The Truth About Cars » Book Review The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 16 Jan 2015 18:38:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Book Review Book Review: No Time to Cry by Wilmer Cooksey, Jr. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 11:30:57 +0000 “On one occasion I was called out into the yard because there had been a shooting. A guard, a line worker and a car thief had been shot. The thief had been wounded gravely by the guard and was bleeding but he had made it into the cab of the car hauler and had driven […]

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“On one occasion I was called out into the yard because there had been a shooting. A guard, a line worker and a car thief had been shot. The thief had been wounded gravely by the guard and was bleeding but he had made it into the cab of the car hauler and had driven for some distance before he crashed and was caught.”

The line worker probably wasn’t an unfortunate bystander, relates former Corvette plant manager Wil Cooksey in his gritty, totally human and completely engrossing autobiography No Time to Cry. At General Motors’ St. Louis assembly plant in the mid-70s, claims Cooksey, hourly workers were often accomplices to professional car thieves. These criminals planned armed raids on storage lots with the help of plant insiders, leading to occasionally deadly results. In Cooksey’s account, St. Louis resembles a battleground more than a car plant, emblematic of the worst of the bad old days of the American auto industry. This book isn’t just a rehash of the “GM dysfunction” genre pioneered by John Z. Delorean, though. As the story of a fascinating American life, No Time to Cry is a compelling read.

As a production engineer working his way up the GM ranks, Cooksey had plenty of time to observe the inner workings of one of America’s most powerful corporations. Before that, he was a poor black kid from Texas with an absent father and a mother that struggled to provide for her seven children. With some guidance, he managed to get into Tennessee State University in Nashville and earn a degree in electrical engineering. While at TSU he met his future wife Liz, who became his soul mate despite the obstacles between them. He moved on to a job as a process engineer with General Mills in Toledo, but soon, war intervened. He was drafted and after completing Officer Candidates’ School was sent to Vietnam. The experience would haunt him for the rest of his life, but it did contain one positive development. A chance encounter with a new Sting Ray in Hawaii turned him into a passionate Corvette lover, and helped change the direction of his career. After the war, he was hired to teach at the General Motors Institute in Flint. He transferred to the St. Louis assembly plant a few years later, in pursuit of his dream of managing Corvette production.

What emerges from Cooksey’s account of his sojourn through various GM plants is a picture of a company marked by sharp contrasts. St. Louis embodied virtually every stereotype of American auto plants in the 70s: racial animosity, workplace violence, sabotage, absenteeism, alcoholism and substance abuse. Cooksey claims he hid a revolver in his car and carried a six inch blade out of concern for his own safety. He describes being sucked into the toxic culture of the plant, where both management and hourly workers got loaded in the bar across the street as their coping mechanism. This, combined with the unwanted advances of many of the plant’s single women, nearly destroyed Cooksey’s marriage. However, he was able to patch things up with his wife and move to the Doraville, Georgia assembly plant, temporarily distancing himself from Corvette production.

Labor relations at Doraville weren’t great, but they were a marked improvement from St. Louis. Cooksey was able to surround himself with a cadre of trusted advisors, and made some progress on improving both quality and productivity. He had his easiest time as manager at Fairfax Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri, which he describes as a “joy” to manage. He chalked this up to differences in plant culture, brought about by a combination of both management and labor tactics. Cooksey is harshly critical of the UAW at times, as one might expect of a production supervisor. In St. Louis he describes the union as a “fierce, three-headed, Hydra-monster” that eventually brought about the plant’s demise. He does strive to make a distinction between the union and individual workers, the majority of whom he defends as good employees. Some, such as an unnamed “informant” at the Bowling Green plant, were essential to helping Cooksey stamp out persistent safety violations and improve quality and productivity. Labor only absorbs one part of Cooksey’s criticism.

Cooksey’s struggles with upper management, especially after he landed his dream job supervising Corvette production at Bowling Green in 1993, compose a large part of the text. He describes a dedicated core of “Corvette people” including himself, product engineers such as Tadge Juechter, management executive Joe Spielman, and Corvette marketing director Harlan Charles. They clashed with other managers and departments on a variety of issues, especially in terms of quality control. It was Cooksey who made the decision to halt production of the then-new C5 Corvette in 1997 to address persistent quality issues, a moment that he describes as one of the lowest points of his career. Despite these setbacks, his time in Bowling Green was more than just gloom and doom. The plant became one of GM’s best for initial quality under his tenure, winning numerous internal and external awards. He retired in early 2008, shortly before GM went under and he was left with a stack of worthless stocks. Those looking for a long discourse on the bailout will be disappointed, but Cooksey’s insights into the daily running of an auto plant are more enjoyable anyway.

At $3.99 for the Kindle edition, this book is a steal. Or, you can get a signed hard copy from the Corvette Museum like I did. Either way, you’re getting one of the best auto industry memoirs of recent years, and a must-have for any Corvette diehard. It’s littered with the kind of trivia and insights that can only come from someone as intimately involved with production as Cooksey was. The biographical side is what makes this book, though: the human passion and pain of a man trying to build a life and a legacy side-by-side, one Corvette at a time.

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Book Review: Stealing Cars Tue, 22 Jul 2014 10:30:28 +0000 TTAC’s had periodic posts about car theft, from a recent news item on a student project disappearing in the night (here) to hacking into a car (here and here). A recent book however provides a, well, book-length treatment. Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino ( Johns Hopkins, 2014. ISBN […]

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TTAC’s had periodic posts about car theft, from a recent news item on a student project disappearing in the night (here) to hacking into a car (here and here). A recent book however provides a, well, book-length treatment.

Stealing Cars: Technology & Society from the Model T to the Gran Torino ( Johns Hopkins, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4214-1297-9) is an examination of the phenomenon of car theft through the era of the automobile. Authors John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales lead off with this quote

“‘When I leave my machine at the door of a patient’s house I am sure to find it there on my return. Not always so with the horse: he may have skipped off as the result of a flying paper or the uncouth yell of a street gamin, and the expense of broken harness, wagon, and probably worse has to be met.’ That solitary impression soon proved to be wrong.” (p. 7)

First, there’s the historian at work, ranging from the first report of car theft in the Horseless Age of 1902, to the new methods of stealing cars noted on TTAC. Then there’s the organization behind it, or the lack thereof: from joyriding and local transportation in the early days (90% of all thefts, corresponding to a 90% recovery rate), to criminal operations seeking entire cars or merely parts – from pulling tires off cars during the WWII era of rationing rubber to cartels today paying for stolen cars with drugs. This thread is backed by an appendix with tables of data.

Then there’s the response to car theft, from the individual level to the lobbying of insurance companies. Technological responses were one avenue. These ranged from ignition keys (though the Model T only had 24 types of keys, with the type stamped on both the key and the starter plate; p. 12) to digital rolling codes tied required to enable the ECU (engine control unit computer). As the authors detail, all had defects – and all can be circumvented by stealing a key. Institutional responses began with the 1919 Dyer Act; for decades a central focus of the FBI was car theft, helped because it so frequently crossed crossed borders. Over time this extended to a system VINs and car registrations that sought to make it hard to remarket stolen parts or to get a stolen vehicle titled. Again, this system has holes. Finally there are sociological responses, particularly the development of garages and gated communities (pp. 73-77).

International theft figured from early on. Canada and Mexico were natural destinations, but on the East Coast rings such as that headed by Gabriel “Bla-Bla Blackman” Vigorito for over two decades (1930s-1950s) shipped cars to Europe and South America, grossing over $1 million in 1952 (pp. 61-3). The book is particularly detailed on the Mexican connection, reflecting the particular contribution of Morales. But it’s also empirically important: the top 10 theft “hot spots” stretch from Washington State through California, particularly near intersections of major highways that are trans-shipment points for drugs (Chapter 5 and Table 4.5 p. 173).

Then there is the depiction of car theft; Heitmann is a devoted watcher of movies and more generally an observer of automotive culture (the subject of an earlier book). Scattered throughout are references to a dozen-plus films, a handful of novels, and of course computer games. Press stories on car theft, ads for gadgets, and other miscellany are sprinkled throughout the book. Then there’s the racial aspect: joyriding whites were shuttled to dad, blacks were carted to prison. That was fine with J Edgar Hoover.

All of this makes for a fun book, and a quick read (159 pages of text). However it’s also disjointed; the authors love anecdotes, and don’t want to leave the best out. The narrative suffers, but quite frankly most on TTAC would probably rather have the anecdotes than the narrative. The book has no maps and only a few photos; it should have more! Likely the publisher resisted, and the authors wanted to get it done. It certainly is not because they lack in such materials: I invited John Heitmann to speak to my auto industry students in May 2014, and he came with a fascinating array of powerpoint slides and additional tales. (For those who want more, join the Society of Automotive Historians (of which he is currently president) or read through his essay on sources and copious footnotes.)

For additional quotes and details, see student journal entries on five chapters under the “Stealing Cars” pull-down menu on the Economics 244 Auto Industry web site at Order your own copy from Amazon as either an inexpensive hardcover or for Kindle.

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Book Review: Roadside Relics by Will Shiers Thu, 01 Dec 2011 18:00:44 +0000 It’s that time of year, with the clock ticking on your shopping for Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and the ease of buying books online makes them such low-hassle gifts. You want to give that special car-freak on your gift list a nice coffee-table book, but everybody’s coffee table seems to be creaking beneath the weight of books full […]

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It’s that time of year, with the clock ticking on your shopping for Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and the ease of buying books online makes them such low-hassle gifts. You want to give that special car-freak on your gift list a nice coffee-table book, but everybody’s coffee table seems to be creaking beneath the weight of books full of photos of gleaming classic/exotic cars. Boring! The solution: this book full of photos of abandoned cars!
I admit it, I’m a sucker for beat-to-hell, forgotten cars in desolate landscapes.
Author Shiers drove all over the continental United States and shot cars in junkyards, on farms, near abandoned gas stations, and all manner of picturesque locations. The Upper Midwest and desert Southwest get special attention, but there’s at least one shot from each region of the country.
Each photo has a caption describing the scene in which the car was captured on film, plus a bit of the car’s historical background.
Shiers has the photography skills to make the whole package work; I’ve been through this book more than once (while other review books sit for months in my on-deck stack) and it’s going to live in a high-traffic spot on my office bookshelf.
Technically, this isn’t a true coffee-table book, in that it’s a large paperback, but who cares when you can get it for just $14.99.
I’m going to give this one a four-rod rating (out of a possible five OM617 rods). Murilee says check it out!

Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd 9780760339848 Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Rating-4ConRods-200px Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Book Review: Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business Fri, 24 Jun 2011 18:50:46 +0000 I can’t say that I was completely surprised when, about two thirds of the way through Bob Lutz’s new book Car Guys vs Bean Counters, I caught a sideswipe at myself and The Truth About Cars, which the retired Vice-Chairman of GM describes as a Web site that often offers anything but. After all, TTAC […]

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I can’t say that I was completely surprised when, about two thirds of the way through Bob Lutz’s new book Car Guys vs Bean Counters, I caught a sideswipe at myself and The Truth About Cars, which the retired Vice-Chairman of GM describes as

a Web site that often offers anything but.

After all, TTAC and “Maximum Bob” have long been sparring partners, and were indirectly debating the fate and fortunes of General Motors well before I ever started writing about cars. What was surprising was that this passing shot at TTAC’s credibility would actually help bring us, two presumptive arch-enemies in the world of automotive ideas, to a better understanding of each other. The exchange that a single paragraph prompted taught me that, against all odds, Bob and I share a fundamental character trait: we are at our best when we’ve been goaded into action by a no-holds-barred call-out. In celebration of this shared value, let’s take off the gloves and give Car Guys the unflinching look it deserves.

Like almost everything that has ever issued from the mind of Robert Anthony Lutz, Car Guys vs Bean Counters is defined by his maximum maxim “often wrong, but never in doubt.” As you might expect, this perspective produces writing that possesses many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the cars Lutz oversaw. The prose is direct and authentic, as unmistakably the product of one man’s vision as a Viper or Volt. And like those definitive Lutz-mobiles, Car Guys offers a seductive vision that tickles every erogenous zone in the “car guy” worldview, resulting in a flood of uncritical fawning from the motor press. But, like the Volt and Viper, Car Guys is also a deeply compromised proposition, in which profound insights reside next door to excuses, misdirection and questionable self-congratulation.

Like Guts before it, Car Guys is at its best when Lutz is describing the inner workings of the companies he helped run. His ability to draw a straightforward narrative from the complexity of not only a giant multinational corporation, but its historical and economic context as well is not surprising given his well-known affinity for “cutting through the crap.” Lutz has long admitted to being something of a holdover from another era, a man who has reveled in being contemptuously out-of-step with mainstream American culture since the turmoil of 1960s. This perspective allows him to wade through the complexity of GM’s decades-long fall from grace, a topic that has inspired hundreds of “GM Deathwatch” articles here at TTAC, in fewer than 70 pages. And though the narrative slips by with disarming clarity, fueled by a writing style that is authoritative yet personal, like an after-class conversation over a stiff drink with a favorite professor, one can’t help but feel that Lutz is perhaps too talented at boiling down complexity for his own good.

After a fantastic preface and a brief introduction to his 2001 return to GM, Lutz opens his narrative with paean to The General’s post-war golden age, in which “true car guys” like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell ran GM with inspired abandon, behaving badly while producing cars that became eternal symbols of America’s finest hour. It’s a natural subject for Lutz, who clearly identifies with this bygone era, and he blows through its good, bad and ugly aspects with insight and pith (if, perhaps, too much sympathy for those who failed to see the gathering stormclouds). But when the thunder starts rolling in the early to mid-1970s, not coincidentally around the same that Lutz began to see himself as a man apart from his times, Lutz’s unshakeable sense of certitude becomes more of a liability than an asset.

Any book with a title that includes the word “versus” can be expected to be well-stocked with villains, and certainly GM’s “bean counters” are the obvious candidate. After the excesses of the Mitchell era, in which design exercised haphazard (if successful) dominance, Lutz argues that GM’s “Empire of finance, accounting, law and order… struck back,” as design became a “link in the chain” rather than the ultimate source of GM’s success. The replacement of Mitchell with Irv Rybicki in 1977 is identified as the turning point in the balance of power between GM’s “car guys” and “bean counters,” and with that sea change, Lutz argues

Waste, arrogance and hubris are never desirable characteristics, but the company rid itself of these at a terrible price. The ebullient, seductive volcano of creation had been transformed into a quiet mountain with a gently smoking hole at the top, spewing forth mediocrity upon mediocrity. This shift to the predictable, so seductive to the bean counters, destroyed the company’s ability to compete and conquer.

It’s a compelling argument, and Lutz supports it well with insights into the accompanying shifts in culture at GM design and product development. But Car Guys‘ cast of villains isn’t limited to GM’s overly-left-brained, clueless-about-the-product finance chiefs. Or, as Lutz puts it, “not all wounds were self-inflicted.” And this is where things start to fall apart.

After devoting six pages of the chapter “The Beginning Of The End,” Lutz goes on to spend the remaining 22 pages blaming forces outside of GM’s control for the firm’s epic, slow-motion collapse. The UAW, which traditionally gets a lot of blame for not just the decline of GM but for the entire downturn of America’s auto industry, is actually let off quite easily, as Lutz argues that GM’s inability to confront the union was

a tragedy with no heroes, but also no villains.

But Lutz is not simply repeating the old maxim that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. His cast of villains in GM’s decades of tragedy is legion: government regulators, Japanese currency manipulators, environmentalists, trial lawyers and above all, the media, are all attacked with vigor, leading to the distinct impression that GM was victim of the short-sighted stupidity of others. This is the ultimate contradiction of Car Guys: though the title sets up an internal conflict within GM, Lutz spends so much space blaming outsiders for GM’s woes that, by a third of the way through, it begins to feel more like apologia than clear-eyed soul-searching. And reinforcing this perception is the fact that the very first words of Car Guys are

This book is dedicated to the hard working men and women, at all levels, hourly and salaried, in the domestic US automobile industry. The problems, mostly, were not your fault!

Of course it must then be asked whether Lutz’s villains actually deserve their apportioned amount of blame, as this question of fact decides whether Lutz is a thoughtful student of GM’s (and Detroit’s) history, or an unrepentant apologist. On the issue of CAFE regulation, Lutz argues convincingly that

A programmed, gradual rise in fuel taxation, along the European model, would have caused consumers to think of the future consequences of today’s purchase and would have provided a natural incentive to move down a notch, opting for six cylinders instead of eight, midsize sedans instead of large.

Lutz goes on to explain in persuasive detail (with help from Jack Hazen) how the CAFE-inspired whiplash led to GM’s disastrous wholesale shift to front-drive and smaller cars. But his logic falls short in the sense that he fails to assign blame for GM’s inability to foresee energy constraints or to engineer competent solutions to it. The argument, in essence, is that foreign competitors hadn’t been lulled into complacency by artificially-low gas prices, and had long invested in fuel-efficient platforms and technologies. And yet no connection is ever made between GM’s “golden age” culture of style-driven excess and the erosion of engineering investments which led to GM’s desultory efforts in the 1970s and 80s. The government’s lack of foresight and and courage, rather than GM’s, is unfairly awarded the brunt of Lutz’s criticism.

Once on this trajectory, Lutz goes on to argue that Japan’s currency manipulation and “airtight protectionist umbrella,” a worn-out hobbyhorse of Detroit apologists with no strong documentation beyond vague Cold War geopolitical theory, combined with the fuel-efficiency experience of the Japanese automakers lent the foreign invaders a “teachers pet” image that was, in the words of Hazen, “eagerly snapped up by the liberal anti-US corporation media.” He only mentions Toyota’s crucial innovations in production and corporate culture only to note that they did not initially spread from NUMMI to the rest of GM with much success, but then goes on to indict Toyota-inspired “Total Quality Excellence” consultants for misleading GM’s leaders into a fog of meaningless numbers.

After defending the UAW (presumably also from the “liberal media,” despite the fact that his “solution” amounts to universal healthcare and little else), Lutz devotes much of the remaining blame to the media. I certainly sympathize with the frustration at a press crops that too often clings to convenient storylines rather than seeking a more complex truth, but what Lutz seems to miss as he rips into the media with gusto, is that his counter-narrative is no more subtle nor intrinsically true than the “import good, Detroit bad” perspective he savages. More importantly, his media-conspiracy boogeyman ignores the elephant in the room: had GM made even a few extremely good products during the 70s, 80s and 90s, its moribund reputation might well have been rehabilitated. At the end of the day, Lutz’s villains seem to be little more than glorified context, the backdrop for the real story: GM’s lack of vision, courage and competence.

Luckily, though Lutz doesn’t do enough to allocate blame where it was due, his return to GM gives him occasion to describe what decades of decline had wrought at the RenCen. Sclerotic bureaucracy, visionless leadership, enslavement to meaningless metrics and the resulting uninspired products are all on hand for Lutz’s 2001 return to GM, as if Japanese perfidy, governmental timidity and media criticism had somehow infected one of the world’s largest corporations with a cancer that had inexorably metastasized to corrupt every level of GM’s organization (except for trucks and SUVs, which magically continued to display an inexplicable immunity to these diseases). Of course these faults operate as implicit assignments of blame, but rather than dwelling on their causes (with the exception of Japanese-inspired “Total Quality Excellence experts”), Lutz uses them as his foil for the remainder of the book.

As he dissects inane corporate initiative after wasted resource in the immediate aftermath of his return to the RenCen, Lutz once again hits his stride. And yet, in an almost strange turn of consistency, his shift from apology for, to criticism of GM occurs without the sense of interpersonal conflict that one would expect in such a transition. In what is likely part insightful truth and part gentlemanly whitewash, Lutz frames his battle as being not with any one “bean counter” but a faceless (and therefore, blameless) culture in which management-by-the-numbers outweighed personal accountability. Lutz identifies individual “true believers” who he recruited in his design and product-led transformation of The General, but essentially absolves the thousands of others, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner, of any responsibility for GM’s continued decline and eventual collapse.

