- - Friday, June 1, 2012

By Paul Ingrassia
Simon & Schuster, $30 395 pages

”A handful of cars in American history … defined large swaths of American culture,” writesPaul Ingrassia, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, and “helped to shape their era, and uniquely reflected the spirit of their age. These cars, and the cultural trends that they helped define, are the subject of this book.”

His underlying premise, he tells us, is that “modern American culture is basically a big tug-of-war … a yin-versus-yang contest between the practical and the pretentious, the frugal versus the flamboyant, haute cuisine versus hot wings, uptown versus downtown, big-is-better versus small-is-beautiful, and Saturday night versus Sunday morning.”

The first two cars he examines - the Ford Model T and the General Motors LaSalle - illustrate what he sees as “the elemental conflict between these two sets of values.” The Model T “was the pinnacle of practicality, the first people’s car.” In contrast, the LaSalle “was the first mass-market designer car, an early yuppie-mobile that was intended for getting attention as well as for getting around. The LaSalle debuted in 1927, the very year the Model T died.”

These are the only two pre-World War II cars that Mr. Ingrassia treats, “because American cultural evolution hit a roadblock in the 1930s and 1940s,” decades “dominated by Depression and war.” But with the advent of the 1950s, Americans were ready to cut loose, “which made the timing perfect for the Chevrolet Corvette, the first modern American sports car.”

In addition to the sports car, post-war America’s “sky’s-the-limit-ethos,” writes Mr. Ingrassia, was defined by a design statement - tail fins. Inspired by the twin-tailed Lockheed P-38 fighter plane, they were first sold by Chrysler as safety devices. (The Chrysler designer was honored by the Harvard Business School.) “Chrysler almost won Detroit’s great tail fin war, but General Motors struck back in 1959 with Cadillacs that had the biggest tail fins ever.”

“Corvettes and tail fins were all about pretension,” writes Mr. Ingrassia. But a little import from Germany, our erstwhile enemy, “pulled the pendulum back toward practicality.” That import, the “ultimate anti-Cadillac,” was the Volkswagen Beetle, which had “debuted in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler’s ‘people’s car.’ Decades later it became the unofficial car of American hippies, completing an automotive and cultural journey of epic sweep.”

Mr. Ingrassia traces another epic sweep, originating with GM’s response to the Beetle. To counter its appeal, in 1959 GM brought out “the practical but problematic Chevrolet Corvair,” which in turn gave us an ascetic young lawyer named Ralph Nader, a book titled “Unsafe at Any Speed,” and a “lasting legacy” of what has become “America’s greatest growth industry: lawsuits.”

He sums up what he sees as Mr. Nader’s contributions in one of his splendid all-caps chapter headings: “THE CHEVY CORVAIR MAKES RALPH NADER FAMOUS, LAWYERS UBIQUITOUS, AND (EVENTUALLY) GEORGE W. BUSH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.”

Had the Corvairnot made Mr. Nader a national icon, the reasoning goes, he would never have run for president. Had he not been on the ballot in 2000, George Bush might have lost Florida. “And had it not been for the Corvair, Nader wouldn’t have been on the ballot.” Historically dubious, no doubt. But it moves the narrative.

Mr. Ingrassia frequently links presidencies with automobiles. Mr. Bush was proud of owning a white Ford F-250 Quad Cab pickup, in which he drove visitors such as Vladimir Putin around his ranch. During the Carter administration, American Motors introduced the Gremlin, a car with “a pug-ugly, chopped-off shape first sketched out on the back of [an] … airsickness bag” that symbolized the decade of “national ‘malaise,’ as President Jimmy Carter memorably put it.”

And Barack Obama? Mr. Ingrassia quotes from a piece in the Portland (Oregon) Mercury: “‘You have a Prius. You probably compost, sort all your recycling, and have a reusable shopping bag for your short drive to Whole Foods. You are the best! So, do we really need the Obama sticker?’ “

Mr. Ingrassia sums it up in his final chapter heading: “AN INNOVATIVE CAR (THE PRIUS), ITS INSUFFERABLE DRIVERS (THE PIOUS), AND THE ADVENT OF A NEW ERA.”

True, no doubt. But to his great credit, in this new era, he tells us one of his two personal favorites is the Ford Mustang (the other, largely for historic reasons, is the Corvair); and he spares us the pieties.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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