BOOK REVIEW: 'Engines of Change': How Motor Vehicles Created the American Dream -- and Changed the World

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'Engines of Change': How Motor Vehicles Created the American Dream -- and Changed the World
Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans know more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars. -- John Steinbeck, "Cannery Row" 1945

It's hardly a secret that motor vehicles have a big impact on society -- for good and ill -- but Paul Ingrassia in his very readable "Engines of Change: A History of the American Dreams in Fifteen Cars" (Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, photographs, $30.00) shows in detail how the fifteen cars, trucks and vans changed American society -- and may even have resulted in the election of a president.

Ingrassia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, quotes Steinbeck in his first chapter, about the Model T that began in 1908 and ended production in 1927, radically altering the way Americans traveled, and about the La Salle, a "junior" Cadillac, that began production the same year the Tin Lizzie ended and changed the way vehicles were styled. He also discusses Steinbeck in the chapter about pickup trucks, referring to the author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and his journey around the U.S. in a GMC pickup truck. Steinbeck wrote about his journey with his poodle as a companion in "Travels With Charley."


Part automotive history -- admittedly very selective -- part cultural history -- "Engines of Change"shows how cars from the Model T to the Prius affected the American experience and impacted such diverse phenomena as suburbia, the environmental movement, hippies and yuppies, the litigation explosion started by Ralph Nader and just about everything in America. Not only in America: Ingrassia, who began research for his book in 2007, takes us to Denmark, where collectors of American iron gather at Hamlet's castle with their be-finned Caddies, Chryslers and muscle cars. Cars to these impassioned Danes represent the freedom symbolized by America.


Paul Ingrassia
Paul Ingrassia

The cars didn't come from thin air; behind the Corvette, for instance, are the men -- and they were all men in those days -- who created a prototype for auto shows, using Chevrolet's "Blue Flame" six-cylinder engine and a two speed automatic transmission. But it took a Russian-Jewish race car driver and engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov to turn the car into an American icon that thrives to this day. Duntov died in 1996 and his ashes are on display at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY, where the fiberglass-bodied sports cars are manufactured. Ingrassia tells how Zora saved the car from extinction by fitting it with the new small-block Chevy V-8 and a three-speed manual transmission (later a four-speed), creating the car that became iconic on the TV series "Route 66."


The La Salle was designed by Harley J. Earl, a Californian who started out building custom-bodied cars for Hollywood celebrities, and migrated to Michigan, where he headed up what became GM's Art and Colour Section -- with the British and Canadian spelling of "color." TV trivia nuts will recognize the brand, which was placed between Buick and Cadillac in the GM spectrum, from the theme song for the show "All in the Family": "Gee our old La Salle ran great". It was dropped in 1940 and is a very attractive and collectible car today. Unlike the boxy, upright Cadillacs, La Salles were sleek and appealed to the same people who loved personal luxury cars like the Buick Riviera, designed by Earl's successor Bill Mitchell -- the very same designer who, with the assistance of Chuck Jordan, was responsible for the 1959 Cadillac winning the tail-fin race.


The be-finned Cadillacs and their Mopar competitors -- Plymouth, Dodge, De Soto and Chrysler -- have a chapter in Ingrassia's book. To writers like John Keats, author of "The Insolent Chariots", these high-flying fins on gigantic cars represented the nadir of the American car design, and by extension, America itself. To the Danes and others in love with cars like the man who buried them head first, with the fins in the air, on his ranch near Amarillo, Texas, they represent freedom.


Speaking of Nader, or "Nadir" as some Corvair owners call him in the personalized license plates they display on their restored treasures, Ingrassia discusses the role of Ralph Nader, the Lebanese-American lawyer from Winsted, Connecticut, and his best-selling 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed." Ingrassia points out that most people remember Nader for his attack on the Corvair, forgetting that he also slammed another rear-engine car, the Volkswagen Beetle, for unsafe handling. The Corvair's handling was later vindicated in the courts, but a cash settlement with GM for invasion of privacy enabled Nader to form his non-profit organization and become prominent enough to run for president in 2000, ensuring, in the author's mind, the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore.


As a past owner of a number of rear engine cars -- including a Simca 1000 (I don't know anyone else who's owned one of these French abominations!), a Porsche 356C and a VW Karmann Ghia -- I can attest to the need to learn specialized driving techniques with rear-engine cars.