Luckily the portions of the book describing his efforts at turning around GM’s culture are extremely engaging, and will probably be the most insightful of the book to regular TTAC readers. As a commentator on GM’s fortunes over the last three years, I certainly wish I could have been more exposed to these internal battles over design conception, sheet metal techniques, perceptual quality, global vision and consumer-orientation as they were playing out in real time. The extent to which GM had gone down the “bean counter” rabbit hole is eye-popping, and Lutz clearly relished the challenge of working his “creative destruction” upon the staid, uncreative product development process.

The Lutz-led revolution at GM appropriately culminates in the Chevrolet Volt, a concept born wholly of the Lutzian gut and inspired by competitive pique at the Prius’s success and the conviction that Americans would not accept the limitations of pure-electric cars. The Volt’s genesis is both a tribute to the right-brained, inspiration-dependent, individual-driven culture that Lutz champions, but as I pointed out in the NY Times op-ed that Lutz disparages in the book, the single-minded pursuit of an epiphany can create serious compromises. To wit:

General Motors introduced America to the Chevrolet Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show as a low-slung concept car that would someday be the future of motorized transportation. It would go 40 miles on battery power alone, promised G.M., after which it would create its own electricity with a gas engine. Three and a half years — and one government-assisted bankruptcy later — G.M. is bringing a Volt to market that makes good on those two promises. The problem is, well, everything else.

But Lutz remains convinced “Volt is the future,” and attacks “the lunatic left and the vocal right” along with “inveterate GM haters” who doubt the Volt’s promise (I wonder where I fit there). He blames much of the anti-Volt sentiment on the bailout, which, like GM’s initial fall from grace in the 1970s, he blames more on external forces than any fundamental failing on GM’s part. He concludes with optimism for GM’s post-bailout future, but waxes pessimistic about the state of American culture and business. His lessons here are valuable, and build to an inspiring call to substitute pride of product for short-term profit-seeking, a vision I certainly relate to as I seek to guide TTAC around the soulless, PR and SEO-driven “path to success” that so many blogs and websites follow and are well-rewarded for. At the end of the day (or in this case, the book), it’s good to know that intrinsic quality has a noisy advocate in the corporate world.

But with Lutz’s ultimate legacy at GM still undecided (as his goal was to create a sustainable culture of excellence that is not yet undeniable), it’s hard not to take much of his work with a grain of salt. After all, the Solstice/Sky may have defied most perceptions of GM at the time with its rapid, design-forward development, but couldn’t it have benefitted from some measured, left-brain analysis of such trifling metrics as interior ergonomics, and roof operation? Again, Lutz’s choice of title is instructive: in his “pre-complexity” perspective, the way forward was a war between two extremes… a reflection perhaps of what he describes in Guts as “a certain duality of mind.” Hopefully future generations can learn from the struggle that he frames, but with the recognition that his struggle is not eternal. After nearly 100 years spent under the spell of either out-of-control “car guys” or unimaginative “bean counters” one hopes the new GM (and, indeed, the entire business community) understands that sustainable success requires both sides working in harmony towards a common cause.

Car Guys vs Bean Counters is available at, and other fine book retailers.

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Book Review: Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker Thu, 10 Feb 2011 15:00:12 +0000 A proper coffee-table car book ought to be heavy on the grainy action photos, light on the words, and include photographs of Škoda 1101 Sports and Renault 4CVs at Le Mans. Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 qualifies for inclusion in even the most crowded coffee-table real estate. Normally, I give review copies away after […]

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A proper coffee-table car book ought to be heavy on the grainy action photos, light on the words, and include photographs of Škoda 1101 Sports and Renault 4CVs at Le Mans. Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 qualifies for inclusion in even the most crowded coffee-table real estate.

Normally, I give review copies away after I’m done with them, lest I run out of shelf space for my collection of Nixon biographies and Emile Zola novels, but this one is a keeper. In fact, this shot of Ak Miller from the 1954 Carrera Panamericana is going to be sliced out, framed, and hung on my office wall.

The book is broken down by year, with a chapter for each year of the 1950s and a breakdown of teams, drivers, and results for each year. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs were shot at European events, though we do get a few from Sebring and other New World events. Here’s Jack Fairman behind the wheel of an XK120 at Dundrod in 1951.

Porfirio Rubirosa digging his car out of a ditch!

Those who enjoy drooling over photos of 1950s Ferraris and Maseratis will find their Italian car-porn needs amply satisfied with this book; there’s even something for the Osca aficionados.

This is a Haynes book, written by a Brit for the British market, which means that some of the photo captions contain near-disturbing levels of attention to detail. You’ll also get some double-take-inducing Anglocryptic turns of phrase, e.g., “…their dominance was interrupted by Jean Behra’s Gordini biffing Tony Rolt’s D Type up the bum at Thillois on lap 21.” Biffing up the bum! No matter— I’ll take this over the “Go Dog Go” style I slog through in some of the drag-racing books I won’t be reviewing.

This fine book earns a Four Rod Rating (out of a possible OM615-grade five). Murilee says check it out!

Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker
SCRIC-14 9781844255528 SCRIC-01 SCRIC-02 SCRIC-03 SCRIC-04 SCRIC-05 SCRIC-06 SCRIC-07 SCRIC-08 SCRIC-09 SCRIC-10 SCRIC-11 SCRIC-12 SCRIC-13 Rating-4ConRods-200px Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Book Review: Overhaul: An Insider’s Account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry Sat, 08 Jan 2011 18:10:00 +0000 John McElroy recently quit the Automotive Press Association because they invited Steven Rattner, former head of the government’s auto industry task force, to speak. He warned, “If you want to read [his] book, DON’T BUY IT. Get it from your local library, because Steven Rattner is a rat who doesn’t deserve a dime of anyone’s […]

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John McElroy recently quit the Automotive Press Association because they invited Steven Rattner, former head of the government’s auto industry task force, to speak. He warned, “If you want to read [his] book, DON’T BUY IT. Get it from your local library, because Steven Rattner is a rat who doesn’t deserve a dime of anyone’s money.” What he didn’t say: don’t read the book. And with good reason: it’s well-written, insightful, and definitely worth reading.

McElroy has repeatedly attacked Rattner’s character, even ripping on his last name, Fast Times at Ridgemont High style. He notes that Rattner was an investor in Cerberus before serving on the task force, likely used his influence to keep the media from covering his wife’s DUI, and was involved in a kickback scheme with the New York pension fund. I don’t doubt that this is all true, but still see insufficient grounds for such a vehement reaction.

Rattner’s book clearly involved a lot of hard work. He did not simply write up his own recollections. Instead, he claims to have interviewed many of the people involved, and impressive levels of detail and accuracy confirm this. The average book by a seasoned automotive journalist is shoddy in comparison.

If anyone should see a thoroughly researched book as work that deserves to be compensated, it is a journalist. Essentially, McElroy is arguing that anyone accused of a crime (Rattner hasn’t actually been convicted of a crime, though he has now paid very large settlements) does not deserve to be compensated for any of their work, even hard work unrelated to the crime. (A book based on the kickback scheme would be a different matter.)

This isn’t a tenable position. Something else is going on. McElroy provides some hints, labeling the book a “kiss and tell.” He’d clearly prefer that Rattner had, like most insiders, kept his mouth shut. The problem isn’t the accuracy of what Rattner wrote. This isn’t questioned. The problem is that Rattner divulges the contents of private meetings and private discussions. These meetings and discussions were conducted in the public interest, and involved tens of billions of public dollars, but apparently the public has no right to know what went on in them. McElroy interviews people for a living, and touts his show as “uncensored.” He must want at least some people to talk. Why not Rattner?

Rattner’s character isn’t a sufficient reason. Everyone in the auto industry isn’t squeaky clean, but dirty laundry tends to be ignored. Rattner is a special case.

What makes Rattner special? I don’t know, but can hypothesize.

Rattner was and remains an outsider who by his own admission knew nothing about the auto industry. The latter proves a non-issue. I’m generally skeptical of the entire concept of “quick studies,” but Rattner almost makes me a believer. The book includes accurate insights about how GM and Chrysler operate that have seemingly eluded the bulk of the auto industry press for decades. For example, “nothing happens at GM without PowerPoint,” labor was being treated as a fixed cost with absurd consequences, and the “grin fucking” “culture of mediocrity” couldn’t handle open conflicts, preferring to let things drag out forever behind the scenes. In comparison, the UAW’s leadership seemed knowledgeable and realistic once out of view of the membership. They had a better grasp of GM’s situation than GM’s leaders did, and behind the scenes were interested in working out a viable solution.

Unlike a journalist who must maintain access to sources, Rattner clearly felt free to communicate what he and other insiders observed. Such as the Treasury Secretary Paulson’s initial reaction to GM’s initial request for help: “This is complete bullshit!” And Rahm Emanuel’s reaction to the supposed need to save union jobs: “Fuck the UAW.” (Was the latter said and then written for the sake of appearances? Perhaps.) In true “kiss and tell” fashion, names are named, and Rattner colorfully expresses his personal opinions of various players. A violation of insider etiquette? No doubt. But we learn much more as a result.

Perhaps the largest revelation: GM possessed a very weak grasp of its finances and cash position, and was repeatedly unable to answer basic financial questions. GM’s leaders “seemed to be living in a fantasy world” and refused to consider bankruptcy, even though a bankruptcy seemed virtually certain to the task force. (The goal of the task force nearly from the start was not to avoid bankruptcy, but to avoid an uncontrolled bankruptcy.) For these reasons, Rattner repeatedly characterizes GM’s top executives, and especially CFO Ray Young “whose lack of common sense seemed limitless,” as incompetent. And yet he also gives GM’s leaders credit where it is due, noting that GM’s manufacturing operations were much more efficient than the task force initially assumed, and that there was thus no fundamental reason it couldn’t compete.

