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Symbols of America’s automotive dreams

Book profiles cars that defined their time

Published September 28, 2012

There is a photograph of my Uncle Armand, nattily dressed as was his wont, standing by his Depression-era Pontiac. He has a grin of pure pleasure. “How he loved that car,” my cousin tells me.

The years went by, but Armand Marchand, who loved elegant things, stayed loyal to Pontiac. By comparison, my father’s Ford Country Squire station wagon, used to haul groceries from the local A&P, was an ungainly workhorse. We kids were almost ashamed of it, in comparison to my uncle’s set of wheels.

Somewhere over those decades, Pontiac acquired a reputation as an old man’s car, according to Paul Ingrassia, author of the recently published Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars.

Whether my uncle was aware of this reputation, I do not know. Pontiac tried to reverse it by embracing stock-car racing and then, under the leadership of John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac’s chief engineer, by offering a muscle car, the Pontiac GTO.

One of Ingrassia’s 15 cars “that either changed American society or uniquely captured the spirit of their time,” the Pontiac GTO fuelled a boom in street racing among adolescents and symbolized youthful rebellion in the late 1960s.

Cars bearing the name Pontiac are no more. They are gone, although part of an American dreamscape in which my now-departed uncle, nattily dressed as ever, still cruises the highways of America in his latest Pontiac.

It all began, of course, with the Model T. With its cheapness, availability of spare parts and what Ingrassia terms a light and reliable design, the car was the example par excellence of the practical.

The downfall of the Model T is equally well-known, one of the great cautionary tales of American business. The car embodied one pole of the industry, the practical. The other pole was pretension.

If Henry Ford was a wizard at manufacturing efficiency, his rivals at General Motors were adept at marketing and came up with the “exuberantly stylish” La Salle, a companion to the Cadillac but, according to Ingrassia, “smaller, lighter and sportier.”

Ingrassia reports the car was unveiled at a ceremony in which a young woman broke a bottle of champagne over its radiator. “Lovely creation of many minds and hearts and hands, go forth into the highways and byways of the world,” she declared. “I christen thee, LaSalle.”

War and depression put a temporary end to car development, but by the end of the Korean War in 1953, Americans were eager for pleasures behind the wheel. The desire was most satisfactorily answered by the Corvette, a Chevrolet sports car engineered by a freewheeling male genius named Zora Arkus-Duntov. (Ingrassia’s history is full of such men.)

So durable and so influential has been the Corvette that Duntov’s 1953 memo inspiring the car, entitled “Thoughts pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet,” hangs on the wall of the Corvette Museum, as if it were a great historical document — which it is.

The most notorious manifestation of the roaring 50s — an era in which Americans were earning and spending at a rate unknown to history — was the tail fin.

Chrysler and Cadillac vied with each other for the most aerodynamically massive set of fins, a competition finally won by the 1959 Cadillac, a land yacht that also featured a 300-plus-horsepower V8 engine, lavish chrome on the double-decker headlights and what Ingrassia calls “a mawlike front grille.”

Intellectuals sneered at the tail fin as a symbol of Eisenhower-era status seeking, but the car companies claimed, presumably with a straight face, that they were actually a safety feature. They were “directional stabilizers.”

Reaction came in the 1960s in the form of the Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus, symbols not of conformity but of the “Hippie” counterculture.

At the same time, Chevrolet launched its Corvair, described by Ingrassia as “a Beetle for Americans, big enough to haul a family and stylish enough to appeal to mainstream buyers.”

Unfortunately, the Corvair owes its presence on Ingrassia’s list not so much because it was a good and distinctive car, but because it became the target of a lawyer crusading against corporate malfeasance.

The first chapter of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, accused Corvair makers of cost-cutting at the expense of safety — attempting to remedy the car’s tendency for rear-end spinouts, for example, by offering stabilizer bars as an option.

Ingrassia notes that a 1972 government panel reported “the handling and stability performance of the 1960-’63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover,” thus, in a sense, vindicating the car.

It didn’t matter. Nader lost that battle, but won his war, with far-reaching effects on American culture, notably an increase in product-liability lawsuits. Ingrassia quotes one Corvair aficionado: “The Model T put Americans on the road. The Corvair put us in the hands of lawyers.”

Happy stories dominate the book: the stunning success of the Ford Mustang in winning the hearts of baby boomers; the success of the Chrysler minivan in winning the hearts of soccer moms; and the success of BMWs in winning the hearts of Yuppies, with their arugula salads and their creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

The Honda Accord earns a place on this list of 15, not only because it provided “safe, reliable and enjoyable driving,” according to Ingrassia, but because its American factories helped reverse the effects of the 1970s, a low point in American car design and manufacturing.

Revived Jeeps and pickup trucks, notably the Ford F-Series, made the transition from the practical pole of car making to the pretentious pole.

Finally, the Toyota Prius, in the dawn of the 21st Century, not only became the first genuine, mass-market hybrid in history but received the environmental stamp of approval from Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

At the outset of this entertaining and authoritative history, the author notes the “modern fascination with electronic devices” and concedes that, “for many people, especially those under 35, cars aren’t nearly as important as iPads, iPods, cellphones, apps, personal computers and BlackBerries.”

At the same time, he notes wryly, the Beach Boys sang a song about a drag race, called “Shut Down,” but nobody has yet recorded one called “Download.”

The point is apt. You could come up with a long list of songs about American cars and motorcycles: “Dead Man’s Curve,” about a race between a Corvette and a Jaguar XKE (Jan and Dean); “Mustang Sally” (Wilson Pickett); “Fun, Fun, Fun,” about a Ford Thunderbird (The Beach Boys); “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” about a Super Stock Dodge (Jan and Dean); “G.T.O.” (Ronny and the Daytonas); “Little Honda” (The Beach Boys).

Ingrassia also notes that the theme song for the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, “Those Were the Days,” contained the line, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.”

There are songs about cars but none about computers, because cars remain an experience involving the body, as opposed to the intensely cerebral experience of electronic devices.

The day we stop dreaming about cars, something will have died in us.

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