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America: Oddly similar, similarly odd

For the car geek, a trip overseas is always a treat and particularly, for those of us who live outside the USA at least, one which involves crossing the Atlantic.

Brought up, as we all were to a greater or lesser degree, on a diet of US-sourced visual entertainment, those of us of a certain age will recall having watched ludicrously-proportioned examples of some of Detroit’s finest metalwork wallowing around corners, tyres protesting noisily as they negotiated yet another right-angled junction at speed during an obligatory car chase.

Conducted as these chases usually were on the mean streets of LA/Detroit/NYC we became familiar with the scenery as the nondescript hunks of US-produced metal screeched around, ploughing through strategically-placed piles of cardboard boxes and street-side fruit stalls as the goodies chased (and inevitably caught) the baddies and all was once again right with the world.

“Don’t forget to tune in at the same time next Saturday..”

Well, obviously, time moves on and the streets of the US of A are a somewhat different environment these days, not to mention the fact that Hollywood’s depiction of the highways of America tends to be a somewhat more fanciful version of the rather more mundane reality..

In the real world at least, the inexorable rise of Far-Eastern and European imports since the sixties and seventies has had a huge impact on the domestic market and whilst the local boys do still churn out a vast number of cars and trucks for sale in the fifty states and beyond, the days of everyone having a Buick, Chevy or Ford on the drive are very much in the past.

Indeed, a significant number of the aforementioned Japanese, Korean and European-sourced vehicles on the roads of North America today were actually built on the American continent itself with manufacturers such as VW, BMW, Toyota and Honda – amongst others – having set up shop to produce their wares locally, thus saving import costs and avoiding onerous tariffs on vehicles popular in the North American market.

Anyway this Spring half term we found ourselves winging our way across The Pond for a week away in the home of the Mustang, the Charger, the Ram and er, the Passat with a genuine sense of excitement, trepidation and more than a little curiosity.

Never having been to the ‘States before (although we’d gazed upon New York State across an INCREDIBLY cold and frozen Niagara Falls from Canada a few years previously) it was set to become a major assault on the senses as we took in the sights, sound and smells of one of the USA’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities, San Francisco.

Now, when one thinks of the City By The Bay, and, in particular, transport thereabouts the first image that usually springs to mind – after that of a green Ford Mustang piloted by Steve McQueen – is of the iconic cable cars which trundle up and down the vertiginous streets of the city – and which, if you’re excitable Film Director Michael Bay, have a tendency to launch themselves vertically in a ball of flame the minute a car comes close to one; see his 1996 all action thriller ‘The Rock’ if you don’t know what I’m referring to (although to be honest, if you’ve seen one Michael Bay explosion, you’ve pretty much seen them all..).

However, whilst the cable cars are unique, utterly wonderful to look at and ride upon, they, like the generally excellent public transport network in the city still play second fiddle to the ubiquitous automobile. Even in what is now an increasingly ecologically-aware and forward-thinking city, it seems that the majority of its citizens still prefer the convenience of their own wheels, or those of the innumerable Uber & Lyft ride-share cabs which are seemingly everywhere in San Francisco and whilst there are – perhaps predictably – a significant number of hybrid and full-electric vehicles plying the steeply-raked roads of San Francisco, the vast majority of privately-owned cars are running on what is still, to our European-conditioned wallets at least, remarkably cheap petrol/gasoline – delete as applicable depending on your current position relative to the Atlantic.

And perhaps most conspicuous by its absence was a staple part of the automotive backbeat typical of the European city – the sound of the Diesel engine.

Whilst most commercial vehicles were running on Heavy Oil, apart from a couple of oddities (of which more below) I don’t think I spotted one car running on the stuff – undoubtedly the vastly cheaper cost of petrol out there renders the economic benefits of Diesel pretty much irrelevant with – I strongly suspect – any in-roads which might have been made of late by DERV-powered vehicles being swiftly halted following the unfortunate VW-instigated ‘Dieselgate’ unpleasantness..

That being said, Volkswagen don’t appear to have suffered too much, sales-wise – judging by the sheer numbers of current model Golfs, Jettas and Passats on the roads.

Of course, San Francisco does have a bit of a reputation for being more European-leaning than some other cities on the west coast which could also explain the presence of large numbers of sister-brand Audi’s products along with a healthy number of BMWs (including numerous variants of the Mini) and Fiat’s ever-popular 500- the domestic version of which is produced just over the border in Mexico, along with the Federal-spec VW Passat.

But the home teams also enjoy the low cost of manufacturing over the border too with examples of some of the best-selling US-automotive brands’ output being made by the very people Donald Trump is currently doing his damnedest to shut out with his infamous bit of fencing; with both Ford and GM producing large numbers of cars like the Fusion (or Mondeo as it’s known this side of the Pond) and Ram pickup south of the border for domestic consumption.

And talking of the Ram – one thing which brought a wry smile to my face was seeing this badge plastered not only across the vast hoods of multi-cylindered, go-anywhere, chainsaw-wielding lumberjack-piloted pickups with enough chrome to keep a 1950s diner-fetishist happy for decades, but also adorning the flanks of thinly badge-engineered Fiat Doblo and Ducato panel vans.

Personally, I can’t help but think that Fiat-Chrysler are being a tad optimistic here and maybe even diluting the macho image that the name RAM usually conjures up but then what do I know..?

Made me chuckle anyway..

Other little oddities which really got my car nerdi-senses tingling included spotting the subtle – and not so subtle differences in spec between cars we’re familiar with in the UK and the version which is sold in North America.