Worse than being an ignorant outsider, Rattner was from Wall Street, the worst sort of outsider. His New York personality tends to rub Midwesterners the wrong way. They—and I do mean they, McElroy is far from alone in his opinion—don’t like him.

Adding insult to injury, this unlikable outsider decided he could overhaul the auto industry without relying heavily on insiders. Rattner acknowledges that the team received “much unsolicited advice,” but found many of the suggestions “impractical.” In general insiders were seen as too wedded to how things had been done and so incapable of envisioning much less producing the necessary changes. Some insiders with advice (or more) to offer might have felt slighted.

Some have argued that Rattner’s book is overly self-serving. They must have read a different book than I did—if they read it at all. Rattner rarely takes personal credit for the accomplishments of the task force, instead ascribing nearly all of them to other members, especially labor expert Ron Bloom, corporate restructuring expert (and Republican) Harry Wilson, and bankruptcy expert Matt Feldman. Bloom took the lead on Chrysler, while Wilson did the same with GM.

Rattner describes some conflicts within the task force. Some members, most prominently Wilson, wanted to kill Chrysler, partly because the case for saving it was weak, partly to give GM a better shot at success. The decision to instead save Chrysler was ultimately made by Obama, and by the slimmest of margins. Rattner doesn’t conceal his distaste for Sergio Marchionne, who apparently tried to use the unbeatable hand the government dealt him to bully the other parties into submission. After Chrysler was taken care of, Bloom tried to assume an equally prominent role in the GM overhaul, which brought him into conflict with Wilson.

We’ve heard a lot about how badly bondholders were treated, but Rattner convincingly argues that they’ve actually received more than they should have. If the companies had liquidated, debt holders would have received very little, perhaps even nothing in the case of GM’s bondholders. Only the government’s desire to save the companies from liquidation gave them any reason to expect more. They knew that every day the situation remained unresolved would cost the government tens of millions of dollars. So by threatening to delay a resolution they hoped to force the government to pay them off. The task force called their bluff and managed a quick resolution through the bankruptcy courts, where the judges prioritized keeping the companies alive. As part of the process the debt holders ended up receiving considerably more than Rattner strongly felt they deserved. They received their payoff, just not as large a payoff as they dreamed of receiving.

Rattner does take personal credit (blame?) for one thing he felt needed to be change, but that insiders were not going to change. New investors in troubled companies often replace the top executives, and the government was serving as GM’s investor of last resort. So, acting much like a private equity investor, Rattner personally fired GM CEO Rick Wagoner, and stepped up to take the resulting flack. Many prominent members of the automotive press liked Wagoner. And, even if they hadn’t, they don’t like the idea of outsiders firing insiders. Prominent members of the press likely think of themselves as insiders, and closely identify with the executives they cover. Powerful outsiders like Rattner are the common enemy.

Rattner doesn’t pretend that the outcome was perfect. Though Obama is generally portrayed in a good light, the president is criticized for one thing: refusing to jointly work with the Bush administration on the crisis. In Rattner’s view, the “one president at a time” mantra cost taxpayers billions by delaying the bankruptcies. Another indication that the book is not political, Rattner praises Republican senator Corker for attempting to use the crisis to force needed changes, and credits him for laying down guidelines that shaped the outcome.

Rattner also wishes more could have been done to wring concessions from the UAW, especially with regard to the pension plan, and to change the culture at GM. He criticizes the UAW for selling out new hires in order to protect the wages of existing workers. And, at the end of the book, the question of who can and should lead GM remains undecided, with Henderson and Whitacre (the latter the task force’s last chance to effect meaningful cultural change within GM) both out after short terms.

But, by his own admission, Rattner’s a pragmatist. He realizes that the outcome is never going to be perfect, and that insisting on a perfect outcome likely would have resulted in a much worse outcome for all involved. The major achievement of the task force was forcing everyone to accept a less than ideal outcome from their own perspective, to share the pain—which had not been done with the financial industry bail out. Given huge problems decades in the making and just a few months to solve them, the task force achieved much more than anyone could have expected it to without the benefit of hindsight. It’s easy to forget how impossible a GM bankruptcy seemed to most people, especially those leading GM but also much of the auto industry media, before the fact.

Rattner doesn’t pretend that politics were not a factor. Some actions are described as politically-motivated, most notably the government’s insistence that GM’s headquarters remain in downtown Detroit and GM’s early repayment of some of the money—by using some of the money. Senator Barney Frank got GM to delay the closing of a small parts depot in his state. Some proposed actions fail what Rattner labels “the Washingon Post test:” how would they appear on the front page of the paper? But these were exceptions, not the rule. Rattner did what he could to minimize the role of politics, and largely succeeded.

Are there things Rattner is not telling us? No doubt. For example, it’s possible that Obama was more involved in some of the task force’s more controversial actions, such as the firing of Wagoner, and that Rattner is continuing his role of shielding the president from criticism. In general Rattner says little about what might have been his primary function, buffering the rest of the team from politicians and other parties interested in influencing the outcome so members could do their jobs. But overall I find Rattner’s book as complete and lacking in extraneous bias as an insider account could possibly be. For once we’re not entirely stuck on the outside, wondering, “What were they thinking?” It no doubt helped that Rattner’s position was temporary, and that he does not have to continue to work with the people portrayed in the book.

No one likes being told what to do by an outsider, even (especially?) when they know the outsider is right. Rattner’s book now serves as a well-researched and well-written permanent record of this outside intervention, and how well it worked. Since the book itself is unassailable, Rattner’s character becomes the target. I, for one, generally dislike character-based attacks, and would like to see such an informative insider account properly rewarded.

If you feel the same, buy the book.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data

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Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America’s Performance Industry, by Paul D. Smith Fri, 24 Dec 2010 23:00:38 +0000 I’ve got this intimidating stack-o-car books to review— it’s been five months since the last one— and so I figured I’d skim them all and pick out a few winners. I cracked this one open, got hooked right away, and read the whole thing while ignoring the rest of the pile. This 1938 shot of […]

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I’ve got this intimidating stack-o-car books to review— it’s been five months since the last one— and so I figured I’d skim them all and pick out a few winners. I cracked this one open, got hooked right away, and read the whole thing while ignoring the rest of the pile.

This 1938 shot of Ed Iskendarian and his Model T (note the valve covers— cast in Iskendarian’s high-school shop class— on the Ford’s Maxi F-heads) pretty much sums up the book; it’s a collection of short, well-illustrated biographies of 26 men who created the aftermarket performance industry during the immediate postwar era.

I’m already obsessed with Southern California memoirs and biographies (Richard Nixon, James Ellroy, Sister Aimee, Mickey Cohen, and Art Pepper, to name a handful; this one just dragged my head back to SoCal), so even without the rat-rodders-wish-they-looked-this-cool vintage car porn I’d be digging this book in a big way. With the notable exception of Harvey Crane (Crane Cams), just about every one of the 26 “merchants of speed” set up shop in the Los Angeles area, epicenter of the post-World-War-II racing and hot-rodding boom.

The stories of Hilborn, Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weiand, and plenty of other familiar names may be found in this book’s pages. We also get the stories of big-in-their-time outfits such as Chevy six-cylinder kings Wayne Manufacturing. The ups, the downs, the ripoffs (according to Lou Senter of Ansen Automotive, the design of the Ansen Posi-Shift Floor Shifter was lifted by a person “who became quite a famous floorshift manufacturer” due to a legal gray area in a patent description), and the “where are they now” answers will allow the reader to geek out on engineering and hot-rod-golden-age tales to his or her heart’s content.

Speaking of Lou Senter, check out this blown Packard V8-powered monster! Yes, the first car to break 150 MPH in the quarter-mile on gasoline was Packard powered!

I’m giving “>Merchants of Speed a four-rod rating (out of a possible Mercedes-Benz-OM615-inspired five). Murilee says check it out!


56 top 69 112 118 136 152 180 182 188 198 208 211 213 216 224 9780760335673 p.6 p.9 Rating-4ConRods-200px

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Book Review: Can-Am Cars In Detail Tue, 05 Oct 2010 23:34:26 +0000 Handed out to undeserved recipients and devalued by lazy writers alike, few words are as hackneyed as iconic or legendary. If everything is an iconic legend, nothing is. Sometimes, though, the words are exactly appropriate. The Canadian American Challenge Cup racing series which ran from 1966 to 1974, more popularly known simply as Can-Am, included […]

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Handed out to undeserved recipients and devalued by lazy writers alike, few words are as hackneyed as iconic or legendary. If everything is an iconic legend, nothing is. Sometimes, though, the words are exactly appropriate. The Canadian American Challenge Cup racing series which ran from 1966 to 1974, more popularly known simply as Can-Am, included cars and drivers that are truly iconic and the series was genuinely the stuff of legend. Though the big block V8 engines of Can-Am last roared over 35 years ago, even today the name Can-Am resonates strongly with car enthusiasts.

Attracted by an almost unlimited technical formula and some of the era’s richest purses, the world’s most innovative constructors and talented drivers flocked to the series. Team owners that have since succeeded in other series like Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Paul Newman and Carl Haas, were active in Can-Am. This was when drivers were not specialists who only raced in this or that series, and many of the Can-Am drivers also raced in Formula One. Not only were some of the drivers the same in both F1 and Can-Am, the two series also raced on some of the same tracks. The Can-Am cars were so technologically advanced, so powerful and so fast that the F1 drivers typically set faster times with their Can-Am cars than with their F1 rides. The series produced technical advancements that still impact racing. Can-Am was so larger than life, that it eventually produced the most powerful car ever designed to race on a closed course, a car which so dominated the series, it is said to have killed that very racing series that spawned it. As I said, the stuff of legend.

Befitting such a larger than life subject, one of the truly golden ages of 20th century auto racing, David Bull Publishing has released Can-Am Cars In Detail: Machines And Minds Racing Unrestrained, with photos by Peter Harholdt and text by respected racing journalist Pete Lyons. It’s a large format book, ~ 11″X11″, hardcover, 244 pages, with a slip case. Noted in passing is that this is yet another graphically rich book printed in China. Apparently the publishing industry is outsourcing to China too.

