the US government as a reparation for damage inflicted on its European factories by the Allied bombing campaign. So ultimate self-sacrifice is fine for the people of warring countries but please don’t expect as much of their corporations.

I could go on; Toyota, for example, a tiny company, struggling in the post WWII years with virtually no overseas orders, was saved by the Korean war and enormous Allied demand for trucks. I’m not sure how Britain benefited from the Korean campaign, but I can see its benefits to Toyota. I can see them from the window, in fact. The point is that war in the conventional sense is long-term folly. Unless, perhaps, you lose.

Again, the motor industry shows you why. The car is the most coveted possession in the world and the best weapon of conquest yet devised. It is surely no coincidence that those countries whose cars have achieved the greatest global ubiquity, Germany and Japan, are those which were prevented from wasting their resources, their money and their best brains on producing weaponry. Denied a chance to work on its own intercontinental arsenal, Germany instead built the Mercedes SL and scored innumerable direct hits all over the planet. Japan gave us the Honda Cub motorcycle, the most numerously produced powered machine in history; one that is still being built in factories worldwide. It’s a product of the Rising Sun on which the sun never sets.

Material goods – computer software, trendy trainers, digital cameras, but above all cars – are more potent than any exploding projectile in uniting and stabilising the world. Nationhood is weakening under the cult of the individual, and Chrysler, Nike and Microsoft will eventually offer a greater sense of belonging, and probably engender greater loyalty, than any ideas of homeland or religious identity. The car companies may be the true nations of the future.

I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, I’m simply saying that it’s about time we recognised it. People are fond of telling me that the motor industry will destroy the world, but I’m beginning to wonder if it could be our salvation.

Make cars, not war.


James May, Column, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota

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