UNITED STATES—Thanks to “Trust Buster” Teddy Roosevelt, competition has become the engine of industry. In fact, competition not only drives industry, it makes it far more intriguing as well. Without competition, we wouldn’t have age-old rivalries pitting generations against each other for reasons often ambiguous to those most passionate. Does anyone really know why Giants and Dodgers fans don’t get along? Surely an in-depth history lesson would be required to figure this out but no one can deny that without this century-old rivalry, baseball would be boring.
Just like baseball fans, car enthusiasts have certainly reaped the benefits of a few inter-industry grudges. Had Enzo Ferrari simply agreed that his cars were unreliable when confronted by an angry customer back in the mid 60s, we might not have Lamborghini today. Had Carrol Shelby not possessed an innate need to prove America could beat the Italians at their own game, the American Muscle Car Era may never have occurred. Just think of the many iconic cars we’ve loved over the last half century that would not have been conceived had the one-upmanship been diffused by one major merger. One thing is certain. We certainly wouldn’t have had these five history shaping rivalries:
Mercedes-Benz 190e Cosworth vs BMW M3
This rivalry created the sports sedan as we know it today. Without it, vanilla would be the most exciting flavor in the sedan segment. Sure, there were once muscle cars dragging the main in Motown that could comfortably seat four, but none of them would dare take on a twisting mountain road with their primitive solid-axle underpinnings. Once these two German Bahn (as in Autobahn) stormers began trading punches, all but a few manufacturers took notice.
Mercedes-Benz spent close to a billion in R&D dollars on their first compact chassis, which resulted in a multitude of patents including the one on which they based their revered 5-link rear suspension. Even by today’s standards, this suspension design is cutting-edge. BMW, on the other hand went painstakingly about their task of achieving a perfectly balanced chassis, which included their tried and true inline six cylinder engine. To this day, this elusive 50/50 front to rear weight distribution benchmark is something all sports sedan makers strive for.
Cadillac famously scoffed at the idea that a luxury car needed to handle well too when they aired a spot back in the 80s showing their latest sedan driving over orange slalom cones rather than chasing the BMW around them. As clever as the commercial was, it only fueled America’s intrigue for the sporty handling German sedans. Three decades later, Cadillac has conformed. The stubborn US automaker along with a handful of others from Europe and the far east are now nipping at BMW’s heals through the slalom course, their sights set on dethroning the king.
Datsun 280ZX/Nissan 300ZX vs Chevrolet Corvette
The affordable sports car, a segment that dominated car culture during the 1980s and reached its pinnacle in the mid 1990s, would never have been born without these two blue collar bruisers facing off. They were the ultimate expression of American brute force versus Japanese finesse. This dichotomy dated back to the Pacific theater of WWII, where heavily armed & armored (heck, these things were just plain heavy) US Hellcats engaged in dogfights with the much lighter, nimbler, and modestly armed Japanese P-Zero. Today, however, the sports car made for the working class hero is all but a myth. One can hope that it might return some day, but if that boring jack-of-all-trades crossover sitting in your driveway has anything to say about it, don’t hold your breath.
Acura NSX vs Porsche 911
Without this contest, reliability and livability would never have been something exotic and supercar makers considered important. Instead of track days, you’d be attending “rack days” as in, “My Ferrari is up on the rack again having a new transmission installed for the 10th time since I bought it a month ago.”
Until the early 90s, Porsche sat comfortably in control of buyers looking for something that could challenge a Ferrari on the track but could leave it whimpering at the junction where track meets road like a small child being asked to jump into the deep end of the pool for the first time. Sure, the 911 looked no sexier than a VW Beetle on steroids, but you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too back in the 80s.
Acura (Honda outside the US) didn’t just sneak into this little party and hide out by the snack table. When the NSX (New Sportscar “X”perimental) made its entrance, it was like someone had forgotten to lock the cage that had been holding the illegitimate love child of Porsche & Ferrari. Not only did the NSX supply Honda reliability (the best there was at the time), it was an absolute knock out from an aesthetic standpoint as well. Ever since then, Porsche has been designing prettier cars and Ferrari has been making ones that have been offered without the standard flatbed tow truck underneath.
Jeep vs Land Rover
Let’s face it. Ever since we spanked the British back to their little island in 1812, they have been subtly undermining our way of life. Most recently, they’ve been sending legions of actors into Hollywood to steal our starring roles in blockbuster films. I mean, come on. Christian Bale was the only actor capable of playing Batman? Andrew Garfield to play Spiderman?? We couldn’t find a nerdy American actor to wear a full body suit and mask? Henry Cavill is Superman??? OK. To be fair, these characters all exist in fictional cities, but they all speak “American”! Bruce Wayne doesn’t negotiate with the Joker over a “spot of tea” and certainly doesn’t eat “biscuits.”
Anyway, before their conquest of Hollywood, the British were doing their best to steal America’s off-road trails. They sent in their best agent (no, not James Bond) to complete the mission. Land Rover had its sights set squarely on America’s adventurers. Unfortunately for the British, America sent G.I. Joe. At least that’s what some legends claim is the source for the venerable Jeep name plate. Just as the U.S. military acronymized their general infantry, they abbreviated their general purpose vehicle to G.P. Apparently, pronouncing these two letters was still too time consuming so the name, “Jeep” was born.
Jeep has never relinquished the scepter used to anoint serious mud pluggers, but Land Rover has certainly taken the upscale “country squire” buyers. This rivalry remains hotly contested to this day as Jeep’s most recent offerings have encroached heavily into the luxury buyer’s field of view.
? vs ?
That’s right. Only four of the five are listed here. The fifth is for you to decide…