What does Euro-Spec or ROW mean in the European Car World

Posted Monday, Sep 17, 2018

If you spend any time with European cars, you may have heard a few terms that make you scratch your head. Euro-Spec or ROW are two identifiers that signify quite a few differences between cars, but they don’t exactly explain what those differences are unless you are a particularly studious enthusiast. You may have noticed drastic price differences between what otherwise look like basically identical cars when the more expensive one says something like “Gray Market,” “Euro-Spec,” or “ROW” attached to its name. This article will help you understand what the basic differences are between European cars from the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s that were sold in America versus those sold in other markets and most importantly, why you should know what it all means.


Typical differences between USA Spec and Euro-Spec or ROW


Bumpers: You don't have to be an enthusiast to notice the difference in bumpers between the US Spec and the Euro-Spec cars, particularly in the 70's and into the 80's. The USA DOT regulations required a 5mph bumper that absorbed shock without allowing damage to the body of the vehicle. This required specification forced German engineers to install much larger bumpers with much more depth on their vehicles that were meant for our market. As well, different bumper shocks to absorb those parking lot fender benders were added that further detracted from the beauty of European cars. These USA bumpers became commonly known as 'diving board bumpers' because they look like you could stand on them with your size 14 shoe and springboard from them to a perfect backflip. Sadly, these regulations did little to provide the safety of passengers. An educated guess could be that these bumpers were more to appease insurance companies who didn't want large claims for parking lot incidents. As time progressed, regulations in Germany began to match the rest of the world. This shift brought their standards closer to the United States' standards, so car manufacturers became better at meeting compliance while they were still able to maintain the sleek slim look. By the 2000's, differences were minor, if any. Today, there are no visual differences under most circumstances, but there are still variations between engines and body styles offered.

Euro-Spec W116 Chassis Mercedes bumper

USA spec W116 Chassis Mercedes bumper

E24 BMW 635CSI
BMW E24 USA Spec Bumpers, like a diving board

E24 BMW 635csi
EuroSpec E24 BMW 635csi bumpers.

Engines: When your German car became federalized, it was essentially neutered. Most of the differences between USDM-Spec and Euro-Spec cars revolve around emissions related items like catalytic converters, compression ratios, fueling, intake systems, and ECU software changes. One difference that is hard to replicate in the USA-Spec engines is that many of the high-performance models in European/ROW form had high compression ratios and featured different engine internals. In short, the USA-Spec cars always produced fewer horsepower. The biggest differences in power happened during the 70's and 80's. However, just like the bumpers, the differences began to decrease in the 2000's. Now, only small differences, if any, exist in horsepower and emissions.

Not only were there horsepower differences, but the Euro-Spec/ROW engines always felt more lively to drive thanks to the emissions regulations imposed by the USDOT that essentially choked the engines. Euro engines sounded better, ran better, had higher horsepower, and were less complex, which made them easier to service and less expensive to maintain.

M117.968 USA spec exhaust manifold
Very restrictive USA Spec M117.968 exhaust manifold

M117.968 Euro Spec / ROW spec exhaust manifold and downpipes
Euro / ROW spec exhaust manifold and downpipes

Body: Outside of bumpers, which we already covered, the body itself probably has the least amount of aesthetic differences between USA-Spec and Euro / ROW spec. Euro / ROW spec cars did have more options from which to choose when new, though. For example, the E28 M5 in Euro / ROW-Spec could be ordered with Schwartz (black) trim or chrome trim. In the USA, Schwartz (black) was the only option. Euro / ROW-Spec cars were also offered with color options that the USA spec car did not receive. This is especially true in the world of Mercedes-Benz, where all kinds of unique blue and greens were available at the time of ordering your new Benz.

Besides trim and color options, the vehicle's weight also played a role in differences. For the most part, the Euro / ROW-Spec cars were lighter than their American counterparts due to fewer crash and safety regulations in the body and the bumpers. While an argument is that the USA-Spec cars are safer, those that know and love Euro / ROW-Spec cars are not worried about USA crash standards versus Euro / ROW crash standards. If that difference were a concern, enthusiasts would head to the closest Volvo dealer pick up something with the highest safety rating possible. Realistically, the safety differences between Euro-Spec and USDM-Spec vehicles are negligible, while the looks are a major downside with the diving boards

E28 M5 black or Schwartz Trim
Schwartz (Black) trim around windows

E28 M5 Chrome Trim
Chrome Trim and check out those amazing bumpers and headlight wipers, Euro Spec / ROW goodness

Suspension: The most common difference between USA-Spec and Euro / ROW-Spec suspensions are the springs chosen for each car. Euro / ROW-Spec springs were always lower; sometimes up to 1" lower from the factory. This made for a much sportier look to the car and tighter feel on the road. Euro / ROW-Spec cars also had more suspension options to choose from when new with different handling packages. Sometimes, shocks and sway bars were different as well, but that was not as common as the springs. The differences in springs exist to this day on some of the performance models. At times, the Euro / ROW-Spec springs are the first modifications that enthusiasts make on their USA spec car. Overall, you can be sure that the Euro / ROW-Spec
car always handled better than its USDM counterpart. Interesting enough this difference of Euro / ROW spec springs remains on many models to present day, this upgrade for USA spec cars has been going on for 30-40 years already.

