Luther Spoehr: Review of Paul Ingrassia's "Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars" (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Editor and Senior Lecturer in Brown University.

If this book were one of the cars featured by the author, it would be a 1965 Ford Mustang: stylish, energetic, broadly appealing, but not intended to carry heavy (analytical) loads. Journalist Paul Ingrassia, longtime reporter on the auto industry for the Wall Street Journal and winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize, has written a sprightly narrative that includes business history (why General Motors dominated, and then didn’t); the history of automobile design (Harley Earl is already well known, but have you met Zora Arkus-Duntov?); and the large roles that cars have played in social history and popular culture.

Ingrassia’s tone is light and precise: “The underlying premise here,” he says at the outset, “is that modern American culture is basically a big tug-of-war. It’s a yin-versus-yang contest between the practical and the pretentious, the frugal versus the flamboyant, haute cuisine versus hot wings, uptown versus downtown, big-is-better versus small-is-beautiful, and Saturday night versus Sunday morning.” When it comes down specifically to cars: “Every vehicle in this book represents either practicality or pretension, although a couple of them straddle the great divide.” Then he sidesteps a vexing theoretical question: “Whether the cars shaped the culture or the culture shaped the cars is just another version of whether the chicken came before the egg, or vice-versa. Let’s just say it’s both.”

The only two pre-World War II vehicles that he analyzes illustrate vividly his distinction between “practicality” and “pretension.” The first, and the essence of utility, was Henry Ford’s Model T, the best known car in American history, produced between 1908 and 1927. Famous for being available in any color the customer wanted “as long as it’s black,” the Model T brought middle class America into the automobile age: In the mid-1920s, it sold for $260. It’s grip on the consumer and popular culture caused humorists to wax biblical (“The Ford is my auto / I shall not want another…”). Ingrassia captures its automotive and social importance effectively, although if you want to get the full sense of what it was like to drive one, I still recommend turning to E.B. White’s classic 1936 essay, “Farewell, My Lovely.”

Bookended with the Model T is General Motors’s LaSalle, which debuted in 1927, just as the Model T went out of production. Probably remembered by readers of a certain age by the line from the theme song for TV’s “All in the Family” (“Gee, our old LaSalle ran great”), the LaSalle was self-consciously stylish -- and seven times as expensive as the Model T. Created by the combined marketing genius of GM’s Alfred Sloan (“What Henry Ford had done for mass manufacturing, Alfred Sloan would do for mass marketing”) and designer Harley Earl, whose wry but appreciative colleagues at GM had their own biblical flair: “Our father, who art in styling, Harley be thy name.” Sleek and powerful, the LaSalle appealed both to male drivers and to the growing number of women drivers. Only when it was “improved” to the point of becoming indistinguishable from the Cadillac did it fall from fashion. It was last produced in 1940.

Once past World War II and into the great postwar prosperity between 1945 and the mid-1960s, Ingrassia has more cars to choose from, and he chooses well: the Corvette, the Volkswagen Beetle, the 1959 Cadillac, the Mustang, and, perversely but persuasively, even the Chevy Corvair come under his microscope. Ingrassia delights in unexpected connections and unintended consequences: the Corvair’s inadequacies begat Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which in turn begat the age of lawsuits and regulation and, ultimately, the election of George W. Bush in 2000. That may be pushing things a bit, but…okay. 

Ingrassia is particularly good at connecting the cars to the “sky’s-the-limit ethos” in this period. The tail-finned monster that was the 1959 Cadillac, for instance, embodied confidence -- or perhaps overconfidence. “The longest model…stretched more than twenty-one feet, more than three feet longer than GM’s massive Hummer H2 nearly fifty years later…Every Cadillac had a 300-plus horsepower V8 The Eldorado Brougham cost some $14,500, equivalent to $100,000 today.” As for those tailfins, “so enormous they seemed lifted right off a rocket ship,” they came close to being bigger: designers shortened them when they realized that in the original design they were higher than the roof. In a half-hearted nod to practicality, marketers tried to suggest that fins were really “directional stabilizers,” but nobody took that seriously.

Not everyone could afford a Cadillac. (Of course, that was part of the point of owning one.) Nor did many people actually purchase a Corvette -- the streamlined Chevy sportscar never had more than .2% of the market. But sales don’t always measure cultural significance, and although Ingrassia asserts this more than he demonstrates it, it’s hard to dispute his point. The Corvette was just one of many American-made sportscars that captured youthful imaginations, but it was the only one that Martin Milner and George Maharis drove on television’s “Route 66.” 

The Corvette also turned the corner with the rest of America when the good times evaporated in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “The Corvette’s horsepower,” says Ingrassia, “like the length of women’s skirts, proved a reliable indicator of America’s economic and psychic strength. In the years between 1969 and 1975, when America endured the Vietnam War and Watergate, came the emasculation of the Corvette. The car’s basic Corvette engine shrank from 350 to 165 horsepower, barely more than the Corvette’s original Blue Flame six, and about the same as four-cylinder compact cars today.”

The impact of the 1973 Oil Embargo, the mandate for unleaded gas, and the general economic downturn took the air out of America’s automotive balloon in the early ’70s and made the ‘60s seem as long gone as the Jacksonian Era. Popular songs about cars, which had bounced across the airwaves for a decade, were no longer hot stuff. John DeLorean’s GTO, the ultimate muscle car -- “three deuces and a four-speed / And a 389,” as harmonized by Ronnie and the Daytonas -- seemed positively un-American, or at least too expensive to operate, because it got only eleven miles per gallon.

The verve had gone out of the auto business, and for the last third of the book some of the verve goes out of Ingrassia’s story, too. True, there are some entertaining second acts -- the return of the flamboyant DeLorean and Lee Iacocca, for example -- but nobody sings songs to glorify the minivan, the BMW, or the Prius. And Ingrassia’s explanation of the social significance of such vehicles -- and how they fit into the ongoing battle between status and practicality -- is not particularly original, as when it echoes David Brooks on “bourgeois bohemians.”  Still, his eye for the telling quotation and the patterns of the zeitgeist make even the latter chapters fun, if not surprising, to read. “You have a Prius,” wrote the Portland Mercury in 2008, “you probably compost, sort all your recycling, and have a reusable shopping bag for your short drive to Whole Foods. So, do we really need the Obama sticker?”

These latter chapters show that, as traffic gets jammed and pavement crumbles, America’s high-spirited romance with automobiles has been diminished considerably, that what Americans drive has less to do than ever before with actually getting out on the open road and even more to do with making a social statement. What does it say about our insecurities and priorities that we shell out big bucks for rugged, off-road vehicles, when, as has been observed, the only time they’re off the road is when they’re in the driveway? 

Even when dealing with the cultural expression of political divisions -- or perhaps the political expression of cultural divisions -- Ingrassia never probes too deeply or abandons his evenhanded, light touch. He treats Red State and Blue State Americans in equally satirical tones. The Ford F-150 and its cousins, the best-selling vehicles in America since 1978, are “Red Meat Wheels for Red State Americans”; Prius drivers are needled for being “the Pious.” 

In other words, readers seeking deep dissection of the economic, political, and social issues presented by automobiles and the auto industry, past and present, will have to look elsewhere. But those who enjoy insightful cultural history leavened by levity will be taken on a joy ride that’s well worth the trip.

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