Because of the large format I’m tempted to call CACID a coffee table book but that would be doing Lyons and Harholdt and their publisher a huge disservice. Yes the book has gorgeous, large photographs of 22 of the coolest cars ever built, all either restored, as-raced or in one case, recreated, but it’s much more than a picture book. CACID gives a vivid sense of what Can-Am was like, showing the variety of cars raced (with their achievements or lack thereof), and their chronological development. What makes CACID different than more cursory looks at Can-Am is that in addition to the legendary Can-Am cars that everyone recognizes, like the Chaparral 2E, Lola T70, McLaren 6 and 8 models, and Porsche 917s, there are lesser remembered marques like Genie, Caldwell, McKee and Honker. Honker? There are cars that won races and championships, cars that were innovative but not very successful, and some backmarkers as well. Lyons and Harholdt’s selection of cars gives a comprehensive view of the series. The “In Detail” part is no brag, just fact. Harholdt’s photographs are visually arresting, the framing and lighting present the cars like the mechanical art that they are, and Lyons’ text treats each car’s racing history in a manner that gives a very complete history of the individual cars, their constructors and the series overall.

You get a visual taste of what’s inside before you even start to read. The slip case is wrapped with a large photo of Denny Hulme’s McLaren M8F, while the book’s jacket cover has a cropped photo of the unequal length and canted velocity stacks of the McLaren M20’s 565 cubic inch (9.26L) Chevy V8 (I told you they were big blocks). Framed by the car’s back wing (one of Can-Am’s many innovations), the brushed aluminum stacks look like sculpture. Inside the book on the page facing the table of contents is a full page photo of the all aluminum Holman-Moody Ford V8 from the Ford 429’er, one of the lesser known cars covered in the book. Based, somehow, on the cast iron production 429, this engine actually displaced 494CI. I hate to be trite and keep using words like stunning and arresting, but Harholdt’s photographs are top shelf car porn. The photographs appear to have been studio shot and the book could not have been possible without the cooperation of the owners of some irreplaceable cars.

The book is arranged chronologically, starting with 1966’s Chaparral 2E and ending with the Shadow DN4 that raced in the half-finished 1974 season. Thanks to owners’ foresight, vintage racing and the recognized value of vintage race cars to collectors’, a representative example of the racing hardware used in the Can-Am series still exists today, making the authors’ task a bit easier. Jim Hall’s race shop restored examples of all of his Chaparrals, which are represented in CACID by the 2E, (of which you can buy Hall-built exact replicas), the radical slipstream 2H, and the vacuum downforce and ultimately banned 2J. The Chaparrals were so innovative that some of their best known advancements contain fascinating subdetails. The 2E is usually noted for introducing high mounted wings to racing cars. Many also know that the 2E’s wing was under driver control, with high downforce in corners and trimmed for low drag on the straights. Driver control with a foot pedal was possible because the Chaparrals had torque converters, not clutches. A detail that is not as well known is the fact that the 2E’s wing struts were not mounted on the body, but rather to the wheel hubs, so the wing didn’t affect spring loading, it applied downforce directly to the tires. Wheel manufacturers and car companies alike imitated the 2E’s cast spoke wheel design. Hall has joked that if he’d bothered to copyright the design, he’d have made more money in royalties from BBS alone than he made racing cars.

Hall’s white cars were innovative, yet weren’t terribly successful in Can-Am, and he constantly butted heads with scrutineers as the series became increasingly concerned with rules. Bruce McLaren’s orange cars were more conventional (though just as beautiful), and they dominated the series, winning many races, often finishing 1-2 with McLaren and Hulme trading podium spots back and forth, and multiple championships. The book includes the M6A, and M8B McLarens in addition to the aforementioned M8F, and M20.

The relatively loose rules in Can-Am meant competitors were always looking for out of the box ideas for more speed. Based on the idea that minimal frontal area and a low profile meant maximum straightline speed, the AVS Shadow Mk 1, from 1969-70, used so-called “tiny tires”, about 30% less tall than other tires then used in Can-Am. The Shadow probably influenced the Tyrell six-wheeler raced later in F1.

There are three of Eric Broadley’s Lolas including the definition-of-automotive-beauty T70, and Ferrari is represented by the 612P, in unrestored condition as Chris Amon last raced it in 1971.

Porsche is represented by three iterations of the 917, the 917PA, the 917/10K, and the uber Porsche, the Mark Donohue / Roger Penske 917/30. The 917/30, at 1,100 horsepower, is acknowledged to be the most powerful closed course race car ever. Chew on that for a second. In almost 40 years, a more powerful race car, at least not one that had to turn right or left, has not been made. There has simply been nothing like the 917/30, then or now. Donohue was closely involved in the development of the car. The 917/30 had a driver controlled waste gate on the turbos that would give him about 1500 HP on demand and a driver adjustable rear sway bar that gave oversteer on demand. Donohue called it the “perfect race car”, and a “monument” to his career, already much accomplished.

To say that the 917/30 dominated Can-Am in 1973 is to state the obvious. Called by some “the car that killed Can-Am”, the 917/30 was so unlimited that it made a mockery not just of the car’s competition but of the concept of competition itself. More dominant than Ferrari in Schumacher’s time. Eight races, eight poles, six victories, one championship. The particular 917/30 in CACID was built for Donohue to use in the 1974 season and is finished in the Penske team’s blue and yellow Sunoco livery. He never drove this car, though. After winning the Can-Am championship in 1973 with the 917/30 and a remarkable 38% of the races that he entered in his career, Donohue retired from driving (he later came back to race in F1 for Penske, a decision that was ultimately and sadly fatal).

This 917/30 was formerly owned by the Porsche factory museum. Current owner Matt Drendel thinks he’s the luckiest man in the world. “What’s it like to drive? I get asked that a lot. It’s like a LearJet on takeoff. It feels like it’s never running out of power, and it feels like that in every gear. It feels like you’re being pushed by the hand of God. One time I floored it in second gear and the front wheels came off the ground!” The 917/30 is not an economy car but Drendel makes it sound like spending $1,000 on racing fuel for 90 minutes on the track with the 917/30 is more cost effective in terms of mental health than a year’s worth of 50 minute sessions with a shrink.

Can-Am wasn’t just about the cars. The drivers were among the greatest ever. The starting grid of just abut any race in the series’ history reads like a motorsports hall of fame roster. Represented in the book along with Hall (he’d previously won a US road racing championship) and McLaren, are Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Mario Andretti (who drove a couple of the cars in the book, including a Honker owned by Paul Newman), Sam Posey (he still owns the Caldwell D7 he raced in Can-Am), Chris Amon, Vic Elford, George Follmer, Pedro Rodriguez, David Hobbs, Jody Scheckter, Brian Redman and of course the aforementioned Mark Donohue. Again, the stuff of legends.

At $100, Can-Am Cars In Detail is not cheap but it’s exceptionally well written, with first rate photography and the book is a good value if you’re at all interested in auto racing history. It seems that most contemporary racing series are infected with ennui or malaise. Formula One, NASCAR, IndyCar, all are targets of substantial and substantive criticism. Bernie Ecclestone, Brian France and Randy Bernard can all easily afford to spend a hundred bucks. If they want to get an idea what an exciting racing series looked like, and more importantly felt like, they could do much worse than pop for a copy of Lyons and Harholdt’s book.

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Book Review: Crash Course: the American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster Sun, 03 Oct 2010 15:32:47 +0000 Predicted by site founder Robert Farago when few people thought it could actually happen, GM’s bankruptcy is now history. So, time for the histories. Paul Ingrassia certainly seems qualified to provide one. The Wall Street Journal’s man in Detroit for years, he won a Pulitzer (with Joseph White) for his coverage of the auto industry’s […]

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Predicted by site founder Robert Farago when few people thought it could actually happen, GM’s bankruptcy is now history. So, time for the histories.

Paul Ingrassia certainly seems qualified to provide one. The Wall Street Journal’s man in Detroit for years, he won a Pulitzer (with Joseph White) for his coverage of the auto industry’s early 1990’s brush with disaster and subsequent recovery. That coverage provided the basis for 1994’s Comeback: the Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, a definitive account of that period.

Does Crash Course: the American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster similarly deserve a place on your bookshelf?

Well, it depends. Did you know:

  • most Japanese cars circa 1970 were front-wheel-drive
  • the Japanese invested in direct fuel injection in the 1980s
  • Iacocca started the SUV boom with Jeep, and gave them the 4.0 engine
  • the Saturn SL2 was larger than the SL1
  • the Toyota Prius runs entirely on electric power below 30 mph

Of course you didn’t. When discussing cars, Ingrassia gets such facts wrong as often as he gets them right. So, should we wonder what else isn’t correct? Or should we grant that someone can know the car industry inside and out, without knowing cars?

The first 160 of the book’s 280 pages review the industry’s history from its roots through 2005, with an emphasis on labor relations. There’s nothing particularly insightful in them, and certainly nothing new.

The key point: the UAW, shaped through confrontation, and with a monopoly on the supply of labor, kept demanding more and more, and industry executives, lacking courage and in denial, accepted and appeased them. For example, GM executives might have been able to bankrupt the union in 1998, but ultimately “lost their nerve” because “the UAW was the devil GM knew.”

In 2005 the UAW successfully fought an attempt to ban smoking on the assembly lines. Ingrassia’s take: “the union often stood for the right to be irresponsible, and the company accepted the ridiculous.” The most damaging concessions: retirement after 30 years on the line and a “Jobs Bank” where displaced workers continued to receive nearly full pay. When a threat to the existing ways of doing things emerged in the form of Saturn, both management and labor successfully worked to kill it. Secondary points: industry executives were out of touch with the market, and product development funds were spread too thinly due to an excessive number of brands.

The book starts earning its purchase price once it reaches 2005. Though still not insightful, but it is at least mildly interesting. Rick Wagoner is criticized for making major blunders (the FIAT debacle, the failure to sell Saab and Hummer, GMAC home mortgages, huge financial and market share losses), yet refusing to make big changes, and continuing to believe that gradualism would work. Jerry York gets props for trying (without success) to make GM accept reality and take necessary steps to avoid bankruptcy. Cerberus and the executives it hired vastly underestimated the difficulty of fixing Chrysler, and were in way over their heads. Alan Mulally faced reality and did what needed to be done before it was too late.

