Review: ‘Engines of Change’ by Paul Ingrassia details key cars

It would be impossible to count the number of automotive makes and models that have come and gone since the car was first invented — or the number of books that have been written about them. The inescapable ubiquity of the automobile has made them, for better or worse, a sort of cultural fodder that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia inventively exploits in “Engines of Change.”

The question at the center of his nonfiction treatise: Do cars shape the culture, or does culture shape the cars? It’s an intriguing idea explored with in-depth investigations of 15 passenger vehicles that, in Ingrassia’s opinion, “rose above merely defining the people who drove them … [They] helped shape their era and uniquely reflected the spirit of their age.”

“Engines of Change” isn’t a traditional car book so much as a history of the last century viewed through a vehicular lens. It doesn’t begin with the very first car ever invented, which is a subject of dispute. Rather, it kicks off with the car that first made automotive transportation simple, affordable and practical — the Ford Model T, which cost $850, got almost 20 miles to the gallon and traveled 40 miles per hour when it was introduced in 1908. Ingrassia then moves on to General Motors‘ idea to build “a car for every purse and purpose,” setting up the ongoing rivalry among Detroit manufacturers and a crucial psychological push and pull among consumers between the car as a pragmatic tool and status symbol.

While American companies get the most attention, Volkswagen and its Beetle, BMW and its yuppie 3 series sedans, Honda with its Civic and Toyota’s Prius also get individual chapters that mirror the culture, underscore the high-stakes scenarios that brought so many iconic vehicles into being and highlight exactly how precarious the business of making cars can be.

Ingrassia selects the Chevrolet Corvette as the poster child of postwar American ascendancy. First introduced in 1953, the Corvette, like all the cars he spotlights, demonstrates Ingrassia’s appreciation for the engineering and aesthetic derring-do of the vehicles themselves as well as the grandiose characters that brought them to life.

Whether it was the Russian-Jewish immigrant Zora Arkus Duntov, who “took to flying his own airplane, and flew around Detroit-area freeways in his Corvette at speeds well above the ambient traffic”; John DeLorean, the anti-establishment playboy behind the Pontiac GTO and eponymous, stainless-steel sport car who was eventually brought down by a drug sting; or Bob Lutz, who, as president of Chrysler, introduced the Jeep Grand Cherokee by driving it up a flight of stairs and through a plate-glass window, Ingrassia distills each car’s story to its most compelling and surprising details.

Two sets of glossy photo galleries are pictorial shorthand for the author’s talking points, including an image of tail-finned Dodge cruisers at the 1957 Detroit Auto Show and the cover of Car and Driver magazine showing five basketball players standing next to “a revolutionary new vehicle, the minivan, which was small enough to fit in a garage but big enough to hold five Detroit Pistons.”

Ingrassia’s writing style is as accessible as it is friendly. It does not read as expert to learner, which would be easy to do considering Ingrassia’s resume. He is currently the deputy editor in chief of Reuters and was, at one time, the Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, where he won the Pulitzer in 1993 for his investigations into General Motors’ management problems.

Writing in an amused tone, Ingrassia comes across as a curious onlooker who’s delighted by the details he’s dug up and the connections he makes between individual vehicles and the world that swirls around them. One of the book’s more thought-provoking premises connects the Chevrolet Corvair’s safety issues in the ’60s to the 2000 presidential election. Ingrassia argues that Ralph Nader‘s fame for bringing the Corvair’s safety issues to light catapulted him into the spotlight as consumer rights crusader who was able to trade that fame into a presidential campaign bid that divided the vote and brought George W. Bush to power.

With “Engines of Change,” Ingrassia has done a phenomenal amount of research, and an even more impressive job of balancing history, culture and cars.

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

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