Lighting: This is a big one for me, and most likely will be for you as well. There is a reason Euro / ROWSpec headlights are sold by the thousands to enthusiasts in the USA. I remember driving my dad's 1987 Mercedes-Benz 300e and wondering if I would make it home one foggy night because the headlamp light output was so bad. In short, the USDOT sacrificed driver safety for the safety of oncoming traffic, and it definitely didn't work.

When properly aimed, no oncoming traffic complained about European lighting. The distinct differences exhibited by USA spec headlights were their performance and composition. USDOT regulations forced European manufacturers to use plastic lenses as opposed to glass and different bulbs. As a result, light output was poor at best and the overall looks of the vehicle suffered as well. Euro / ROW spec headlights with glass are known to provide 2x to 4x the light output when compared to plastic versions. Annoyingly, the differences didn't stop there in the headlights. Euro / ROW-Spec headlights were almost always missing the dreaded amber side-markers that supposedly make you safer in traffic conditions. It is a miracle that any European drivers are still living since they don't have amber corner lights. Around the rest of the car, side-markers, tail lights, blinkers, and reverse lights were also different on select models. In almost all cases, the cleaner looking lenses and more brilliant light output favored
the Euro / ROW-Spec.

Lastly comes the amazing headlight wipers of the eighties and nineties. These headlight wipers, especially on the Euro / ROW-Spec BMWs, were a work of art that served a purpose by cleaning bugs and grime from your headlights. You can clearly see the Europeans were highly concerned with the driver's lighting performance being optimal, as long as it didn't hinder the oncoming traffic. Somehow, America decided it was safer for drivers to sacrifice visibility in favor of preventing any scary glass from breaking on the street. Coke bottles are fine, but not a headlight! We'll all be killed! Not by a driver who can't see, though, that's just how safety works.

W126 euro versus usa headlights
1-Piece glass versus 2-piece plastic

W123 Euro versus USA spec headlights
2-piece USA spec headlights versus the sleek 1-piece Euro spec headlight

W107 Euro Spec versus USA spec headlights
USA 2-headlight system versus euro spec 1-piece system

E28 BMW Headlight Wiper
BMW headlight wiper, is just a work of art.

Instruments: This is easy: the speedo will read in Kilometers versus miles. It's just that simple. Debatably, the Kilometer instrument panels look better and the speedometer has more indicators shown, but that is purely preferential. Interestingly enough, most of the USA-Spec cars read Celsius for their HVAC controls, oil temperature reading, and water temperature gauges. I never understood why they left those instruments in Celsius and only changed over the speedometer.
It's also interesting that the USA-Spec analog speedometers showed Kilometers in smaller print, but the Kilometer speedometers didn't have miles. This is most likely to appeal to a wider export market, as some countries who use metric systems everywhere still use MPH for velocity.

BMW Kilometers versus Miles
Euro Spec Kilometer speedometer in hand

General Electronics and Accessories: Europeans in the 70's and 80's considered power accessories, like windows and locks, to be a waste. Chiefly, those added components just made the vehicle weigh more, which translated to poorer fuel economy and performance. Air conditioning was considered a luxury for the same reason. For this reason, it was commonplace to see a luxury Mercedes at that time with manual windows, manual locks, and no A/C. Additionally, a standing joke to enthusiasts is cup
holders in older Euro vehicles. European cars in general, no matter the trim level, didn't have any. The common belief was that you don't drink and drive while traveling at high speed on the autobahn. BMW engineers have even been quoted as saying that their cars were for driving, not for eating and drinking inside, which they saw as a distraction. As time moved into the 2000's, things began to equal out and the manufacturers decided it was cheaper just to make one spec, so Euro / ROW-Spec cars began to receive power windows, power locks, and A/C.
There is almost no difference in today's spec between markets, but for a period of almost thirty years, Euro / ROW-Spec cars were the ones to have. For this reason, an imported version of a European car will always provide better performance, more driver-focused design, and offer the more attractive looks enthusiasts desire. With the twenty-five year rule, we are now seeing the best of vintage European vehicles become legal for import, so understanding the differences between their cars and the ones designed for our market is more important than ever.