Friday, May 25, 2012

Engines of Change - The 15 Most Important Cars

Paul Ingrassia wanted to write about the 10 most important cars in American history. He ended up with 15--which is good because we get five more great stories. Ingrassia, who in 1993 shared the Pulitzer Prize with Joseph B. White for his work on management crises at General Motors, is more than qualified to write this new book. He was the Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Yeah, he knows his stuff.

Ingrassia's new book, Engines of Change -- A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, is next on my reading list, since I was lucky to get an autographed copy last night when he addressed the Western Automotive Journalists in the San Francisco Bay Area. But much like a college student at the last minute, I will issue my report without reading the actual book, but based on Ingrassia's amusing and insightful talk.

The 1908 Ford Model T is an obvious place to start. It changed the lives of  millions of people with inexpensive mobility and the $5-a-day jobs it created.

The 1927 LaSalle introduced luxury and style to the ancestors of the Yuppies. Folks loved the Model T but it was basic transportation.

The 1953 Corvette -- of course it's included -- but it was almost cancelled after one year and may have been an automotive footnote if not for the Russian Zora Arkus-Duntov, its designer and champion.

How about those towering fins on the 1959 Cadillac? Still an icon of 1950s excess.

Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus? Of course--the antithesis of the Cadillac. Back to basics. Sold in the U.S. so Germany could raise cash to rebuild their economy.

How about the Chevrolet Corvair? Vilified by Ralph Nader, it was a game changer, and the legal precedents came into play in the mid 1990's McDonalds hot coffee case.

The Ford Mustang? Drop a sexy body onto the lowly Falcon's platform and bingo. Secretaries become sexpots. An American legend for nearly 50 years.

The Pontiac GTO helped bring in the short-lived but socially significant muscle car era. It's important for the songs alone--Ronnie and the Daytonas' hit song is still played regularly.

The 1970s were in many ways tough times in the U.S. We had oil crises, Watergate, Disco. The car industry suffered, but a hero (and still champion) was the modest Honda Accord. A small car, it's big today--both in size and sales volume, and was the first to start American production of Japanese cars--common today.

The Gremlin--no, it's not on the list, but Ingrassia thought about it.

The Chrysler minivans were just what baby boomers needed in the 1980's and they became a whole new market segment, replacing the station wagon. Boomers had many less than happy memories of those family haulers. Hello, soccer moms (a new classification).

The BMW 3 Series and its ancestor, the 2002, saved the company and it's still the go-to sports sedan. It epitomized the 1980's style of success--nothing like the "fancy" large cars the Yuppies' parents coveted. The 3 still wins in the buff magazines.

Jeep? It made its reputation in World War II but was moribund until Chrysler bought it and created the Cherokee--the perfect vehicle for offroad intenders. Then came the LL Bean catalogue, Patagonia, and the other outdoor lifestyle products and nobody looked back.

The Ford F-150  pickup outsells everything else year after year. What could be more American? It's country music on wheels--and represents many things, including a huge voting bloc in the Red States.

What car is most important today? The Toyota Prius. It is the "Kleenex" of hybrids--universally recognized, loved and despised, and hugely popular (now four versions available) -- and truly significant.

And there you have it. Did he leave out anything? Can't wait to read the book. Then, I'll think about writing a actual book review.

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