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Cars We Remember column: ‘Foreign’ cars yesterday and today - are they now extinct?

Greg Zyla
More Content Now
The Volvo PV544 "Humpback" was a popular foreign car here in the states, and also performed well in SCCA road racing. The design lasted from 1946 through 1966 with few changes and was 100% a Sweden-built vehicle.

Q: Greg I’m a retired veteran who really enjoys your old car columns. I want to know your thoughts on foreign cars and how many foreign car companies that now have production plants in the United States? Also, how many companies used to build cars here in the United States?

- Albert L., Spokane, Washington

A: Albert, I always enjoy discussing foreign cars from yesterday and today in all shapes and sizes.

As for companies that used to build cars in the United States, it’s an impressive but too big a list to name every one. That’s because if you go all the way back to the 1890s, there were literally hundreds of automobile companies that actively built cars to satisfy the demand for horseless carriage vehicles.

I‘ve also mentioned in the past that today’s cars and trucks are mostly all foreign in actual build. In that I mean if you check the parts content on any car or truck sold in America, there’s a good chance the vehicle in question includes parts from other countries. It’s just the way things are these days and in reality makes the assembly of the car easier for the companies involved. It’s simply more cost efficient.

The days of seeing “real” foreign cars like we did in the 1950s and 1960s ala the Renault Dauphine (France), Volvo PV544 Humpback (Sweden) or Volkswagen Karman Ghia (Germany), has long since passed. Thanks to multinational parts manufacturers and the demand for vehicles worldwide, it makes sense for car builders to seek out specialty part manufacturers that build specific items available at a lesser price than they could develop on their own. This led to what today is a “foreign” car made-up of parts and pieces from all over the world. Thus, the days of the real foreign cars like an MGA or Austin Healy 3000 imported into the United States with 100% in-house parts is long gone, and never to return, with just a few supercar exceptions.

However, depending on other company specialty products can sometimes backfire. Case in point is the recent Takata company “bad airbag” fiasco, where millions of airbag recalls made daily newspaper headlines. Vehicles utilizing Takata airbags included BMW, Toyota, Isuzu, Audi, Honda and Mitsubishi through no fault of their own. All were repaired or replaced, but it sure made news not too long ago for injuring people (or worse) due to faulty inflators.

Fast forward and to zero in on your other questions, the American car companies today include General Motors, Ford, Chrysler (as the big three) and also Tesla and Panoz, the latter an independent niche sports car company in Georgia that is small but still noteworthy.

As for foreign cars built in America, many big name foreign brands take part in complete production here in the states. Honda builds cars in Ohio, Indiana and Alabama; BMW in South Carolina; Hyundai in Georgia and Alabama; Toyota in Texas and Kentucky; Kia in Georgia; Mercedes-Benz in Alabama; Volkswagen in Tennessee; Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi; and Subaru in Indiana.

Clearly, these companies have made major commitments to the United States workforce and should be complimented. Additionally, many of these companies use both foreign and American produced parts for their car/truck productions and share many ancillary products in the manufacturing process. On the flip side of the coin are many American brand vehicles being built in South Korea, China, Mexico and Canada, the latter our northern neighbor where for over 70 years has assembled many of American big-three brands of GM, Ford and Chrysler. Of all the countries, Canada is perhaps our number one partner when it comes to overall production and length of co-op service.

Many of the big-name foreign companies build certain models at certain American plants, and the Japanese big three of Honda, Nissan and Toyota also assemble many of its stand alone luxury brands of Acura, Infiniti and Lexus, respectively, here in America. Another American-built notable is the Volkswagen Passat, its upper-level brand and somewhat similar to VW-Porsche-Audi family member Audi A4. We could go on and on, but it’s clear that the American workforce is very important to the success of the vehicles we still know today as “foreign cars.” In reality, the only thing really foreign about these vehicles might be their country of origin.

Most will also agree that there are still some high end, niche consumer foreign cars that are built with most all parts coming from the country of origin. Included are companies like Ferrari, where most all of the part content is indeed Ferrari built and engineered although some of the more common electrical/safety items are usually shared pieces. Included in “shared pieces” are Mahle pistons (a German company) that makes over 60,000 pistons each year for Ferrari V8 and Formula 1 engines and millions more for other internal combustion customers. Overall, however, when you plunk down your money for a Ferrari, I’m confident that sans these ancillary items and a specialty piston contract, you’ll receive all the special in-house produced, Italian-bred high-performance pieces Ferrari is noted for … and then some.

And does Ferrari share its technology with others? Sure thing, as the 2020 Alfa Romeo utilizes a Ferrari V8 engine that is developed exclusively for Alfa’s Quadrifoglio models, both sedan and SUV. This engine is akin to Ferrari’s twin-turbocharged V8 that develops 510 horsepower and 443-lb.ft. of torque. (You can read my test drive of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio with this Ferrari engine with a quick search).

So, to wrap this week, today’s foreign cars are no longer 100% foreign as most every builder shares and utilizes other manufacturer parts. This also means that if you buy a Mercedes-Benz because of its excellent German craftsmanship and Mercedes “feel” behind the wheel, it just might be assembled in Alabama … yet still deliver the driving experience you desire.

Thanks for your letter Albert, your kind comments and your military service.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.

Back in 2014, the American workforce in Maysville, Ohio, celebrated the 10-millionth Honda Accord built and 20-millionth Honda overall assembled in America dating back to 1980 when the car factory opened. Honda also opened a motorcycle plant on the same grounds in 1979. Honda has been in Marysville ever since.