The Magazine

Big Wheels

The American and his/her car.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Paul Ingrassia, former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, is probably the best broadsheet reporter ever to cover the car business. He and Joseph B. White won a Pulitzer Prize for their articles about how General Motors got busted to corporal by its fool management and union. Ingrassia wrote the book on “The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster,” that being the subtitle of his Crash Course (2010). Now he’s broached yet a larger subject, the car’s whole effect on our entire nation.

Photo of Jean Harlow in a Packard

Jean Harlow and Packard, 1933

Mary Evans / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

Picking 15 vehicles as tent poles for this sprawling canvas was a good idea, and Ingrassia chose well. Ford’s Model T and GM’s first assay of the “affordable luxury” market, the 1927 LaSalle, exemplify the realist and symbolist schools of car selling. Contrasts between the VW bug and Microbus and the 1959 Cadillac show that the 1950s had more than one Cold War.  The Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO illustrate the two-sided, flitty-gritty nature of baby boomers. And the Chrysler minivan was the grim fate that awaited them all. The Honda Civic tells the tale of how the Japanese abandoned the ill-conceived tactics of Pearl Harbor and conquered America.  The BMW 3 Series is a rolling David Brooks column about educated elites, and the Prius illustrates the self-punishing nature of people who appear in David Brooks columns. The Jeep and the Ford F-150 pickup truck illuminate political and sociological pretensions, with blue state nature boys who never go outdoors pretending to be red state good ol’ boys who never go home.

The Chevrolet Corvair was intended to be innovative, but what its creativity created was the modern tort system. And by making Ralph Nader famous, hence making him preeningly egotistical, hence a presidential candidate in 2000, the Corvair created the George W. Bush administration. 

Why Ingrassia put the Corvette on his list isn’t exactly clear. But since the Corvette invented the midlife crisis, a bunch of us old guys say thanks for the divorce and the Viagra. High-functioning Asperger syndrome car buffs (not that I’m confessing) will quibble with Ingrassia. In the battle between utility and status, the Model T arguably fought itself—lumpy farm Flivver vs. snappy two-seat runabout. British sports cars are ignored, though it was they, not the Volkswagen, that introduced Americans to the joys of substantial power-to-weight ratios in slight vehicles. And Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, and MGs had wonderful, precise handling while the treacherously bum-heavy VW would have been a better subject than the Corvair for Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed—if VWs had gone fast enough to get hurt in. 

There has always been a strong prosaic people-hauler segment to the American car market. I doubt it has social science implications. The minivan just happened to be the first vehicle you could get your Grateful Dead tribute band and amplifiers into that drove like a regular car. Pickups do send a message to Washington, but not the one Ingrassia thinks. Because until recently trucks (and truck-based SUVs) escaped various federal safety and fuel economy regulations, buyers could get more for their money. Honda changed the cheesy meaning of “Made in Japan” into brie, but mostly with its motorcycles. The Tora! Tora! Tora! Japanese car was the 1968 Datsun 510—all the fun of a European sports sedan without costing as much as a BMW 2002 or sitting in your driveway because you couldn’t get it started like an Alfa-Romeo GTA. And the Mustang trick of hatching a swan from the egg of an ugly Ford Falcon duckling, and the GTO stunt of dropping dad’s engine into mom’s Pontiac Tempest, were things hot-rodders had been doing forever.

Ingrassia also hampers himself with some awkward technical writing. An antiroll bar is not “just a heavy metal bar bolted under the front of the car to even out the weight.” The “hemispherical shape on the ends of its eight combustion cylinders” is actually found at the top of the Chrysler Hemi’s combustion chambers. And a “broad gear spacing that improved the car’s acceleration” would not do so. Plus, Ingrassia professes an enthusiasm for front-wheel drive that indicates he’s never experienced the un-invited thrill of throttle steer coming out of a curve at 80 mph. I’ll show him where I wrecked my girlfriend’s Saab. 

But the real problem with Engines of Change is that, as a broadsheet reporter and now deputy editor in chief of Reuters, Ingrassia has breathed the newsroom air. The exhalations of received wisdom have gone to his head. 

Ingrassia realizes cars foster liberty. He interviews a Vietnamese war refugee, Hau Thai-Tang, who became an automotive engineer at Ford and led the team that developed the new, estimable generation of Mustangs. “This car embodies freedom,” Thai-Tang said. But Ingrassia understands that freedom mostly at the margins, talking about how the Model T “promoted social networking” and “fostered a sexual revolution.” Facebook friending and the zipless you-know-whats have come to many places where a car and permission to go someplace in it are still fanciful aspirations.

