USA Laws and Car Design: An Eternal Fight

Even though all countries impose specific standards, the US has always been a special case. Check out US-spec requirements that have caused headaches in many automakers

Four decades ago, the car industry was obsessed with the “global car”. It was the idea of developing a car model, or family, which could perform well everywhere with minimal changes from one region to another. GM was a prominent adopter: its T and J platforms spawned dozens of models under those guidelines.

The fact that we no longer hear that expression proves that the car world did not accept it well. There are many reasons for that, which we will surely cover in another article. The one that matters here is that local laws vary so much. This entire article, in fact, is dedicated to the specific demands in the United States.

The Dodge Stealth is a regionalized version of the Mitsubishi 3000GT, brought to the USA as a captive import
The Dodge Stealth is a US-spec version of the Mitsubishi 3000GT, brought as a captive import (source: WheelsAge)

Captive imports

Let us start off easily. North Americans are highly connected to their origins, so they tend to reject foreign cars. Years ago, that preference was so strong that captive import was the only way to try and sell them. It consists of a local automaker selling foreign cars, sometimes from foreign makers, under its own brand.

1989 Ford Festiva (source: WheelsAge)

The practice peaked in the 1980s, when local automakers partnered mostly with Asian ones to avoid their initial competition. Chrysler joined forces with Mitsubishi, Ford with Kia and Mazda, and GM with Daewoo, Subaru, Suzuki, and Isuzu. AMC went a different way and partnered with Renault, albeit for a shorter time.

In some cases, the company would do the exact opposite: create a new sub-brand to sell cars built by its own overseas branches. That is how the USA ended up with models such as the Eagle Talon, the Merkur XR4Ti, and the Geo Spectrum. Both those versions of captive imports quickly lost popularity in the 2000s.

5-mph bumpers

Now, let us move to specific changes on US-spec cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a regulation on bumpers that took effect in 1972. They had to prevent any damage to the vehicle’s safety-related components in case of front collisions at 5 mph and in rear collisions at 2.5 mph.

US-spec 1978 Fiat X1/9 (source: WheelsAge)

Design-wise, that forced automakers to place head and taillights at a higher position. The bumpers would no longer contain them; they became empty, with occasional exceptions of rubber guards. Some models made them physically stronger while others added shock absorbers to make them recover from a crash.

European cars followed different style trends, so they underwent different changes to comply with those laws. The most common one was to adopt larger bumpers, so the lights would be physically further from the other object in a crash. They would increase the car’s length and cause great aesthetic imbalance.

Sealed-beam headlights

This one is a classic. In 1940, USA automakers agreed on a universal standard: the 7″ circular sealed-beam headlight. The goal was to make replacements easier regardless of the car. The law would allow dual 5.75″ units in 1957 and rectangular ones in 1975. Both of sealed-beam types, where the whole unit is replaced.

1981 GMC C1500 (source: WheelsAge)

Given those origins, that law did not pose any problems to local makers. As Road & Track brilliantly wrote, they would just be creative with other design resources like stacking, hiding, or encasing them. However, things would change once foreign cars became common in the USA and design trends began to change.

European cars had always used regular headlights, with custom shape and replaceable bulbs. Complying with USA laws demanded changes that harmed their looks. Besides, that law was rendered obsolete once design trends became more complex. It was phased out in 1984 in favor of regular, custom headlights.

Side marker lights

Turn signals have been common everywhere for a long time. Cars used to carry it on their front quarter panel, but younger models use it on the rearview mirrors. US-spec cars feature other lights besides those. They have amber side marker lights in the front end and red ones on the rear as the pictures above show.

US-spec 2020 Nissan Sentra (credit: Mike Ditz)

Law requirements dictate mostly their colors, position, and operation. In the past, carmakers would simply attach those lights anywhere in that region, like on the Lamborghini Countach above. The problem is that, once again, the original design is harmed. Some light types can even affect the car’s aerodynamic drag.

Over time, newer technologies allowed the industry to integrate side marker lights into regular head and taillights. LED were especially useful because they allow those lights to take almost any shape. Nowadays, some automakers do not even bother to remove them from cars which will not be offered in the country.

US-spec preferences

The last item we can mention concerns local tastes. North Americans are fond of large cars to the point of using own standards. The Honda Civic and Accord, for example, are midsize and large sedans everywhere else. They are labeled compact and midsize in the USA because there used to be the Legend above them.

2022 Lincoln Navigator (source: WheelsAge)

Parallel to that, US-spec cars used to prioritize comfort; the stereotype is of a suspension tuning that feels like hovering over the road. Older cars were also famous for their huge V8 engines, but the 1973 oil crisis took care of that. Modern cars are different because they have incorporated trends of other countries.

When it comes to car brands, North Americans have become more welcoming to foreigners than decades ago, but not all that much. European luxury brands had an easy entry because of their refinement and the Asian forced their way in because of their efficiency. However, several others still cannot prosper there.

US-spec 1991 Volkswagen Fox (source: WheelsAge)

US-spec case: VW Fox

In the 1980s, Volkswagen made the rare move of exporting cars from Brazil. Voyage and Parati arrived in North America as Fox and Fox Wagon. The Germans had to recover from the Westmoreland failure, those cars were selling well in Brazil, and the subcompact market was growing in the US. Fish in a barrel, right?

1987 Volkswagen Fox Wagon (source: WheelsAge)

The plan turned out to be more complex than it seemed. Complying with US-spec preferences and laws required over 2,000 changes, which made their production cost skyrocket. The Fox still lacked automatic transmission and four doors (on the station wagon), which only harmed customer interest even further.

The Fox duo eventually succumbed to younger rivals and their own cousin, the Golf, which was better and just a little more expensive. However, that USA venture was highly commented at the time because it was an accurate illustration of how difficult it was for a foreign automaker to cater to US-spec requirements.

The 1986 Alliance was the US-spec version of the Renault 9 sedan (source: WheelsAge)

As you can see, the North American car market may be attractive because of its sales volume, but it is also difficult to enter. Local and foreign automakers have tried all sorts of plans to be competitive there, often with big investments, but their results have been diverse as well. What other US-spec cars do you know?


  • How the Generic Sealed-Beam Headlight Inspired Decades of Iconic DesignRoad & Track
  • VW Gol: 40 anos em campo e uma coleção de taçasBest Cars Website
Author Profile

Danillo Almeida has explored his passion for cars in two distinct ways. The first one is his graduation course in Mechanical Engineering, which will hopefully lead to a job position in the field. The other one is expressing his knowledge and opinions on the matter through writing. Almeida has already contributed to blogs, stores, and websites in general writing automotive content in many formats.

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