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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars” by Paul Ingrassia

416 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-1451640632

Paul Ingrassia has chronicled the auto industry for more than twenty-five years as the former Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. As such, the writing style of Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars reflects this: the language really does seem directed towards the average 8th Grader, rather than to a full-grown adult. While Ingrassia deserves credit for his inspiration to write about how 15 different cars influenced the American dream, the book is so filled with errors, breathless mischaracterizations, and irritating stylistic furbelows as to seriously reduce its merit. Engines of Change could have been a good book, but as delivered it is poorly researched, sloppily edited, full of half-baked “explanations” of technical matters, cutesy phrases (if I ever see the phrase “as it were” again…) and, in many details, is just plain wrong. Ingrassia has the credentials; too bad he didn't take the time, and too bad his publisher never bothered to insist on quality. What’s that you say? You want examples? Well, here you are:

A few pages in we’re warned about the author’s carelessness when we come across “Austin-Healey” misspelled as “Austin-Healy”. Minor? I think not in a book of this sort. If you can't get the car names right, what have you got?

Bookending this egregious error, Ingrassia’s acknowledgments thank “Csaba Cera”, correctly known in the actual world of his journalistic eminence as “Csaba Csere”. Embarrassing? You bet.

In between these startling miscues is a photograph of what purports to be the Dodge display at the 1957 Detroit Auto Show – that actually pictures 1955 Dodges.

On page 116 Ingrassia chronicles Ed Cole’s 1952 seconding to Chevrolet to fix its manifold (OK, pun intended) problems. But he implies that one of Cole’s first tasks was to redesign an existing Chevy V8 engine whereas, in fact, Chevy did not have a V8 available for its cars until 1955. Let me be clear: the new V8 may have been redesigned under Cole’s leadership before it was ultimately introduced in 1955, but an impressionable reader could reasonably conclude from Ingrassia’s telling that Chevrolet already had a V8 in the model years between 1952 and 1955. This, of course, was not so, and I’m sure Mr. Ingrassia knows it was not so, but his writing is so fuzzy, so imprecise, so unimproved by a rigorous reading before publication, that he sows error by failure to be clear.

Moreover, he says that the ‘55 Chevy, whose grille has often been likened to one of a contemporary Ferrari (i.e. simple mesh) had “a toothy front grille”. It did not. Again, these may seem like small points, but they are unacceptable because, in fact, they distort the very history that the author is attempting to recount.

There is more. Read about the 1979 government bailout of Chrysler and be completely mystified. Ingrassia presents it as a fait accompli, but never tells us how it, over a great deal of opposition, came about.

Ingrassia’s book is a comic-book version of 20th & 21st Century American history, featuring tail fins, hippies, soccer Moms, yuppies, and red-staters. If only American history were so easy! (My favorite simplification is the wave-topping summary of the 70’s on pg. 192): “The car’s life spanned the decade of Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, two oil shocks, the Iranian hostage crisis, inflation, stagflation, and national ‘malaise’”). The descriptions of automotive history are similarly inconsistent, with detailed explanations of John Z. DeLorean’s wardrobe and personal life, contrasted with a one-paragraph passing mention of how Ed Cole single-handedly brought unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters to the US market (it this is really true, it deserves more exposition than it received). Finally, Ingrassia’s writing style is chatty and breezy, with repeated attempts at “cleverness” and detours into random areas of pop culture in an attempt to provide period “ambiance.” All told, this book was more like an extended magazine article in terms the depth of research, quality of writing, and clarity of theme. While automotive history is clearly interwoven with American history, this book doesn’t do either subject justice.

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