American history in fifteen cars or less
What, precisely, is it about cars that do so much for identity? In a world seemingly awash with more and more stuff, the automotive still carries an inordinate level of weight in how one perceives self and others. True, some can recall the first computer they got their hands on, but it’s likelier that the makes and models of every childhood car are seared into memory, for good or ill. Paul Ingrassia takes a larger perspective on the way the car shaped and defined America throughout the twentieth century in his highly readable Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars.
Ingrassia, formerly Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, knows his cars, but Engines of Change concerns itself with more cultural and economic shifts than technological ones. Real gear heads might be familiar with the stories behind the famous models whose history he traces, but on the whole it’s easy to follow the rise of American manufacturing from Ford’s Model T to the postwar giddiness of Cadillac’s impossibly impractical tail fins of 1958 and the supersized engine of the Pontiac GTO. However, this American journey is hardly limited to Big Three names, and Ingrassia devotes as much attention to the decline of the American industry (portended by the Corvair and its deadly handling), which mirrored an increasingly fractured and contentious political and social landscape. The rise of foreign upstarts such as Honda, BMW and Volkswagen mirrored tumult of the 1960s and 70s as drivers became disillusioned with American quality issues and the idea that bigger was always better. But Ingrassia underscores that although they started out as foreign and seemingly out of place when first introduced, foreign nameplates and the seemingly quirky cars of the early years are as much a part of the American identity (and in many cases, boast more American components than today’s Big Three products).
The real joy of Ingrassia’s writing comes from the entertaining nuggets that grace each car’s story. The uncertainty of post-war Germany Volkswagen meant the Beetle might have been produced by Britain—or Henry Ford. Backers of Ford’s iconic Mustang billed the car as ‘a librarian turned into a sex-pot’—a reference to the car’s humble Ford Falcon underpinnings. And can anyone who has had the experience of owning an AMC Gremlin be surprised by the fact the car began life as a sketch on the back of an airsickness bag? Ingrassia sometimes stretches his points a bit—I refuse to believe that the failure of the Corvair gave us George W. Bush—but for a nation that has always had an obsession with its wheels, Ingrassia gets things mostly spot on. The final car he examines, the hybrid Toyota Prius, points to the current challenges of environmental impact and oil dependency, yet he also touches on the evergreen popularity of Ford’s F-150—hardly a paragon of gas efficiency, but the bestselling car in the nation for many years running. It’s too simplistic to boil down the current state of the nation to two nameplates, but what will future generations see this as a turning point in American life? Fun for car enthusiasts and cultural buffs alike, Engines of Change suggests that like the past century, change might just be one model year away.