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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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.