In the 1980s and 1990s, most American consumers thought of Japanese automakers as producers of cheap, compact cars. Some even referred to these vehicles as “rice rockets” or “boy racers” — pejorative terms suggesting that these cars were only affordable to teenagers and young adults with limited financial resources. Driving a Japanese import was something that middle-aged adults didn’t do unless they couldn’t afford anything else. This perception changed in the early 2000s as more older consumers purchased Japanese brands like Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is once again fair to ask if Mazda is a foreign car? Or is it more like other manufacturers such as Hyundai or Kia? What makes a foreign car so unique? And how has the auto market shifted over time? Let’s explore all of this and more below.
Is Mazda A Foreign Car?
Yes, Mazda is a foreign car. The company started in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1920 as the Toyo Cork Co. In 1931, it began producing cars with the Mazda brand name. In 1980, Ford acquired a controlling interest in Mazda, and in 1988, Ford divested itself of all interests in Mazda–which became a subsidiary of FMC Corp., which itself was later swallowed up by Lockheed Martin Corp. in 1995.
Why Is Mazda A Foreign Car?
1. Japanese Origin:
Mazda began as a Japanese company and continues to operate in Japan. Even though it was owned by a U.S. corporation for much of the last 20 years, the majority of its operations and headquarters remain in Hiroshima.
2. Foreign Name:
The name Mazda is derived from Ahura Mazda, the god of light in Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion practiced by some people of Iranian descent and historically practiced in parts of Japan. While many U.S. consumers recognize the Mazda brand name, few are aware of its origins.
3. Foreign Nameplate:
Mazda’s vehicles are sold with a nameplate that is written entirely in English characters (even the logo). This is in contrast to other foreign automakers like Honda, Hyundai, and Kia that write their brand names in both English and non-English characters (e.g., Honda’s logo includes the character for “hope” or “dream”). While some may see this as an advantage, it also means that Mazda will always be considered a foreign car by those who can read its nameplate–even if it is owned by an American company like Ford or GM.
4. Foreign Operation:
Even though Mazda has maintained its headquarters in Japan for most of its history, it has operated most of its facilities outside the U.S., including plants in Mexico and the Netherlands.
5. Foreign Sales:
While Mazda does not break out its sales by country, it is estimated that about 70 percent of its vehicles are sold outside the U.S., mostly in Europe and China.
A Brief History Of Foreign Cars
1. In The Beginning:
Foreign cars were first introduced in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century when a handful of European automakers set up small operations in this country. These companies sold small numbers of expensive vehicles to wealthy Americans and were considered novelties or curiosities by most consumers.
2. The First World War:
During World War I, foreign carmakers began to ramp up production in America to support their home countries’ militaries and economies. This increased production led to an expansion of their U.S. sales forces, which had a positive impact on sales–especially after the war ended and many Americans returned from military service with a taste for European cars and other goods (like French wine). Meanwhile, many American companies that made parts for these foreign cars began building vehicles under their own brands–and establishing their own dealer networks–so they could capitalize on this new market as well as retain business from their foreign parent companies who were now on the verge of leaving.
3. The Roaring Twenties:
The 1920s saw the rise of many new foreign automakers, including the first Japanese automaker in Detroit, while American brands like Ford and GM began to expand their businesses overseas. The decade also saw a boom in production at many European automakers’ U.S. factories as well as an increase in sales for American-branded vehicles that were now made by companies like Hudson and Studebaker (which also owned a French car company).
4. The Great Depression:
The 1930s saw the collapse of several major U.S.-based foreign carmakers (like Pierce-Arrow and Auburn) but it was also a time when foreign cars became more affordable for American consumers–especially after Ford, GM, and Chrysler began importing small numbers of their own vehicles from their plants abroad (Ford’s Model A was built in England while its Model B was built in Germany).
5. World War Ii:
World War II saw the end of many foreign car operations in the U.S. as well as the near-collapse of the American auto industry, which was unable to keep up with the demand for military vehicles and weapons. After the war, foreign automakers returned to America (and their factories in this country were retooled for civilian production) and began building cars that appealed to returning GIs who now had a taste for imported vehicles, while American automakers began selling more brands overseas (especially in Europe).
6. The Post-War Era:
In the 1950s and 1960s, foreign automakers continued to grow their U.S. businesses while American companies like Chrysler and AMC began selling many of their brands overseas–which helped them stay afloat when they otherwise could not have done so. Meanwhile, more European automakers set up production facilities in America (like BMW’s factory in South Carolina) and Japanese companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda began selling vehicles here as well–and all of these automakers began to build cars that were more appealing to American consumers.
Why Are Some Cars Labelled As “Foreign”?
1. The Rise Of Foreign Automakers In The U.S.
In the early days of the U.S. auto industry, most cars were produced by American companies but some foreign automakers also established factories here (like Renault and Fiat). As these companies grew, they began building more cars that appealed to American consumers and these vehicles helped them gain a foothold in their home markets as well. In many cases, these automakers eventually began selling their brands in America as well.
2. The Growth Of Foreign Car Brands:
As time went on, foreign automakers continued to build more cars that appealed to American buyers and some of these vehicles became popular enough that they were later sold under different names in other countries (like Renault’s Dauphine which was called the Gordini in other markets). Meanwhile, European automakers like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz began selling many of their models here too–and most of these vehicles were now built at plants owned by those companies around the world (including in the U.S.) and not just in Europe.
3. The Rise Of Japanese Automakers In America:
In the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese automakers like Honda, Nissan, and Toyota began selling vehicles here as well–and these companies built their factories in America to avoid import tariffs (which were no longer a barrier by this time). By the 1990s, these automakers were among the best-selling brands here and they too began selling their cars under different names in other markets around the globe.
4. The Growth Of Asian Automakers In America:
In the late 1990s, Korean automakers like Hyundai and Kia began selling vehicles here as well–and they too built facilities in America to avoid import tariffs. By the early 2000s, these companies were among the top-selling brands here and they too began selling their cars under different names in other countries around the world.
The idea that imported automobiles are inferior to American vehicles has been around since the early days of the auto industry. This notion dates back to the days when Henry Ford refused to use materials made outside of the United States in the construction of his cars. In the years that followed, foreign manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan were forced to use more inexpensive materials in the construction of their cars.