Author Interviews
4:37 am
Sat May 5, 2012

In 'Engines,' A History Of America Through Cars

Originally published on Sun May 6, 2012 8:26 am

You may know America by its cars. Sure, they suck up gas and promote suburban sprawl. But they also help drive the economy, and drive families from home to school to the soccer field. Cars also help spark another thing: imaginations.

Paul Ingrassia, who won a Pulitzer Prize at The Wall Street Journal for his reports from Detroit, has written a book about cars that may not include all the cherished classics or engineering marvels, but have earned a place in America's scrapbook.

His new book, Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, explores how the automobile industry defined — and revolutionized — trends in American culture. Ingrassia notes it was difficult to narrow down the list to 15, but in the end, he chose to feature cars that had a "definable impact" on Americans.

"When I looked at modern American culture, I sort of viewed it as this unending tug of war between the practical and the pretentious, between the ordinary and the ostentatious," he tells NPR's Scott Simon.

"And a lot of these forces that are reflected in society as a whole are actually reflected and symbolized and captured by different automobiles over the century-plus of America's automotive history."


Interview Highlights

On what the Chevy Corvette represented in America during the 1950s

"The 'Vette was actually introduced in 1953, and it was a remarkable watershed year in American history. If you think about it, it was the year that Elvis started recording music, it was the year that Hugh Hefner started Playboy, it was the year the Korean War finally ended. And you had this generation of Americans that had for the past quarter-century really grown up knowing the privation of the Great Depression, and the hardship and death and dislocation of war, but all of a sudden in 1953 it was peace, it was prosperity, and a generation of Americans really wanted to let loose. And here comes this car that, you know, is really designed for letting loose and living it up."

On how the Volkswagen Beetle — Adolf Hitler's pet car — became an icon for the peace, love and granola culture

"This car was invented by Ferdinand Porsche, but it was sponsored by Adolf Hitler. Just as pre-war production was about to begin, the war broke out, so production was suspended. After the war, it was saved by a British army officer who fell in love with the car and got the factory going again. American GIs drove Beetles, they brought them back, and it just sort of took off slowly, and more and more people bought it. What really happened, though, the intervening thing that happened here was that in the America of the '50s when, you know, the big tail-fin era, the Beetle was a way to show your disdain for that American conspicuous consumption culture."

On the Mustang of the baby boomer generation

"The remarkable thing about the Mustang, which came out in the spring of 1964, was that you could configure it pretty much any way you wanted. It was developed by Lee Iacocca, Hal Sperlich and a fellow named Don Frey at Ford. And what this car did was it caught the baby boomers just as they were coming of age, and really captivated them, partly because in its most basic form, the Mustang was a very inexpensive car, only $2,300 — about the price of a new fender today, if you will.

"Really, what the Mustang did — until that time, it's hard to believe now that two-car families were a rarity back then, and the Mustang, the great thing about it was, you know, a family could have a full-size station wagon, plus a sporty little car that mom or dad could drive around. So it really fostered two-car ownership in a major, major way."

On the status of the Prius

"First of all, it's a marvel of technology. But what really made the Prius take off was that Toyota gave it a distinctive shape. So unlike every other hybrid car out there on the road, you can instantly tell when someone's driving a Prius. So it really let people sort of wear their greenness on their sleeve."

On the future of the automobile industry

"There's been a lot of change in recent years. But the truth is, is that there's a lot of technological change coming, and it's really being pushed by high gasoline prices. And all we can say is that something's [going to] change in the future, but that change will probably be delayed for a while, as long as they keep making regular gasoline engines more and more efficient, and also cleaner, by the way."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You may know America by its cars...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR AD MONTAGE)

SIMON: Sure, cars suck up gas, and they promote suburban sprawl, but they also help drive the economy, and drive families from home to school to soccer field. And, of course, cars fire our imaginations. Paul Ingrassia, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Detroit for The Wall Street Journal, has written a book about cars that may not all be cherished classics or engineering marvels, but have earned a place in America's scrapbook. His new book, "Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars." Mr. Ingrassia, who is now deputy editor in chief of Reuters, joins us from our studios in New York. Thank so much for being with us.

PAUL INGRASSIA: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What put a car in this company of 15?

INGRASSIA: I wanted to write about automobiles that had a distinctive and definable impact on how we think and live as a people. When I looked at modern American culture, I sort of viewed it as this unending tug of war between the practical and the pretentious, between the ordinary and the ostentatious. And a lot of these forces that are reflected in society as a whole are actually reflected and symbolized and captured by different automobiles over the century-plus of America's automotive history.

SIMON: Let's ask you about a few, and we're going to introduce them in a particular way. Here, first car we want to ask you about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: There, a car with its own TV show, "Route 66."

INGRASSIA: Yes, exactly.

SIMON: Two guys driving across America in a Chevy Corvette. So, what did the 'Vette represent in America in the late '50s?

