The European car market is experiencing a stormy period. On the one hand, he is being pressured by legislation and bureaucracy, on the other by the ever-increasing logistical problems associated with China, on the third by China itself and its cheap cars, and on the fourth by the changing thinking of people. Until it seems that the European car industry has reached a dead end from which there is no way out.

European brand cars for the local market are going through their own era of malaise right now and the devil knows if it will ever get better. A sudden (and rather controversial) transition to electromobility, pushing untested technologies onto the market (digitalization, virtual cockpits), changes in concepts, leaving classic market segments, halting the development of internal combustion engines… The car market has already experienced similar dramatic changes once in the world.

I did not invent the term “malaise” in relation to cars. It comes from the United States and explains the period of the overall decline of the American automobile industry, which produced low-quality and ugly products, failed to respond to rapid legislative and market changes, and made way for imported Japanese (but also European) cars that better reflected the requirements of the time – higher performance, lower fuel consumption and a more favorable price. Yes, the two oil crises of the 1970s forced even gluttonous, obese Americans to think about consumption.

The collapse of the cradle of motoring

Surely you know that the United States laid the foundations of mass motoring. Already in the pre-crisis twenties, cars ceased to be an expensive curiosity for rich enthusiasts and became an integral part of culture. The motorized public has significantly expanded its horizons beyond the city limits. Interstate travel suddenly became the norm. The common man has never been so free. It is not surprising that the whole culture and indeed the infrastructure has been built around cars. Where a car cannot reach, goods or services cannot reach. The car immediately became a symbol of progress and freedom.

This trend gradually reached Europe as well, but the Second World War devastated it, and only after that did motoring begin to slowly develop again. And in a completely different direction. Poor and devastated Europe, with its cramped historic cities and more rugged terrain, wanted small and economical cars. America, with its vast plains and flat cities with rectangular boulevards, cheap gasoline, and a booming economy, allowed for the production of large, opulent cars with large, powerful engines.

Photo: archive

Probably the most “sluggish” car of the sluggish 1970s era from the USA is the Ford Granada from 1975. Its emission-restricted 3.3-liter inline six-cylinder engine produced a measly 72 horsepower. Japanese cars from the 1600s could offer that. Completely ridiculous performance in relation to displacement and tragic driving dynamics accompanied American cars until the 80s.

The fifties were characterized by an abundance of chrome, the first sports cars appeared in the sixties. A series of performance cars dubbed “muscle cars” has become an absolute icon. While in Europe only a handful of the richest got their hands on Ferrari sports cars, in the US a relatively ordinary person could buy a coupe with 300 to 400 horsepower.

This trend of rapid expansion of motoring lasted until the early 1970s, when it became suffocating in American cities. And literally. Since the 1960s, various organizations have been drawing attention to poor air quality, but it was only sudden legislative changes to reduce emissions from automobiles that forced American manufacturers to take action. When the oil crisis was added to this, suddenly there was no place for huge heavy ships with seven-liter eight-cylinder engines.

We have a problem, now what?

The shock of strict legislation and the oil crisis, for which American manufacturers were not prepared, led to sudden changes. New car models with then-innovative catalysts and modified combustion had significantly reduced performance, although consumption as such did not help much. At the same time, car companies were looking for new trends, and for about ten years, insufficient, low-quality, problematic and generally bad cars were produced.

Safety regulations (for example the controversial “five-mile” bumpers) then literally ruined some models. American cars from the second half of the 70s and early 80s are still the target of jokes and ridicule. They were just lazy, shoddy, ugly crap. It seemed as if the American car companies did not want to adapt and decided to take out their anger on the customers.

Photo: archive

A distinctive design feature of American cars produced after September 1, 1972 were giant bumpers capable of absorbing impacts up to 5 miles per hour. They lasted until 1982, when the regulation was eased and later completely abolished. In the photos, the Chevrolet Bel Air before and after the introduction of regulation (the car also underwent a minor modernization).

Photo: archive

Giant bumpers had to be mounted on imported cars as well. On the right you see them on the American version of the Mercedes SL (including the obligatory dual lights). On the left is the standard European version.

Surely some of you remember the message from the iconic movie Blues Brothers, which summed up the coming American era of malaise probably the best. Elwood picked up his brother from the bass in a former police car. Of course he didn’t like it. Elwood then, after an action scene with jumping over a rising bridge, defended him. “It has a police engine, 7.2 litres, beefed up police tyres, suspension and shocks, it’s a pre-mandatory catalytic converter model so it runs on regular petrol. So what? Do we have a new Bluesmobile?” Jake just growled. “Fix that lighter!”

The Japanese literally destroyed the American market

However, the resulting gap in the market was not filled by new models of established American brands, but by cars imported mainly from Japan. However, some European car companies also made their mark, but for example Volkswagen with the Beetle model had a somewhat dubious image in the USA. It became rather a negative symbol of a certain flower movement that “struggled” against everything traditional American. And the conservatives could not tolerate that.

Foto: Toyota

Japanese automakers satisfied the hunger for more economical cars. For example, the sixteen-cylinder 4A-C in the Corolla (E70) had a power of 90 horsepower. Even some American six-cylinders were not enough for that.