The last two chapters are easily the best in the book. Heavily based on confidential interviews with the people involved, they start with the first Congressional hearings in late 2008 and end with the bankruptcies. We get positive portraits of the principal Presidential Task Force members, whose lack of industry experience, as with Mulally, proved to be an advantage. Lacking this experience, “they would ignore all Detroit’s conventional wisdom about what couldn’t be done and take their guidance from common sense instead of car sense.” They did know mismanagement when they saw it. The more Wagoner touted the Volt as the solution to the company’s immediate crisis, “the more Rattner and Bloom became convinced he was removed from reality.”

We get a somewhat detailed account of how the task force, with common sense and the courage to force major changes, squeezed all of the parties hard. It forced both management and labor to take steps that should have been taken years earlier. It forced debt holders to take major haircuts, because keeping the companies operating was the top priority. The “ridiculous” Jobs Bank? Finally gone. Non-essential brands? Gone. Mountains of debt? Gone. Wagoner? Gone. In short, “the task force had brought more common sense to GM than the company had seen in decades.” Government intervention was necessary because the UAW, company executives, and debt holders would never have worked out a solution on their own, even though (in the case of the first two) their livelihoods were at stake.

Crisis was always necessary to get the UAW and executives to make any changes at all, and even with a life-threatening crisis they weren’t willing or able to make sufficient changes on their own. So what, now, that the companies have been saved? In an afterward, Ingrassia doubts that the cultures of the UAW or the “lifer” executives who remained in control had undergone the needed revolutions.

The account throughout is very much that of a professional journalist. Unlike with Alex Taylor’s Sixty to Zero (reviewed here), the personality and opinions of the author are well hidden. There’s minimal wondering what might have happened, for better or worse, if various people had acted differently. The exceptions: GM could have avoided bankruptcy if it had followed Ford’s lead, and Chrysler was nearly permitted to go under. But, once the decision was made to save both companies, what might have been done differently? What opportunities for change were missed? These questions aren’t asked, much less answered. The focus is on what did happen, on the (hopefully correct) facts.

The largest failing of Crash Course: it doesn’t dig much beneath the surface. Ingrassia’s new, shorter book (280 vs. 474 pages) is in general considerably less interesting and insightful than Comeback, which continues to be a joy to read. One likely factor: while the old book thoroughly delved into the biographies, work, and personalities of many mid-level managers, the new book focuses more tightly on harder-to-access people at the very top of the companies. (Two exceptions: a guy on the line and a car dealer.) Despite numerous interviews—they were “confidential,” and so are not listed—the major players remain caricatures. “Complacency, arrogance, and hubris,” “isolation,” a lack of “common sense,” and “lack of courage,” though certainly present, are the same, overly simple characterizations Detroit’s critics have been making since  Brock Yates penned “Grosse Pointe Myopians” back in 1968. And probably before that.

These characterizations don’t go far enough. These people aren’t stupid; smart people somehow kept doing stupid things. Replace these smart people with other smart people, and more often than not the new people will do the same stupid things. Why does experience apparently suppress common sense? What were the UAW and corporate leaders actually thinking as events progressed? Why did they feel they had no choice but to act the way they did? Why are the “cultural revolutions” Ingrassia calls for still not happening?

The best answers Ingrassia offers: “courage” and the “common sense” of an outsider’s perspective. Both Mulally and the task force came from outside the industry, and so neither accepted that the way things had always been done was the way they had to be done. Beyond this, they had the courage to make big changes, and to face down those who opposed these changes—though both also appeased the union, if to a lesser extent.

Was “courage” truly the key difference between Wagoner and Mulally? And the courage to admit failure and step side the key difference between Wagoner and Bill Ford? Briefly mentioned: the Ford family and the priority it placed on retaining control through its stock ownership. Left implicit: while GM’s executives claimed until the last minute that bankruptcy was not an option, in Ford’s case bankruptcy was truly not an option. Perhaps this and not the courage of this or that individual explains why only Ford did whatever was necessary to avoid bankruptcy? Even though they held large amounts of stock and options themselves, perhaps GM’s executives did not feel the same amount of pressure to safeguard GM’s stockholders?

With his experience and contacts, Ingrassia should have been able to offer deeper, more thorough explanations for why the various players did what they did. Did he not try, or even in retirement does he remain bound by the culture of the mainstream auto media, and so unwilling to dig too deeply or say too much? Ingrassia criticizes the local Detroit media for “helping to create the very insularity that had made Detroit executives and UAW officials oblivious to the sentiment elsewhere in America.” The cultures of the UAW and executive suites are not the only ones still in need of revolution.

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Book Review Go Faster – The Graphic Design of Racing Cars by Sven Voelker Sat, 07 Aug 2010 19:08:10 +0000 Gestalten, a German publishing house specializing in books on design, has published an intriguing book on a subject that surprisingly has previously only been addressed tangentially but is sure to appeal to most auto enthusiasts: the graphic designs of race cars. While the shape of racing cars has been the subject of endless technical and […]

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Gestalten, a German publishing house specializing in books on design, has published an intriguing book on a subject that surprisingly has previously only been addressed tangentially but is sure to appeal to most auto enthusiasts: the graphic designs of race cars.

While the shape of racing cars has been the subject of endless technical and aesthetic discussion, Voelker points out that the history of the colors and liveries that have been applied over those shapes has not been particularly well documented. Considering the emotional and aesthetic impact of the colors and graphics used, this is surprising. As Voelker says, who would want to watch a plain white Ferrari race?

Documenting the development and history of racing cars’ graphic design presents a challenge to historians. Manufacturer and team archives are relatively bare of original drawings or concepts, the liveries being the usual province of engineers, the cars’ actual designers’ whims, and more often as the years went by, sponsors.

This lack of attention to the background of graphic design in racing is somewhat ironic in light of how iconic the graphic designs of some race cars have been. The light blue and orange Gulf sponsored Ford GT40s immediately come to mind as do the black and gold John Player Special sponsored Lotus F1 cars, or the Camaro and other racers carrying #6 and Sunoco’s blue and yellow livery. As iconic as those cars’ graphic designs continue to be, and Go Faster features examples of all of them, Voelker stresses how many famous race car liveries were almost accidental afterthoughts.

Tony Lapine, who headed Porsche design in the 1970s, was responsible for some of the greatest racing cars in history, like the legendary 917 variants. Though the shapes of the cars were meticulously crafted, the liveries were effected in a casual manner. The famous “Hippie” 917LH had its psychedelic purple and green swirls applied by Lapine in the pits just prior to its first race. Sometimes the teams’ casual senses of humor were not appreciated at the corporate level. Martini, the spirits company, has been a long time sponsor of auto racing. When Count Rossi, the head of Martini, saw how the Porsche team had painted a 917/20 in pink, with the dotted lines of a butcher’s diagram of a pig, he insisted that if they didn’t repaint the car, they must remove the Martini logos immediately.

In the early days, at least in international racing, cars wore national colors. That’s why Ferrari race cars are painted in rosso corsa, and Jaguars are still offered in British Racing Green. German race cars were silver like the famous Mercedes and Auto Union racers. Nowadays white with two blue racing stripes is a color scheme associated with Mustangs and Shelbys (as is the reverse white over blue layout). The blue and white combination was America’s original national racing colors and before it was used on Mustangs, Briggs Cunningham used that color scheme as did the Grand Sport Corvettes in the early 1960s.
Though American racing cars had long featured stickers and logos of sponsoring companies, Lotus’ Colin Chapman is generally credited with bringing corporate liveries to Formula One. Perhaps Chapman’s exposure to American racing at Indianapolis and related marketing was a factor, but in any case, the Lotus Gold Leaf cars were the first F1 cars to feature a sponsor’s color schemes. As mentioned, the later JPS Loti are among the most famous graphic designs in racing history. The Player sponsorship would start a long involvement of the tobacco industry with racing. Marlboro continues to sponsor Ferrari F1 team  – though without any logos because of the anti-smoking nannies, and Winston had a long time series sponsorship in NASCAR that pretty much grew that series into a  major force.

Still, in the 1970s, F1 cars were small and fairly cigar shaped. Sports cars racing at circuits like LeMans had larger bodies and the greater billboard space attracted sponsors. As John Wyer’s team moved from racing Fords to Porsches, the Gulf livery followed, and cemented in enthusiasts’ minds that if a car wore blue and orange, it was fast.

Voelker does cite BMW as an exception in that the Bavarian company has not treated the graphic design of its race cars as an afterthought. The book includes photos of Andy Warhol and David Hockney painting their respective M1 and 850 Csi cars that were part of BMW’s well known Art Car project.

Other historical photos go back to the earliest days of auto racing, to Baron Pierre de Caters’ 1904 90HP Mercedes. The heart of the book, though, is not historical photos.  This is a book about graphic design and Voelker uses a novel graphic method of showing the impact of the liveries of race cars. Starting with his own extensive collection of toy and model race cars, Voelker painted each of the cars with a blanking coat of white chalk and had Daniel Schludi take hundreds of detailed close-up photos both before and after painting. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at the ghostly images of famous historic race cars whose shapes are deeply etched into our brains and see just how much the overlaying graphic designs have affected our perceptions of those shapes.

Since Voelker, like everyone, has his own tastes, there are some cars well represented with varying body styles and liveries, particularly the 917, 911, and 908 Porsches. Those multiples allow you to see just how the differing liveries look on the same basic underlying shapes. Also, there are examples of the same livery on different cars, like the aforementioned Wyer Gulf racers, and the Martini colors (red, dark blue, light blue and white) on Porsches, a Lancia and even a VW Type II Transporter.

The photography is beautifully done and in addition to over 100 pages of large scale photographs, some double spreads, of the cars both nude and painted, are 25 pages of thumbnail images of all 131 of Voelker’s scale models used in this book in full liveries.