INGRASSIA: Well, the 'Vette was actually introduced in 1953, and it was a remarkable watershed year in American history. If you think about it, it was the year that Elvis started recording music. It was the year that Hugh Hefner started Playboy, it was the year the Korean War finally ended. And a generation of Americans really wanted to let loose, and here comes this car that, you know, is really designed for letting loose and living it up. But the truth is the car was really a lousy car to begin with. It had a weak six-cylinder engine, it didn't have a hardtop at all and the convertible top was notorious for leaking. And so after two years, General Motors was ready to kill the car, and a midlevel engineer at Chevrolet wrote these impassioned memos, skipping up several layers of management in which he makes the argument that, hey, this car will never sell in a lot of numbers but it can capture the hearts and imagination of young people, you'll sell a lot of your mainstream cars; which is exactly what the Corvette helped to do over the years.

SIMON: Let's ask you now about a car that broke the mold by keeping the same mold from year to year.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR AD PARODY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Introducing the 1952, 1953, '54, '55, '56, '57...

SIMON: Well, you get the idea. We're talking about the Volkswagen Beetle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And, Paul, I have to put the question this bluntly. How Did Adolph Hitler's pet car become an icon for the peace, love and granola culture?

INGRASSIA: What happened was that in the America of the '50s when, you know, the big tailfin era, the Beetle was a way to show your disdain for that American conspicuous consumption culture. The Volkswagen Beetle was the ideal car for poor people. It was small, reliable, functional - very economical. Poor people wouldn't be caught dead in a Volkswagen Beetle. They wanted the biggest piece of used Detroit iron they could find because, you know, poor didn't want to look poor. Rich people didn't want to look rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE MUSIC, "BULLITT")

SIMON: Another car to ask you about, the biggest demographic group in history, the baby boomers began to get their licenses in the mid 1960s. They wanted to look cool and their parents wanted to look like they weren't the parents of teenagers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREECHING CARS)

SIMON: And that's burning rubber from the 1968 film "Bullitt," starring, of course, Steve McQueen and a Ford Mustang...

INGRASSIA: And a Ford Mustang.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...on the streets of San Francisco. Jacqueline Bissett was in there too, as I recall.

INGRASSIA: Absolutely.

SIMON: Was the Mustang high-performance or just high-style?

INGRASSIA: Well, it was both. I mean, the remarkable thing about the Mustang, which came out in the spring of 1964, was that you could configure it pretty much any way you wanted. And what this car did was it caught the baby boomers just as they were coming of age, and really captivated them, partly because it was in its most basic form, the Mustang was a very inexpensive car, only $2,300 - about the price of maybe a new fender today, if you will.

SIMON: And now, finally we have a car for these times of costly gas and environmental anxieties.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PRIUS AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You get more power and more space. The world gets fewer smog-forming emissions.

SIMON: The Prius. Now, I must say you seem to rather like the Prius. It's Prius owners you find can be a little irritating

INGRASSIA: Well, you know, they're...

SIMON: With all due regard to I'm sure it must be the 75 percent of our audience who has one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INGRASSIA: Well, first of all, it's a marvel of technology. But what really made the Prius take off was that Toyota gave it a distinct shape. So unlike every other hybrid car out there on the road, you can instantly tell when someone's driving a Prius. So it really let people sort of wear their greenness on their sleeve, Scott.

SIMON: There's a famous Larry David episode that you find particularly telling.

INGRASSIA: Yes, in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where I mean, basically the Prius is a character in the show, if you will. And Larry waves to another Prius driver. The Prius owner does not wave back and Larry immediately takes off in hot pursuit and he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

LARRY DAVID: (as Larry David) I waved to a man in a Prius and he didn't wave back.

JEFF GARLIN: (as Jeff Greene) I don't wave to people in the same car as me.

DAVID: (as Larry David) Well, we're Prius drivers. We're a special breed.

GARLIN: (as Jeff Greene) Special breed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Paul, there's been a recent spike in auto sales. But is the technology of the car dated? Are there things just over the horizon that will replace it?

INGRASSIA: Well, there's a lot of technological change coming, and it's really being pushed by high gasoline prices. If you look at this, it's not clear whether hybrids are going to win or hi-tech conventional gasoline engines or pure electric cars, or whether they'll be hydrogen-powered fuel cells, or natural gas cars, for that matter.

All we can say is that something's going to change in the future. But that change will probably be delayed for a while, as long as they keep making regular gasoline engines more and more efficient, and also cleaner, by the way

SIMON: Paul Ingrassia, his new book "Engines Of Change: A History Of The American Dream In Fifteen Cars." Paul, thanks so much.

INGRASSIA: Thank you, Scott, pleasure to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSTANG SALLY")

WILSON PICKETT: (Singing) Mustang Sally, huh, ha, guess you better slow your Mustang down...

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.