Baby, You Can Drive My Car
Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek
Byline: Tony Dokoupil
A fast-moving history of the wheels we love.
Nearly everything about the Corvette screamed "do me," beginning with its chief engineer. Zora Arkus-Duntov was a lady's man. He chased girls in Nazi-era Berlin, and continued to do so long after he married one of them. By middle age, he was a rich, philandering Manhattanite, running his own engineering firm and racing cars for fun. Then he saw the first Corvette: a limited-edition 1953 model with exaggerated curves, removable top, sugar-white body, and red interior. Breathtaking, he thought.
But the car was a tease--slow and boring to drive. After seeing the prototype in New York, Arkus-Duntov talked his way onto the engineering team; in the decades to come, he turned the Corvette into "nothing short of a mating call," as he once put it, installing a powerful new V8 engine and buttery stick shift. He endeared the car to hot-rod culture, because he knew that older men and kids alike would buy the fantasy--as they continue to do to this day.
In the process, argues Paul Ingrassia in his new book Engines of Change, Arkus-Duntov built a car that changed America, bypassing the head to sell to the heart, not to mention points further south. "The eventual result was the rise of youth marketing and, for better or worse, nonstop commercials for pimple cream, designer jeans, and MTV," he writes.
It's a grand thesis, but grand is what Ingrassia is going for in a book he calls "a history of modern America in fifteen cars." Each chapter is a breezy, windows-down, radio-up review of how a particular piece of sheet metal and rubber "uniquely reflected the spirit of [its] age."
Ingrassia rolls the odometer back to Detroit's glory days, starting with Henry Ford's Model T. That sensationally simple car connected, he argues, because most Americans wanted a better horse, not a more sumptuous traveling coach, which is what most automakers were selling at the time. Between 1908 and 1927, the Model T outsold all other cars.
But modern American culture is "basically a big tug-of-war," he writes, "between the practical and the pretentious," and his history unfolds the same way. As the population tilted toward the cities, and glittering nightlife, "cars became vehicles for personal expression." General Motors exploited this shift with the 1927 LaSalle coupe, a French-inspired roadster "as refreshing as a Paris frock," as one reviewer put it. The Model T died the same year the LaSalle was born.
Every decade, Ingrassia suggests, gets the car it deserves. In the 1950s, after depression and war, automotive pretension reigned, culminating in the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz--longer than a sailboat and with tailfins nearly as tall as the roof. …