His use of scale models allowed Voelker to look at race cars in a way not really possible in real life. Though it’s possible to see race cars sometimes test without liveries, and while you might actually find a tifosi who would watch a white Ferrari race, you’re definitely not going to get the owner of an irreplaceable historic racer to let you repaint it matte white. What are the chances that one could even find, in presentable condition, a VW bus in team colors? So using toys and scale models is a clever solution to an interesting question.

The use of models, though, is also the books only real drawback. Not all models are really made to scale. In design, some features scale well, and some don’t, and not all model companies make true scale models. They want the final product to look good, and if that means slightly larger than scale wheels or the like, oh well. Sometimes the fact that they are models is a bit too obvious. Also, Voelker’s been collecting model cars since he was a boy. These are not obsessed Hot Wheels collectors who won’t let his kids open the blister packs model cars. They’ve been played with. Though many of them are obviously high end, high detail models that I’m sure Voelker treasures, a number of the models are a bit worse for wear, with chipped paint and obvious signs of hard play.

Though the scale and scratches sometimes get intrusive, the overall effect of Voelker’s ‘white out’ is literally illustrative. It will give you a new perspective on scores of your favorite historic race cars.

Go Faster – The Graphic Design of Racing Cars by Sven Voelker
Gestalten ISBN 978-3-89955-279-9
144 pages

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Book Review: Colin Chapman: Inside The Innovator Wed, 23 Jun 2010 17:57:51 +0000 At the start of the 21st century, Motor Sport, the UK racing magazine, looked back and asked an expert panel to rank the most important people in Formula One history. Behind F1 majordomo Bernie Ecclestone and Enzo Ferrari, third on the list of 99 was Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, aka Chunky, founder of Lotus (that’s […]

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At the start of the 21st century, Motor Sport, the UK racing magazine, looked back and asked an expert panel to rank the most important people in Formula One history. Behind F1 majordomo Bernie Ecclestone and Enzo Ferrari, third on the list of 99 was Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, aka Chunky, founder of Lotus (that’s where the ACBC on the Lotus logo comes from – where the name Lotus comes from is somewhat shrouded in legend and myth).

Of the remaining 96 people, at least 7 were employees or close associates of Chapman. Graham Hill started out building transmissions at Lotus. Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth (i.e. Cosworth) were also early employees. Along with Hill, the drivers who raced for Chapman make up a veritable Hall of Fame: The aforementioned Hill, Jimmy Clark, Mario Andretti, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Petersen, and Nigel Mansell are just a few. Sir Jackie Stewart drove for him in Formula 2.

Chapman’s racing influence extended well beyond international formula racing. Ideas he either originated or championed have become standard techniques in auto racing. Though he was not the first to race a midengine car at Indy, he was the first to win the 500 with one. Jim Hall’s landmark Chaparrals used suspensions pretty much copied from Lotus F1 cars (Hall had raced F1 in Lotus cars as a privateer).

The Lotus 25 was the first successful modern monocoque racecar design and Chapman was one of the first constructors to use the engine as a structural component of the race car. Well experienced with composites from their road cars, Lotus was arguably the first to build a race car around a carbon fiber tub. Ironically, because the technology wasn’t proven, the safety of the early carbon tubs was suspect, though of course we now know how much safer those tubs have made open wheel racing. With the possible exception of Jim Hall, nobody did as much to make the racing world understand the need for aerodynamic advantage.

It was Chapman, however, who took it a step further and introduced the concept of ground effects generated downforce, created with side pods containing airfoils, underbody contouring and side skirts. Besides the win at Indy, under Chapman Lotus won seven Formula One constructors’ championships and six drivers’ championships. Lotus was successful in Formula Two, giving Chapman a heads up on new talent, and the Lotus Components division sold many Formula Fords, Formula Juniors and Lotus 7s to amateur racers.

Lotus also did well in sports car racing. Lotus won class and index of performance titles at LeMans with the beautiful and aerodynamic Lotus 11, and later won class titles with race prepared Elites (actually they were a bit more than “race prepared” since they had thinner and lighter fiberglass monocoques). In production based racing Lotus also successfully campaigned the Lotus 26R (Elan), and the Lotus Cortina in both the UK and the US. If you search around the net it’s easy to find photos of Graham Hill or Jim Clark at the wheel of a Lotus Cortina, usually going around a corner, often with the inside front wheel a bit off the ground.

Chapman changed the business of auto racing. The deal he arranged with with Ford for the development of the Cosworth DFV was an early version of branding race car engines with big company names, like Ilmor engines carrying first the Chevy and then the Mercedes brands. It can be said that Colin Chapman brought modern corporate sponsorship to Formula One, entering the first car to wear a sponsor’s livery. Not only did the Red Leaf sponsored cars wear the cigarette brand’s colors, Lotus also offered a Red Leaf edition of the Elan. Europas would later wear the colors of John Player Specials. His deals with John Player tobacco and the iconic black & gold JPS Lotus racers that sponsorship funded, may have been a factor in convincing Winston to sponsor NASCAR.

Before the Firebird TransAm wore black and gold, Lotus race and road cars were painted in that distinctive color scheme.

Chapman’s influence on road cars went far beyond paint schemes and race prepping some English Fords. The Lotus Cortina deal didn’t just involve prepping and racing cars. Lotus did considerable modifications and final assembly in-house, establishing a pattern for later boutique shops like Shelby, Roush and Saleen, producing high performance versions sold at factory dealers with factory warrantees.

Though there have been more powerful and faster cars, since the early 1960s Lotus has been the standard by which performance cars’ handling and cornering abilities are measured. Ask anyone who has ever driven a Lotus and they will tell you that nothing, not Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis or anything else, handles like a Lotus. A Lotus simply goes where you put it, giving you precise tactile feedback all the while. They are cars that you drive with your fingers and toes, not brute force. With their light weight, sensitive handling and small displacement engines, there’s an almost feminine character to Lotus road cars, but maybe not too feminine. Like the pretty girl next door who’s got a tat and a piercing that you can’t see with her clothes on.

Chapman was a superb suspension tuner. His earliest racing cars were Austin Seven “specials” used for trials racing, a peculiarly English motorsport akin to hill climbing or mountain biking. Chapman learned early on about the importance of suspension design in traction and maneuverability. When he switched to track racing, Chapman couldn’t afford exotic engines so he knew that he had to make up time in the corners. The skills he learned helped give Lotus production cars superior cornering and handling and a surprisingly supple ride for cars with that amount of grip. Using tires only 4.5″ wide, the Elan was capable of generating over .9g on the skid pad in 1964, a figure that wouldn’t be embarrassed among today’s sports cars.

One could argue that the Europa was the car that brought mid-engine layout from the race track to the street. Sure, there were Ferraris and Lamborghinis with engines in the middle, but Chapman sold almost 10,000 Europas, and while the Europa wasn’t cheap, it also wasn’t exotic expensive so it was accessible to other than the wealthy. It was also pretty quick for its day. At only 1400-1500 lbs even the original S1 and S2 versions with the Renault Gordini engine are fun to drive with 0-60 times under 10 seconds. The Twin Cam Europas were significantly quicker. From the factory, Euro spec Twin Cam equipped Europas had a top speed of 123 mph with 0–60 mph in 7.0 seconds, and a 1/4 mile time of 14.9. Now 14 second cars are nothing to brag about at the drag strip, but remember, that’s from just 96 cubic inches, naturally aspirated.

By comparison, when Road & Track tested the 1967 Shelby GT-500 Mustang, they recorded a 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds. Small wonder that Lotus won the index of performance at LeMans. Chapman’s dedication to efficiency and adding lightness only becomes more influential as time goes on. Though federalized smogified versions with the Stromberg carbs didn’t make all the power that engine could, with the big valve head and Webers, you can build a streetable Twin Cam with 160-180 hp. That’s plenty for a car that weighs less only 3/4 of a ton. Even without those modifications, I’ve been in a very slightly modified federalized Stromberg equipped Europa at an indicated 125, with plenty of RPM left below the red line, and that engine breathes and revs so well that they came standard with a centrifugal rev limiter in the distribolator. Despite their small engine displacements, Loti have always been credible and creditable performance cars.

Toyota copied the Elan’s backbone frame and suspension for their 2000GT, and Mazda did the same with the Elan’s styling for the Miata. The Lotus 7, a car first sold in the 1950s, is still in production by Caterham. Every Lotus road car built has had a composite body and the company is an acknowledged expert with composite materials (and now also the place to go for aluminum chassis tech). The original Elite had a fiberglass monocoque (with some metal stiffeners) in the 1950s! Lotus developed the process for applying paint to molds before laying up the composite, and under Chapman Lotus developed and patented the VARI (vacuum assisted resin injection) process for molding large body panels with uniform distribution of resin. Today every maker of high performance road cars uses splitters, spoilers, winglets, underbody diffusers and other aerodynamic tools developed and popularized by Lotus first on their race cars and then on their road cars.

Lotus built fewer than 40,000 cars during Chapman’s lifetime but his influence transcends those relatively small numbers. Chapman’s obsessions about small, light, efficient cars, advanced composites and lightweight alloys, and lightweight engines with high specific output will only make his influence grow as the world moves towards more fuel efficient vehicles. That the company he founded currently does contract engineering work for just about every car company on the planet (okay, an exaggeration, but their list of clients is long and filled with impressive names) is also a data point for charting Chapman’s influence. Lotus just announced that in cooperation with a Spanish automotive supplier they will be manufacturing a small displacement 3 cylinder engine purpose built for range extended serial hybrid cars, for sale to OEMs.

So Colin Chapman’s role in automotive history is undisputed. What is a bit more disputed is the quality of his character. He’s been accused of taking undue credit for others’ innovations, was described as ruthless and lacking scruples, called a “cheat” by Fleet Street, and questioned for caring more about speed than driver safety. Sterling Moss raced Lotus cars for privateers and respected Chapman but he would not do business with him unless it was in writing. His financial machinations to keep a poorly funded company afloat are legendary. Some of those machinations may have gone over the legal limit. Chapman set up multiple corporate structures for various aspects of Lotus’ business, sometimes obscuring his own involvement.

