It’s rare that a car history offers both a Yeats parody and a non-poet named John Keats who spanks Detroit makers for putting “penial geegaws on the hoods.”
Paul Ingrassia’s “Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars” ranges as widely and quirkily as the title suggests among the people, passions and foibles of the automotive industry.
As a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Ingrassia shared a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for writing on General Motors Co. In this book he lets out the journalistic stays, enjoying the freedom to openly needle an industry and admire its pioneers without any loss of the good reporter’s delight in detail and a fine tale.
Ingrassia’s survey starts with Henry Ford’s practical, black-only Model T, which monopolized the roads for 20 years until yielding in 1927 to the panache of the Roaring Twenties and GM’s stylish LaSalle.
“One was dutiful and self-reliant; the other beautiful and self-indulgent,” Ingrassia writes, deeming these “different philosophies that helped shape American culture.”
Elvis the Pelvis
The book takes off, as the country does in the postwar boom, with the Chevrolet Corvette. Ingrassia weaves the car’s 1953 debut with those of Playboy and Elvis the Pelvis that year, and the burgeoning hot rod culture. Flip to the book’s first batch of color photographs to see the extraordinary evolution of car design -- it’s like going from boom box to iPod.
From there it’s quite a stretch to the long lines and crazy tailfins of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, but whether the style embodied rebellion or self-indulgence or just a convenient boost to the sticker price -- all points Ingrassia touches on -- is hard to say.
He spends as much time sketching the key players as he does on the machines, like the Corvette’s champion, an immigrant engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov, or Hal Sperlich, the man behind both the Mustang and the minivan. He “nailed the needs of the largest generation in American history twice, at critical junctures,” Ingrassia writes, somewhat generously.
With the Chevrolet Corvair story, the main character is a young lawyer named Ralph Nader. A heralded response to the popular Volkswagen Beetle and the demand for compacts, the Corvair revealed stability problems soon after it went on sale in 1959-60.
Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” blasted the industry and ultimately changed liability law in ways that truly marked American culture. As an aside, Ingrassia notes that GM’s extensive dirt-seeking investigation of Nader included an episode where “an attractive young woman asked him to come to her apartment to discuss ’foreign affairs.”’
GTOs, BMWs, SUVs cruise by and then Ingrassia digs into the confluence of trends, like wilderness chic, that put the urban cowboy in off-road vehicles (when off-road probably meant “having a gravel driveway in the Hamptons,” he says) and made the Ford F-Series pickup the best-seller of all cars and trucks in America for more than 30 years.
He closes with the Toyota Prius hybrid, applauding “breakthroughs in technology deemed impossible for decades, even centuries.” Ingrassia also has fun with the self-congratulatory owners, citing episodes of TV’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the animated show “South Park,” where “Priuses have become so popular that the town develops a huge cloud of ‘smug.”’
I’m a big fan of potted histories and brief lives, both of which Ingrassia offers with the sure hand of a writer trained in one of the Fourth Estate’s better finishing schools. How on-target he is with his defining-moment theme is a matter for much debate. But then that’s partly the point and fun of any greatest-hits list.
“Engines of Change” is published by Simon & Schuster (395 pages, $30). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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