Ingrassia points out at least two bone-headed errors committed by Ford Motor Co. that would come back to haunt the Dearborn, Mich.-based firm. At the end of the war, Hitler's people's car, the Volkswagen, was a car nobody wanted. First, Lord Rootes of England turned down the offer of free ownership of the company. It was next offered to Ford, with the same results. Located in the British zone of occupation, VW's future was assured by a Brit named Ivan Hirst, who lured auto executive Heinz Nordhoff away from Opel, owned by GM, to rebuild the bomb damaged plant and restart production of a car designed by Ferdinand Porsche. The rest, as they say, is history. The Beetle and the VW Bus would go on to break the sales record set by the Model T Ford.


Under Ford CEO Henry Ford II -- known as the "Deuce" -- the company again dropped the ball when Ford personally killed a plan to develop a minivan and ordered his executive Lido "Lee" Iacocca to fire Hal Sperlich, who came up with plans for a front-wheel-drive people hauler. Both Lacocca and Sperlock moved to Chrysler and designed the Chrysler minivans using Mopar's existing K-Car chassis. Iacocca and Sperlich saved the company in the 1980s with their innovative design based on components that were readily at hand.


Introduced in the fall of 1983, the Caravan and Voyager created a whole new market segment that was copied, with varying success, by GM and Ford, and with great success by Nissan, Honda and Toyota. I remember seeing the first Mopar minivans at the 1983 convention of the National Association of Realtors in Las Vegas. I was covering the convention for my paper at the time, the Los Angeles Times. After I inspected the car on display in the exhibition hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I called one of my colleagues on the real estate desk and advised him immediately go to a dealer and buy one. He did, and loved the car. I later owned a 1994 Dodge Caravan, which I bought used, and drove for several years with no mechanical problems.


Hippies made the VW Bus an iconic car and Yuppies and their related ilk Guppies and Buppies, did the same for the 3-series BMW, the product of another car company that, believe it or not, was near failure and could have been snapped up by Mercedes, or killed altogether like the Borgward brand. Starting in the 1970s, the peppy, well-engineered BMW 1600 and later 2002 models appealed to with-it urbanites. Called Bimmers by the carnogscenti (don't look it up, I just coined it!), the cars signified that their owners were smart and sophisticated to some and jerks with attitude to others. The cars were conventional rear-drive vehicles, unlike competitors from Japan. One of my bosses who owned a BMW said the initials stood for "Barely Moves in Winter" or "Break My Window."


Ingrassia deals with pickup trucks, led by the market leader for many years, the F-Series Fords. Pickup trucks were used as material haulers by farmers, contractors and others, but later became an important profit center for Ford, GM and Chrysler, leading even the Japanese to build gigantic pickups in the States. In another chapter, Ingrassia tells how the military Jeep morphed into a civilian vehicle, begetting the market segment of so-called Sport Utility Vehicles, or SUVs, that became favorites of those drivers who didn't like the "soccer mom" cachet of minivans.


Most people associate John Z. DeLorean with the short-lived DMC-12 gull-wing two-seater that was featured in the "Back to the Future" movies. Just over 8,000 of the cars were built in 1981 and 1982, in a Northern Ireland factory financed to the tune of $120 million by the British government. Get in the DMC-12 with Doc and go back to the early 1960s when DeLorean ran Pontiac and, with the help of young Detroit adman Jim Wangers, created the Pontiac GTO -- and the whole "muscle car" segment. Pontiac was an "old man's car" until DeLorean changed the brand's image with the "Goat."


Henry Ford II -- the "Deuce" -- wasn't totally stupid. He greenlighted the Mustang program proposed by Iacocca, resulting an another iconic American brand that continues today. The first generation of Mustangs debuted in April 1964 at the New York World's Fair and were built on the Ford Falcon chassis, but later were tweaked in a manner similar to that done by Zora Arkus-Duntov at Corvette. In fact, there was a counterpart to Zora in the form of Texan Carroll Shelby, who recently died.


An important chapter shows how Honda brought quality manufacturing techniques to the middle of Ohio, first with motorcycles and later with Honda Accords at their plant in Marysville, Ohio. This led to a flood of foreign manufacturers building plants in the U.S., including Toyota, Subaru, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.


Ingrassia writes with ease, humor and elegance, combining in my view Tom McCahill (you've got to be on Social Security if you remember this famous test driver for Mechanix Illustrated magazine!), former L.A. Times auto writer Dan Neil and P.J. O'Rourke. (both Neil and O'Rourke contribute back-jacket blurbs). You'll learn a lot about cars and American society if you read "Engines of Change." And you'll have a heckuva ride doing it.


About the Author

Paul Ingrassia, formerly the Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and later the president of Dow Jones Newswire, is the deputy editor-in-chief of Reuters. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 (with Joseph B. White) for reporting on management crises at General Motors, he is the author of "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster."

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