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Book Talk: 15 cars that shaped American life

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NEW YORK, April 26 – Author and journalist Paul Ingrassia is a passionate car buff who covered the automobile industry for more than 25 years, working for the Wall Street Journal and winning both a Pulitzer Prize and Gerald Loeb Award with Joseph B. White in 1993.
In his new book, “Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars,” Ingrassia, now the deputy editor-in-chief of Reuters, looks at motor vehicles such as Henry Ford’s Model T, the Chevy Corvette and the Chrysler Minivan and how each uniquely impacted American life.

Readers learn how tail fins were originally sold as safety devices, pickup trucks became potent political symbols and the ill-fated Chevy Corvair influenced presidential politics.

Ingrassia spoke about the impetus for the book, Detroit’s recovery and his favourite car.

Q: How did you get the idea for this project?

A: “What I like about the industry is that you can use it as a platform for writing about almost any major issue of our day: globalisation, technology, environmental issues, labour management issues, design, competition between companies and nations, and culture. It occurred to me one day that if you could trace the evolution of modern culture through music, why couldn’t you look at automobiles that sort of helped to shape the spirit of their time?”

Q: How did you decide what cars made the cut?

A: “I started by saying let’s look at cars that had a definable impact on American life and thought. So I made up a list. Originally it was just 10, but eventually it got to 15. Then I also went out to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, and they had almost all the cars I had on my list by coincidence. I talked to Bob Casey, the curator of transportation, and I said ‘Bob, here’s my hypothesis.’ And he said ‘Well, you’re pretty much right.’ I bounced it off other people. I also wanted to apply some academic-style research to this. I really wanted to delve deeply into documents and discussions with both experts and people who just happened to own these cars.”

Q: What do popular 2012 cars say about America today?

A: “They’re certainly more in the mold of the Prius than the GTO. We’re in a changing time in terms of not only environmental issues but also economic issues. There’s definitely a trend toward high-tech practicality in terms of fuel economy. At US$4 a gallon, what else would you expect?”

Q: Do cars inspire the same devotion these days among youth as electronic devices?

A: “A lot of people just like devices better. But automobiles are uniquely visible. They do provide you with something that electronic devices don’t, and that is physical mobility. The sexual revolution has sort of diminished the importance of cars too, because, I mean, you don’t need to go out and park somewhere to have an escapade these days. Back in the day, that was how it was done.”

Q: What do you make of the recovery in Detroit?

A: “The history of the auto industry is sort of like reading the Old Testament of the Bible: the companies are on the straight and narrow path, they’re doing fine, they’re doing so well that eventually hubris sets in and they go astray. They start worshiping a golden calf or two, and lose sight of what’s important to the customer. And then a crisis ensues. They repent, reform. So now we’re in the repentance phase. Will it last forever? Probably not.

“The other thing I would say is that the Detroit bailouts and bankruptcies were arguably the only successful domestic policy initiatives of the Obama Administration in his first term. What else was successful? The health care law? It passed, but it hasn’t taken effect yet, so you can’t argue that it’s been a success.

“His efforts to revive the economy? I think the jury is still out on that. And what I find instructive and maybe enlightening about what the president and his automotive task force did is instead of just throwing money at the same old broken system, they actually restructured the system, they spread the pain widely.”

Q: If you could only drive one car for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: “That’s sort of like saying, ‘Which of your children do you like best?’ I have a little 10-year-old BMW wagon that’s got 60,000 miles on it, and I just love it. It’s a very modest-sized engine – it’s a 6 cylinder engine and it’s 184 horse power. But the tight steering and the suspension, and the responsiveness, and the smoothness of the stick shift and all that – I just like those little BMWs.” – Reuters