Auto Culture

James May’s Cars For The People – Episode One


While everyone and their brother is waiting for the new series of “Top Gear” to begin, BBC America brought out “James May’s Cars for the People” last night. The three-episode series from the Top Gear presenter lays out the history of the supercar’s nemesis – the everyday automobile.

Episode One began with May acknowledging that the Ford Model T was, technically, the first actual People’s Car before quickly moving on to devote the rest of the episode to European cars of the people, beginning with the eponymous Volkswagen Beetle. May tells of the Nazi connections to the car and how the Beetle’s original German-translated name was the “Strength-for-Joy” car when it was originally designed by none other than Ferdinand Porsche. Costing 990 German Deutschemarks when it debuted in 1938 for 990 reichsmarks – the equivalent at the time of $235 and which would translate into just under $4000 of today’s American dollars – the Beetle was still mostly out of the price range for much of the German population and its factory was ostensibly used to manufacture machinery and weaponry for the World War II effort. After the factory was destroyed by Allied forces, both American and British automobile companies passed on reviving it as an automotive factory, leaving it to be reborn as a hippie car in the 1960s.

The Volkswagen Beetle receives the lion's share of attention in the first episode of "James May's Cars for the People".

The Volkswagen Beetle receives the lion’s share of attention in the first episode of “James May’s Cars for the People”.

From there, May moves on to a litany of bad cars, starting with the East German Trabant [along with its traditional white, also available in baby diarrhea brown] which had an average life expectancy of 28 years, then to the East German Wartburg [an obscure car of which very few were sent to the USA], then the Fiat 500 [with mandatory fabric sunroof], then the Fiat 124 and finally, the Fiat Lada [a joint Fiat-Russian effort, if you can call it that].

Fortunately, May decided to ignore the American effort at a People’s Car in those early days so BBC America viewers do not have to suffer again by seeing a Corvair, Gremlin, Pacer, Pinto or Vega. At least not yet.

Episode Two of “James May’s Cars for the People” will air on BBC America on Monday, September 1, 2014.

The 13 [or 17]-horsepower Fiat 500

The 13 [or 17]-horsepower Fiat 500

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