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.