Ingrassia doesn’t seem to comprehend the horizontal mobility that gives Americans our trust in self-sovereignty, even if vertical mobility eludes us. He cites John Steinbeck’s claim that, because of the car, “the theory of the Anglo Saxon home became so warped that it never quite recovered.” But Steinbeck’s Joad family jalopy trek in The Grapes of Wrath is hardly a paean to America’s urge to “strike out for the territories.” Nowhere does Ingrassia come near to the forceful statement made by David E. Davis Jr., former editor of Car and Driver, founder of Automobile, and late doyen of automotive journalists: 

We drive our cars because they make us free. .  .  . Governments detest our cars: They give us too much freedom. How do you control people who can climb into a car at any hour of the day or night and drive to who knows where?

Speaking of which, Ingrassia doesn’t seem to connect Jack Kerouac with cars at all. Instead of reading about the bathtub Hudson, pontoon-fendered ’47 Cadillac, and beloved-of-customizers ’37 Ford that make the trips in On the Road, we get “a novel describing .  .  . journeys of personal discovery far removed from the middle-class Jell-O mold of American conformity.” Identically preformed bourgeois treacle is one of Ingrassia’s themes. He takes seriously the spoutings-off of such highbrow frowning clowns as Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957). He quotes approvingly from John Keats—not that Keats, though he’d have been hell on cars, too—who, in 1958, wrote The Insolent Chariots, saying Detroit made cars for “daydreaming nitwits.” Behold the ’58 Corvette, John Nitwit, and dream on.

Ingrassia is dutifully appalled by the things those in receipt of received wisdom are careful to let bother them. Conspicuous consumption, for one. As if we’d all be better people if we wore our old underwear on the outside, to cover our new suit pants and jacket. Planned obsolescence gets a knock.  Never mind that the right-thinking heirs to those who deplored planned obsolescence in cars are standing in line all night awaiting the newest iPiddle. The “witty and self-deprecating” VW advertising is said by Ingrassia to have been “beyond the comprehension of Detroit.” Obligatory tsk-tsking is done about the size of SUVs and how their drivers, by eschewing minivans, are “showing off.” As the owner of two Chevrolet Suburbans, I offer to spend a day at the top of my double black diamond mogul field driveway watching Mr. Ingrassia try to get up it in a Dodge Caravan.

Putdowns pop up to no point:  “TV’s bland Wonder bread wasteland.” McCarthyism is somehow found in the automotive culture’s trunk. GM’s top executives are stuffy and square: “GM’s view of shirts was sort of like Henry Ford’s attitude toward cars: employees could wear any color they wanted as long as they wore white.” GM’s top executives are also macho lunatics. “After a drinking binge in New York,” GM chief of design Bill Mitchell “heisted a horse-drawn carriage near Central Park and tried to drive it into a hotel lobby.” The bien-pensant are all in favor of people expressing themselves, until people do.

But nothing is given more grief than tailfins. There are at least nine disparaging mentions of this minor styling trope that was in vogue for barely a decade. Some fins were an attractive styling exuberance, like those on the 1957 Plymouth. Some fins were a bit much, like those on the 1959 Chevrolet. Without fins, the Batmobile would have been a big, black car. Tailfins were fashionable because of gorgeous automobiles: the 1953 Bristol 450 and a set of “concept cars” made by Bertone coach-builders for Alfa-Romeo the same year. Even more influential was the most beautiful car ever, the mid-’50s D-Type Jaguar, with its Constantin Brancusi sculptural single fin rising from the driver’s headrest. Ingrassia makes fun of Detroit’s claim that fins improved directional stability. Below 120 mph, they probably didn’t. But the designers of the Le Mans-winning 1958 D Jag weren’t laughing.

What is it about tailfins that has always so disturbed people of correct opinion? Engines of Change raises many such questions. Any book on a topic so overwhelming as the car in America has to be more of a goad to, than a proof of, argument. And here Ingrassia has succeeded. He provides some answers and invites more. Was the automobile master or man to American industrialization? Did ubiquitous self-powered contraptions affect our thinking? How does the waxing tech-mind differ from the waning mech-mind? Is the car becoming a mere appliance, an office cubicle on wheels, and a motorized cupholder? Is the Google driverless car any more appealing than the eaterless meal? And why do intellectuals hate cars?

Not that I’m dirtying Paul Ingrassia with that epithet. He may have made the mistake of listening to intellectuals, but he likes cars and doesn’t much like Ralph Nader or the Prius. Anyway, I know why intellectuals hate cars. I’ve ridden in a car while an intellectual was driving.

P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.