However, Japanese automakers were able to establish themselves on the American market and very quickly improved their image among customers. Cheap products, which people rather mocked, became desirable and very popular cars. Civilian models from Toyota, Honda, Mazda and the sporty Nissan 240Z (sold in the USA under the name Datsun) owe their success and iconic status to the American market and its hunger for relatively economical, but still powerful and, above all, high-quality modern cars.

While the American brands found themselves in this confusion and went through the just-mentioned era of malaise, competition from other parts of the world was eating an ever-larger piece of the sales pie and coming up with technological innovations (electronic ignition and emission control), to which the domestic brands reacted only in retrospect. Domestic automakers’ attempts at revolutionary technological innovations mostly ended in failure – huge reliability problems and recalls. The Japanese gradually taught the Americans to make their cars relatively properly. And in fact, their care and precision in the production of cars (and motorcycles) was also reflected in the European market. It is not without interest that Ferrari learned from Honda, Porsche learned from Toyota even in the early 90s.

Europe is experiencing the same thing now

We in Europe have always been thirty years behind the US in terms of consumption and market trends. The automobile boom started in America already in the twenties, it arrived in Europe only after the war. Emissions in the USA began to be solved in the 1960s, Europe was also about thirty years behind in this (Euro emission standards and unleaded gasoline). SUVs began to appear in the USA in the 1980s, but it also arrived here with a delay of about thirty years.

Photo: archive

Will the horrendous fad of crappy crossovers and completely useless small SUVs ever end? Is there anything wrong with a classic hatchback, sedan or station wagon? Are you all 97 years old and on a disability pension that you have to stand up to get into your car and can’t bend over a bit?

But we also had to wait for “our” era of malaise in the automotive industry until today, i.e. even longer. The official came up with sweeping regulations (practically making it impossible to sell classic cars with an internal combustion engine) and car companies are not ready for it. Instead of a system solution, clouds of hard-to-classify but technically practically identical models are spewing onto the market. They introduce half-baked solutions, get run over by the train and have a significant part of the market eaten up by entirely new players. Just look at Tesla, and now also at Chinese cheap electric cars. Nobody wants to invest in expensive technology. Accountants and shareholders want profits now, now. As if I could hear them. “Make high-margin cars, don’t spend on developing technologies that might pay off in twenty years!”

Domestic European automakers thus voluntarily cut a branch from under themselves (even though they were greatly “helped” in this by increasingly strict legislation). The result is unfinished cars that lag behind the modern competition in direct comparison. A sad example, especially from the beginning, is the series of electric Volkswagen IDs on a completely new platform, which serves as the basis for other serial cars of the entire concern. Place the mentioned Tesla next to them, for example. After all, the dynamic parameters of the concern’s cars are, to put it mildly, insufficient compared to a car from a brand that no one had heard of ten years ago. And I’m not talking about the price, which is even lower than in the case of an established brand. Of course, Tesla – at least so far, in terms of quality

Sales show that customers see it that way too. In the first half of 2023, 136,564 Tesla Model Y cars and 42,588 Tesla Model 3 cars were registered in Europe. Only 41,672 Volkswagen ID.4 cars and 35,233 Volkswagen ID.3 cars were registered. Škoda Enyaq claimed 25,698 units. Why do customers prefer a brand new brand to an established manufacturer with almost a century of tradition and the most extensive service and customer support?

It is necessary to realize that the development of a new product and its establishment on the market takes a really long time, at least five to ten years. Of course, we can argue whether the electric car is the future, because it has little to do with the original purpose of the passenger car, as a means of absolute freedom and independent mobility. But rather, European car companies should stop dealing with crap and start focusing on what they are here for – developing and producing proper cars.

But social moods are also changing in Europe, just as they once were in the 60s and 70s in the USA. The passenger car becomes a relic, an undesirable thing, a public enemy. We’ve been led to believe that cars are evil, that they’re destroying the planet, and that we’re all going to die because of them. Even though passenger cars (at least the European ones) participate in global (natural and human) pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions barely perceptibly, the ever-repeated lie about their harmfulness has become a universally accepted truth. Left-wing activists and modern-day tyrants hating capitalism, personal freedom (and therefore cars) can congratulate themselves. They won.

Will the Chinese electric car be the salvation?

The current situation on the European market is similar in many ways to the problems of the American market at the time. Politicians, under pressure from angry activists, came up with regulations that car companies are not able to easily comply with today’s technologies. The market is thus experiencing a shock (primarily price) to which car companies (and customers) cannot adapt so quickly. This opens up an opportunity for players from Asia, but this time not from Japan, but from China.

Photo: WORLD

When cheap Chinese electric cars flood the European market like cheap mobiles, the established European automakers may start to slide. And with them the entire European industry. Good for us!

I’m just afraid that a Chinese electric car made in a country where ecology (and human rights) are not played at all, doesn’t quite fit into the vision of a green, sustainable future that they are imposing on us here in Europe as the only correct one.

But I wonder: will the European car industry end up like the icons of the American car industry? Will cities like Stuttgart, Munich, Wolfsburg or Mladá Boleslav end up as depopulated and devastated as Detroit?

Of course, I don’t know anything and my pessimism will certainly not come true. I would like European car companies to come to their senses and start producing really good and competitive ordinary cars again in a few years, which one could aspire to. It took the Americans over ten years to dig themselves out of the doldrums and malaise, it may take us a little longer. But again, things will improve one day and ordinary European cars will not be funny. At least I hope so.