Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Counting Cars

Anyone interested in a little anecdotal, totally unscientific auto industry research? Today when I was walking from my office at a Silicon Valley university to the train that would carry me very slowly back to San Francisco, I decided to count the number of American-made cars entering the campus through the main entrance. Those of you partial to "Made in America" t-shirts won't like the results. I thought it was going to be a shutout until an ancient, repainted Caprice Classic rolled into campus to make it 23-1.

That was worse than I thought, although most of the cars were probably owned by students in the night MBA program clearly partial to BMW's, so I decided to count cars in the Caltrain parking lot. Again, bad news for American automakers — 19-1 with a single Chevy truck. And yes, at this point I'm beginning to look very suspicious as I wander around the lot shaking my head and counting on my fingers.

When I get back to SF, I take a stroll down my block and it is another near shutout with a single new Ford Focus competing with 16 foreign cars. And the Focus is owned by neighbors whose other car is an Audi. There's even an old Alfa Romeo sedan on my street, proving that San Franciscans will buy an unreliable Italian car before they'll consider buying American.

I'm not questioning anyone's choices. After all, I drive a 1990 Camry that's been stolen and, unfortunately, returned three times. But the tabulations make me wonder what the count is in other parts of the country.

So if you feel like it, head out on the street and give me some numbers along with your location.


  1. When I went shopping last Thursday in Midland,Mi I was one of six Buick's in a row. But alas, they were all either Park Avenues or LeSabre's. Even my own daughter says I have an old persons car. Midland is still a thriving Michigan city that still has it's factory base with Dow Chemical. My soninlaw is a certified Honda mechanic in Detroit. And owes his livelihood to the Japanese. He thinks like many others,that since they are built here that there is no difference in which company you buy from. They live in Flint and own 2 Honda's, one Chevy truck and a 65 Pontiac. But money is even tight for the Honda workers right now. He was working a lot of overtime two years ago, but now is not even getting a 40 hour week.

  2. My husband and I totally play this game when we go on trips!

    I do not have numbers, but, the difference is notable just in the short distance between Flint and Grand Rapids.

    We also noticed that American cars weren't doing so great in Huntsville - where, ironically - a lot of automobile factories seem to have moved (according to the locals we spoke to, in reference to why there were so many MI plates). We noticed the same in Charleston about a year ago.

    Next time we play - I will definitely post our numbers!

  3. Hey - this is like that bee count people are doing... :) I guess the U.S. Automakers and the bees have something in common.

    In my experience, what the coasts drive isn't what the nation drives, but I'd be interested if you could get people to count certain parking lots, etc to actually test that.

  4. ps. thanks for the video... I still say the "devil" is too much government intervention of the car industry, but that's just a perceived notion, not based on fact.

  5. currently in Michigan where the big 3 still rules but in August we visited a friend in NJ (where we used to live) and I was immediately struck by the prevalence of hondas/toyotas in the parking area of their condo. I did a quick count and picked out about 5 American vehicles (all trucks) out of approx 100-120.

    From my time living/working in Central Jersey I would say that's the norm there.

  6. Gerry - what you say about your son-in-law reminded me of when some guy in Pakistan was being interviewed saying how much he hates America whilst drinking a Pepsi. When asked about why he still drinks the Pepsi, he said that the factory was in Pakistan, so it was a product of Pakistan.

    I remember thinking how hypocrital that man was... but what your son-in-law says makes sense to me primarily because he doesn't hate Japan. I think some people might not agree with me there. I've always felt, let the best car win.

    I'm not entirely sure why I'm posting this... it is making me think this morning, I guess (what a concept!) :D

  7. Site: my employer's factory parking lot, Fenton, MI. Day shift, about 100 cars.

    Industry: medical devices (so probably about the normal regional brand-loyalty level)

    Distribution: about 80% "Big 3"

  8. I have the same habit of assessing the makes of vehicles when I'm out and about. This past weekend I was called and invited over to a posh resort in the middle of the UP where a group of Flintoids were up doing some serious fishing. One of the rentals had four Corvettes,a Buick, and a little Chevy SS parked out in front. I started looking at some of the other rides parked around in there and most of them were US pickups and other sport utility types. I felt a little out of place driving my Forester in there. My friends from Flint had a big Chevy crew cab and a new Pontiac G8 with a vet engine in it. I don't recall seeing a foreign car in that place. It was surreal, to say the least. unclebuck.

  9. Worst Side War Lord. Wassup Steve!!!October 1, 2009 at 5:15 PM

    Cities with good public transit have alotta foreign carz. Go to any s-hole with buses that run every two hours and mile upon mile of strip mallz and you'll see a ton of domesticz. Same holdz true for beer.

    I like art and tofu and eclectic music and performance art and all of that crap you got in SF but could you implore some of your left coast pals to stop being stereotypical pussies and buy American already. Having a car is already a drag on your cred, so you might as well support some nameless, faceless Amerikkkan schlub instead of some random weirdo from the Orient.

  10. From the view from my apartment in Charleston, SC I count 32 total cars. 21 are foreign cars and 11 from the big 3.

  11. I once heard someone say that the density of big 3 cars gets thinner the farther away you get from I-75.

  12. Oh and I just found out I drive a foreign made Ford.

  13. Seattle, Washington
    1 block
    27 vehicles = 21 foreign + 6 GM (5 trucks and 1 car)

  14. I'm in Boston so any counts I would do would mirror Gordie's. My personal history is Mercury Tracer, Mercury Mystique (aka mystake), Ford Windstar, and, now, Honda Odyssey. I'm the first person in my family to buy foreign. I gave Ford every chance, I really did. And although Dennis the service manager at my Ford dealership was great, our relationship was unnaturally close due to my frequency of visits. It was unhealthy and expensive. I still have the AAA Gold Membership on which I absolutely relied but I haven't used it once since I bought the Honda 5 years ago. The only bummer is trying to figure out which silver Odyssey is mine in any given parking lot around here.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at