Wednesday’s Book Review: “Engines of Change”

Engines of ChangeEngines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars. By Paul Ingrassia. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.

The flyleaf to Engines of Change are filled with testimonials to both the quality of this work and the excellence of journalist Paul Ingrassia. These large number of glowing blurbs always worry me because they signal that they might be a bit of overcompensation for a lackluster book. There is a bit of this present in this case.

Paul Ingrassia is the deputy editor in chief of Reuters, a former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, and an internalist writer if ever there was one. His connections in news organizations, and as a practitioner himself ensured that he received notice in many newspapers. With his background it came as no surprise that the Wall Street Journal gave the book outstanding marks.

That is not to say that Engines of Change is a bad book. Ingrassa’s book is pretty entertaining and has something useful to say in a breezy, not too investigative manner. He profiles the history of American automobiles through the stories of the Model T, the LaSalle, big tail-fin Cadillacs, Volkswagen Beetles and Microbuses, the Chevrolet Corvette and Corvair, the Ford Mustang, the Pontiac GTO, the Honda, Chrysler minivans, SUVs, BMWs, Jeeps, pickup trucks, and the Toyota Prius. Roughly a chapter on each of these make up the book.

We get the basics of the story of each, with a fair amount of biographical material about designers serving to structure these chapters. We learn as much about Zora Arkus Duntov, designer of the first Corvette in 1953, and also John DeLorean who’s GTO and his own 1980s design, the DMC-12 DeLorean, as we do about their cars. That’s not a bad thing. In many cases the designers are as interesting as their designs. The personalities of Henry Ford, Harley J. Earl, Bill Mitchell, Lee Iacocca, Hal Sperlich, and others are fascinating as they sweat blood to create the greatest cars imaginable at a price and with a performance matched by none.

All of this is fine as far as it goes. Ingrassia is on less firm ground when he tries to write social history. First, how does one define the “American Dream?” There is no consensus on that, and while it might be slippery, Ingrassia really neither makes any attempt to delineate it nor to explore in any serious manner how car culture fits into it.

Second, Ingrassia promises an investigation of how automobiles reflect key cultural shifts as well as developments in such areas as manufacturing, major turns in American history during the twentieth century, civil and women’s rights, the youth movement, environmental awareness, and a host of larger issues in American culture. The quest for speed, the desire for sportiness, the press for performance are all part of this discussion. A good historian could do quite a lot with this aspect of the subject. I’ll have to look elsewhere for a satisfactory analysis of these themes.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Engines of Change”

  1. spacegary says:

    Informative review, thanks. Automobiles both helped drive and benefited from the post-WWII prosperity, from suburbs to shopping malls. These trends are now declining, another topic for discussion.


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