Car-anoraks such as myself who are borderline clinical detail obsessives will already be familiar with the fact that the USA and, for ease of harmonisation between neighbo(u)rs – Canada – requires vehicles sold there to adhere to a different set of regulations to those in force pretty much everywhere else in the world.

Known colloquially as the ‘Federal Regs’, these set out safety standards, lighting requirements and so on to which all vehicles sold in North America must adhere if they are to be allowed on the roads.

The most noticeable differences generally are to be found in the areas of crash protection and lighting and when put side by side the changes made to vehicles to satisfy the National Highway Safety Transport Administration’s (NHSTA) requirements can be quite marked.

For example, North American market cars’ bumpers are required to absorb a heavier impact than those sold elsewhere and consequently the items fitted to US market cars have tended – in the past at least – to be quite a bit more hefty.

Classic car enthusiasts will no doubt recall the rubber-bumpers tacked onto the higher-riding MGB of the late 70s – just one of many victims of the NHSTA’s stringent crash regs..

And, as mentioned above, lighting is another area in which Americans-spec cars differ significantly from their ‘Rest of The World’ (RoW) brethren – the most notable difference being that unlike here in the UK and pretty much anywhere else in the world, US-market cars can be sold with either amber or red rear indicators – or to use the vernacular, turn signals – causing not a little bit of nerdy excitement amongst European carspottery types the first time they see an Audi or BMW with what looks like a flashing brakelight.

And it doesn’t end there – all American-specification cars must also be equipped with side marker lights on the front and rear flanks of the vehicle – red at the rear and amber at the front. This has lead manufacturers by necessity to come up with a number of methods of incorporating them into their designs, ranging from offering a completely restyled light assembly, using the same basic assembly worldwide but blanking off the extra bits outside the US or simply bolting extra lights and reflectors onto the sides of vehicles destined to end up on the streets of the USA.

It’s in the latter case that some manufacturers have been more creative than others with European marques such as Fiat, Mini & Lotus opting to incorporate the light-reflector units into the curve of the wheel arch with others, including certain models of Ferrari, Bentley and Audi having them fixed rather less-subtly onto bodywork or bumpers.

These differences in specification – along with a number of others – can make importing a North American specification vehicle into the UK such a minefield and are the reason that a number of small specialist companies are making a good living converting the lights of personal-import Mustangs, Camaros, Chargers & the like to pass the MOT..

And as you might be able to imagine, if you want to import cars into the United States things are even trickier – in fact if the car’s under 25 years old and wasn’t ever originally sold in the US then you might as well forget it as the hoops that the Department of Transport will have you jumping through will probably send you mad before bankrupting you into the bargain.

However, if you are US-based with a burning desire to own something different in a land of identical Camrys or F150s & are prepared to bide your time then some more interesting metal is now starting to become available to you.

Some of our lucky former colonial cousins are now beginning to experience the delights of whizzing around the countryside at the wheel of some of the best handling machinery of the 90s, with examples of Peugeot’s exquisite 205 GTi and Lancia’s all-conquering semi-exotic rally weapon the Integrale Evo starting to pop up over there alongside some interesting Japanese imports popular on the burgeoning ‘JDM’ scene.

Particularly popular among importers both private and commercial are Land Rover Defenders in both 90 & 110 guise. Long denied to North Americans due to the more stringent crashworthiness rules in force there these iconic staples of the British motoring landscape are making their way westward in ever-increasing numbers as examples start to pass their 25th birthday.

We spotted two right hand drive ex-military examples pounding the streets of San Fran in the week we were out there & it was the oh-so-familiar LR diesel clatter which drew my attention to at least one of them long before the olive drab ex-pat 90 bounced somewhat incongruously into view along the Marina..

So then, in conclusion a real eye-opener in so many ways – America for the first time visitor is that strange mix of oddly-familiar yet in some areas utterly alien and so it follows where matters automotive are concerned.

Most noticeably, bigger, wider roads and easy access to cheaper fuel and car finance mean that the cars are still bigger and on the whole, less economical than we’re used to here in Europe and especially so here on our comparatively crowded little island.

The grid system means that roundabouts (traffic circles) – in cities at least – are pretty much unheard of in the States and navigating by blocks soon becomes second nature for the visitor whether as a driver or a pedestrian.

It doesn’t take long to acclimatise to looking the other way when crossing streets – something else which becomes second nature to the Brit abroad who’s more used to looking right than left – and we sussed the pedestrian priority crosswalks equally quickly – although we probably marked ourselves out as being British by being the only people who waved our thanks to drivers that stopped to let us cross..

We didn’t hire a car for the week we were there as we stayed pretty much exclusively in the city, so only got to experience the road network from the perspective of public transport and airport transfer cabs.

San Francisco is a busy, bustling city whose unique steeply-inclined streets undoubtedly make driving more.. interesting.. and one we are keen to revisit to see some of the many sights we weren’t able to fit in during our regrettably short stay.

Next time we’ll definitely get ourselves a car and head off over the majestic & truly stunning Golden Gate Bridge to explore the natural beauty of Sausalito, the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods. Here, we’re reliably-informed, there are some fantastic drivers’ roads waiting to be enjoyed, whilst heading out of the city in the opposite direction the vistas offered by the Pacific Coast Highway which runs southwards to Monterey and beyond to LA are a temptation surely not to be readily passed up.

Best start saving up again then..

Dave Wakefield

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