Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The "Soul" Argument

Are Japanese Cars Really "Soulless"?

The idea that inanimate objects harbor remains of their creator’s spirit is not a new one.  Ancient and primitive people demonstrate this belief in the items of their sacred rituals; artists and art collectors are more modern examples of individuals who are happy to perpetuate the sentiment.

There is a lot of truth behind this idea, in my opinion.  Compare any flat-packed, pressboard piece of furniture to one made by skilled and artistic craftsmen, or a meal at a chain restaurant to one at a good local spot known for quality, a bespoke suit and an off the rack polyester blend interviewer’s special.  This list could easily go on forever and encompass most of everything we consume.

Honda Accord / Alfa Romeo 166 

Do these characteristics reflect a way of thought that is consciously pursued?  For example, as a way of distinguishing one’s offerings from others through a higher standard of quality?  Or are they more intrinsic?  Are attitudes towards how things are designed and built a matter of national identity?

Does an MGB have more soul than a Miata?  Does an Alfa 166 have more of a human element than the roughly equivalent Honda Accord?  From a western perspective, the British roadster and the Italian family car are probably the most soulful of the four.  We value individualism, personal freedom and creativity above all, it’s who we are and it’s been ingrained in us through centuries of historical circumstance.
Citroen CX - rotating drum speedo and single-spoked wheel
For those of us sentimentally inclined to look at things like cars as objects of art and high design, the indefinable,  un-quantifiable, counter-intuitive and the downright odd are what turns us on.  Power window switches mounted on the roof?  Brilliant.  Single-spoked steering wheels and rotating drum speedometers?  Hell yes, and functionality and rational thought be damned.  A bevel gear-driven cam shaft or an open velocity stack might not be the most efficient or reliable of systems, but somehow they’re utterly gorgeous and perversely graceful in their anachronism.  

Think of a high-end vacuum tube amplifier – it’s their inherent low-frequency distortion that makes their sound so appealing, so much warmer and life-like, when compared to modern solid state amplifiers.  Imperfection is a very human quality.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have a different way of looking at these things.  Their aesthetic is one of utter refinement, of as near as possible perfection as can be attained by something as messy and irrational as a person.  Confucianism dictates that the welfare of the group is more important that the liberty of the individual and this carries over to how a culture rooted in that way of thinking permeates everything that they do – from the way they drink and eat and live their lives, to the way they build cars.

RC166 - 250cc, 24 valves, DOHC, six cylinders and 18,000 RPM - in 1966!

It’s not that an MX-5 lacks a human touch or that its faultless reliability and utterly rational design are the result of a cold and heartless engineer, it’s just that we’re looking at it from the wrong angle. Do you really believe that a car so perfect in so many ways is the result of a joyless and dispassionate way of thought?  How is it possible that the Honda RC166 lacks a soul?  Or that the 787B is anything but a functioning tribute to human achievement?  There’s a reason that no one in The West has been able to replicate the Japanese’ manufacturing standards, whether it be applied to TVs, stereo receivers, cameras or cars.  Perfection is not only a matter of pride to them; it’s both a form of altruism and a form of high art – concepts that are mutually exclusive in our culture.

The fantastic Alfa Romeo/Nissan Arna
exciting Japanese styling, reliable Italian engineering
What we need is for the Italians and the Japanese to cooperatively design and build a car.  A car with the style and sound of the Alfa 8C and the performance and crushing technical superiority of the GT-R.  An Alfa/Nissan hyrbid supercar, playing to each company's strengths. 

On second thought, maybe not...
The last time Alfa and Nissan got together it resulted in the catastrophic Arna, which was to cars as the sun was to Icarus’s wings - a not-so-subtle message from the Gods – “don’t overreach”.


  1. I guess I'm one of those enthusiast who, to a point agree Japanese cars have no soul. The author is a good friend so he "gets me." I have been very lucky to have grown up with a father that every car dude would envy. He was a grey market importer and growing up our garage or driveway always had a Countach, BB512 or other exotic forbidden fruit in various stages of federalization. I admit, my dad was a Euro car snob and didn't give a rats ass how efficient Japanese machines were. To him Italians and other European car makers designed and built cars with passion. To him Japanese built them to prove you can drive them with absolutely no maintenance! So what if Italian cars were temperamental and caught fire once in awhile. No other machines evoked such passion and enthusiasm like a Ferrari or Alfa Romeo. Unless you have owned or driven a Ducati or Porsche 911 IMO, you will never really "get it." Like Jeremy Clarkson often says, "It's something that can't be measured or understood." Currently I own and drive an E28 M5 3.9 Dinan- Euro converted beast! I'm the original owner. I also have a fully restored Ducati 900SP. If I sold them and bought a Honda CBR 1000 and Honda Accord today (I would have the "better" machines) I would die of boredom and most likely loose interest in machines altogether. I love to tinker and fix things! I love all machines and respect modern Asian machines but I have yet to find worthy Japanese/Korean ones to replace mine.

    1. Randy,

      Thanks for checking out the blog.

      I'd love to do an article/interview on you and your dad someday, about the business and the cars and how it influenced you. We can scan up that picture of you driving the 288 GTO!


  2. YES.

    Keep the posts coming, dude. You should start a magazine, seriously. :)

  3. I don't buy that Japanese cars are soulless. Honda and Mazda in particular make fun cars in the genres they enter (apart from mainstream US-market Hondas). For instance, when we were looking for an MPV (minivan), we tested a Mazda5, and it was surprisingly fun (although too small in the end)! Reliability is not a character flaw in itself, just reassuring.

    As for the Alfa Romeo Arna, the problem was that the collaboration was the wrong way round. It had '80s Nissan design and '80s Alfa mechanicals, making a dull AND unreliable car. If they'd played to their strengths, it would've been 10 times better.

    Also, this blog is great!

  4. To all of you who believe Japanese cars are soulless and boring... One word: SUBARU. Boxer engines, fantastic AWD... Show me another "normal" car maker who offers that. I'm stressing the word "normal" because we're all aware of wonderful Porsche flat 6s but hardly anyone can afford such a car, while Subarus are relatively accessible. I love the way the'ye always a tiny little bit different from the competition - shame their styling's gone south lately...