From the Model T to the Mustang, there has always been something I liked about Ford. For me, the Ford has always been the American car. Certainly the company’s role in the invention of the assembly line resonates with the concept of American industrialism. The resulting affordability of automobiles, and the independence this brought to the average driver can only be described as being at the heart of the American idea. This sense of the American spirit is visible in nearly all of Ford’s most famous cars, from rough and tumble trucks like the F-150 to lean and elegant sports cars like Grand Turismo.
Imagine, then, my surprise when I took a look at Ford’s 2015 Mustang Concept.
Undeniably it is an elegant car, but it looks like something that would be more at home on the Autobahn than the interstate. Gone is the large, aggressive grille, gone are the nostalgia inducing round headlights. The straight, uncompromising lines of the car’s body have been made round and passive. Almost nothing about the new design looks American. The snarling, ill-mannered V8 engine, and even the less impressive but still mighty V6 engine have been replaced by a more politically correct four cylinder engine. Not to worry, the new engine still gets remarkable horsepower through the use of something called “ecoboost” technology, which, I imagine, is some sort of supercharger that runs on sheer flower power.
In short, the 2015 Mustang looks refined.
It turns out that there’s a reason for this. As part of the company’s “One Ford” strategy, the iconic American automaker is attempting expand its lagging sales in Europe with the rapid introduction of new cars into the market. Many of these cars are American designs retooled to be both more appealing to a European consumer and to meet the stringent emissions standards of the EU. Most recently, the Ford Fusion has been redesigned to look almost identical to an Aston Martin, but Ford designers have been scratching their heads about what to do with the Mustang. How can one make the car made for the truly American driver appeal to Europeans?
It may seem somewhat ridiculous to talk about cars on a website dedicated to politics, but consider this. Every nation has a need to design and represent the things that are important to it in a manner that truly resonates with that nation. Ilya Repin’s Religious Procession in Kursk Province, grants us a vivid picture of Russia in the late 19th century. The painting is a cross section of Russian society at the time. In it one sees the priest, the peasant, the soldier and the industrialist, all marching in a religious procession. The contrast between the bright, cheerful colors of the procession and the somber attitudes of the subjects evokes the sense of chaotic but hopeful uncertainty of Russian life in the years following the emancipation of the serfs.
Another painting from the same era (though not the same movement) is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Both feature bright color, a sense of movement and the unique depiction of individual faces within a larger crowd. Like Repin’s painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts a mix of social classes occurring as the result of the industrial revolution.
Yet despite these similarities, the two paintings couldn’t be more different. One is just as unmistakably Russian as the other is French. The two paintings accomplish similar (but certainly not identical) goals in wildly different ways, each evoking a sense of the country of its origin. But what if Renoir had tried to paint Repin’s work, or vice versa? Neither one of them could have known enough of the other’s world to create such truthful works.
Ford’s new Mustang is the automotive equivalent of Renoir painting a Repin. Don’t get me wrong, the 2015 Mustang looks like, and promises to be, an excellent car. It looks beyond well engineered, but that’s the problem. The look of a somewhat over-engineered car is often something to be desired. It is what makes German cars sell, but it doesn’t belong on a Mustang. It is somehow natural to picture a mustang, lovingly maintained by its owner, sitting in the garage of the quintessential American home.
Such an image doesn’t fit the regimented, mechanical perfection of the European car. I can’t so easily picture the owner of a high end Mercedes working into the small hours of the night on the car that he loves. Rather, I imagine the Mercedes owner deferring to some expert to fix his problem. This is fine for Europe, where, whether through the feudal system or the modern welfare state, people tend to let others manage things for them, but it is just isn’t right for the land of the self-made man.
The way a nation makes its paintings, its buildings or even its cars says something about what it values. When that nation no longer builds things in the image of what it values, what does it say about the nation’s faith in those values?
How should Ford make the Mustang appealing to Europeans? It shouldn’t. By making this American classic a “global citizen” we are robbing not just ourselves, but the world of a cultural hallmark. Repin’s paintings allow us to truly explore the idea of being Russian because they were made for Russians. German cars that were designed for a German consumers sell very well in the United States because many American drivers appreciate the German automotive experience. Imagine what a loss it would be if Mercedes, BMW or Audi decided to change their cars to be more appealing to Americans.
It is troubling just how well this act of aesthetic surrender fits into 21st century America. It makes perfect sense that a country which would rush to abandon its uniqueness just to be a North American Denmark would turn one of its most special cars into a ubiquitous European imitation. In embracing Obamacare, Americans have shunned their independence of spirit and sense of self-sufficiency for a little security. In this administration’s cowardly failure to defend even its own embassies when threatened, our country has shunned its own strength in favor of appeasement and political correctness.
Maybe the Mustang’s new look isn’t that alien to today’s America after all.
Will McMahon | University of Missouri at Columbia | @WilliamAMcMahon