Former Lotus sales manager and Lotus historian Graham Arnold has been compiling a dossier of Chapman’s patents, but he says that task has been stymied by Chapman’s penchant for filing in a manner designed to reduce his tax liabilities, so many of “Chapman’s” patents don’t carry his name. Fred Bushell, Lotus accountant and Chapman’s right hand man, served 3 years in prison over the Delorean affair. That case involved the diversion of millions in government funding for the Delorean project for which Lotus did most of the engineering and design, not to be confused with Johnny Z D’s cocaine deal. Chapman died just before the scandal broke and Bushell’s trial judge said that if Chapman was alive he’d get ten years. Bushell kept his mouth shut and until his death was close to Hazel and her family, serving as a director of Historic Team Lotus, which maintains, displays and vintage races historic Lotus competition cars, as well as supplies spares and technical support for owners of vintage Lotus racers.

Though Chapman could and did inspire tremendous loyalty from members of his team, he was not beloved by all of his employees. He was not the world’s most sensitive boss. He was driven and demanding and always convinced that he was right, until he changed his own mind. Keith Duckworth fled Lotus to start up Cosworth (though Mike Costin stayed on for a few more years). Duckworth would continue to work with Chapman, but on his own terms as a supplier and Costin’s partner and not as an employee on Chapman’s terms. The development of the Ford Cosworth DFV V8 was pretty much Chapman’s idea but it was soon made available to other constructors, eventually becoming the powerplant of choice for F1 (and other racing series in different form). Chapman didn’t really mind as he was convinced of the technical superiority of the Lotus chassis, just as he had been when he shared Coventry Climax engines with other Formula constructors. Frank Costin, Mike’s brother, was an aerodynamicist for deHavilland and Chapman’s first aero guru (Peter Wright would later fill that role with the ground effects cars), but Frank Costin never was a Lotus employee, preferring to work either for consultant fees or gratis just to see his ideas tested.

Ron Hickman, an important early Lotus employee credited with styling the Elan, also left the company, said to be burned out from dealing with Chapman. He started playing around with some Elan suspension pieces to make a utility clamp for his woodshop, licensed the design to Black & Decker and made something like $47 million in royalties from the Workmate, much more than he ever would have made at Lotus. Chapman was much too frugal for that. When he offered Harry Mundy his choice of either £1,000 or a royalty of one pound per engine for his Twin Cam design, Mundy took the money up front, much to his later chagrin since over 30,000 Twin Cam heads were eventually built. Of course with Lotus’ precarious financials, and Chapman’s business reputation, the up front money was most definitely the safe bet “He could be quite devious – he could think round ahead of you” was Sterling Moss’ assessment of Chapman’s business ethics.

Though he paid the race team bonuses when they won, he could be less than generous with his employees. When Graham Arnold, wrote a speech for a shareholders’ meeting that included thanks to Lotus employees, Chapman refused to deliver the line. When Arnold complained, Chapman replied, “They get paid, don’t they?” After noticing how full the employee parking lot was at the Hethel factory when Chapman arrived there for a Christmas party (at the time he was based at Ketteringham Hall, with Team Lotus) he decided that the payroll was too large. On Christmas Eve that year some workers got a pink slip along with their free holiday turkey. He was a millionaire at age 40 when he took Lotus public, and in time became used to the good life, particularly after the race team landed big sponsorship contracts, though Lotus Cars never really made a lot of money during his lifetime. After his death, many Lotus related assets like Ketteringham Hall, a large manor, stayed in family hands, separate from Lotus Cars.

Still, Chapman was so charismatic, talented and successful, that in the early years people would literally work for him for free, voluntarily like Frank Costin. Others felt that their gratis contributions were not so voluntary. For most concerned, even those who eventually fell out with Chapman, it seems to have been a worthwhile apprenticeship, based on their later successes. He was articulate and persuasive, almost to a fault. One year when the F1 constructors wanted a new 2.0 liter formula, they decided to ask for 3.0 liters, figuring that having just used a 2.5 liter limit, the organizers would counter-offer with 2.0l. They chose Chapman to argue the case and he was successful, too successful. The organizers said 3.0 it was.

It turned out to Chapman’s advantage after he convinced Ford to pony up £100,000 to pay Cosworth to develop the DFV. Duckworth said that Chapman was so persuasive that he could give you 10 reasons why he was right and convince you even though he was wrong. It was also said that he built Lotus road cars with “contempt” for the ultimate customer who had to deal with Chapman’s zeal for low cost and fragile parts. “A man not to be trusted with your wallet or your wife” was how one friend of his characterized the man. In the case of his own wife, Hazel, he got her to put up the original 25 quid to start Lotus Cars in her father’s garage, and later, when some early associates grew tired of being volunteers, her family helped him buy out their interest in the company. Despite allegations of her husband’s impropriety, Hazel has been an indefatigable defender of Colin’s legacy and their son Clive runs Historic Team Lotus. Chapman was a charming rogue who made incredible, but flawed, cars. Charming cars made by an incredible, but flawed, man.

Chapman’s influence can be seen from the large number of books written about Lotus and about him personally. A search at for “Lotus cars” turns up 244 results. Though some are not specific to the man or the marque, being more generally about Formula One, racing, or cars in general, many are dedicated to Lotus cars, and the fact that they appear in so many more general automotive books, says something about Chapman’s role in automotive history. There are at least two extensive personal biographies of Chapman, Colin Chapman, the Man and His Cars: The Authorized Biography by Gerard Crombac, a longtime Chapman associate, and Colin Chapman Wayward Genius by Mike Lawrence. Crombac had the cooperation of Hazel Chapman and other family members. As would be expected from an “authorized” biography, it avoids the less savory aspects of Chapman’s life and career. Lawrence’s book doesn’t avoid the warts, including the amphetamines and barbiturates that Chapman used to maintain an insanely hectic schedule. In the mid 1960s, Chapman was simultaneously running the Formula One team, the Lotus-Ford Indianapolis 500 program, and the car company, all while the company was moving its factory from Cheshunt to the aerodrome at Hethel, and while he was swinging the deal for the Lotus Cortina. Though Ford was pleased with the results at Indy and with the Lotus Cortina project, they decided to not give Lotus the GT40 project because of fears that the small company and Chapman were already overextended.

Now comes the dean of automotive writers, Karl Ludvigsen, to give us an accurate measure of the man’s impact on the automotive world, Colin Chapman Inside the Innovator, from Haynes Publishing. Ludvigsen could have written a standard biography, having first met Chapman in 1958 at the Italian Grand Prix. However, not wanting to tread on ground already covered by Crombac, Lawrence, and others, Ludvigsen’s 49th book, is more of a technical biography than a chronological one. In his introduction (the book has a foreword by Emerson Fittipaldi) the author says that the thematic approach “allowed me to follow Colin Chapman through specific disciplines to see how he coped with them through the years, how his thinking evolved – or didn’t – with time and experience. I found this adventure enlightening and hope you will too.”

One aim of Ludvigsen was to look at Chapman’s innovations and fairly assess whether or not credit was due. As a ruthless self-promoter, Chapman was not adverse to offering a revisionist autobiography, so one can’t exactly trust his accounts, and some of his critics or those who felt used by him may have shaded their own accounts in the other direction for their own reasons. Ludvigsen gets to the heart of the matter. He’s unsparing when Chapman took credit for others’ work and he’s full of praise when Chapman was truly an innovator. He also makes the point that though Chapman may not have actually turned the first shovel of dirt for some of his groundbreaking innovations, it was Chapman who championed them and brought them to wide acceptance.

An amateur shrink might say that Chapman was a narcissist who used people to achieve his ends. He was close to some of his drivers and could be dismissive of others – though if they had a Lotus ride it clearly meant that they were talented. His talent as a manager and ability to field competitive rides can be seen from the number of successful two-driver teams like Andretti/Petersen that he fielded. Even though he always told one driver that he was #1 I don’t believe that Chapman ever gave his drivers “team orders” to determine outcomes in favor of the #1. Running teams with two top drivers could be detrimental to winning drivers championships as his own drivers split points. Lotus won 7 constructors’ titles but only 6 drivers championships, losing that title in a season when Petersen and Andretti won more races between them than the eventual winner. After Jim Clark’s death in an F2 race at Hockenheim, he swore to never get so close to his drivers, yet both Fittipaldi and Andretti considered him a close friend. Nigel Mansell saw him as a second father and stayed with the team out of loyalty after Chapman’s death. Andretti clearly admired Chapman, “A very special man. One of a kind”, he told this writer, but his admiration had its limits.

As Ludvigsen relates, “When we first got together, Colin said, ‘Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.’ I said, ‘Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.”

Though he could be an original thinker, one of his greatest talents was assessing others’ talent. He had two modes of innovation. One was a structured approach from first principles to final design. Chapman was fond of lists, dossiers, specs and design briefs. In the other mode he’d “water ski” over an idea, giving his subordinates the basic idea and then checking and correcting their work. When one looks at who he worked with, it’s easy to see why that approach also had its successes. Many of the people Chapman employed, did business with, or used as suppliers are a who’s who of the production and racing automotive worlds. Others never recreated their success at Lotus after they left the company – Chapman could be a strong motivator. Like some others of great accomplishment, Bob Dylan comes to mind, Chapman is frequently described as a “magpie”, seeing potential in ideas whose own originators did not realize. When his in-house “queerbox” transaxle designs proved unreliable, he convinced ZF to build him one, asking them to modify one of their designs. The ZF transaxle became one of two widely used for racing in the 1960s and 1970s – the other being the Hewland. Perhaps not just coincidentally Mike Hewland was one of the few people not taken in by Chapman’s charms, and Lotus rarely used a Hewland gearbox. When Renault introduced the 16,with its inline FWD layout, he immediately recognized the drivetrain’s potential for a midengine sports car – which became the Europa.

Designers and engineers who worked for him said that he could look at a drawing and then suggest a number of improvements – some they’d already considered and others very novel. Chapman’s respect within the racing world (along with his ability to seemingly talk people into just about anything) was such that individuals and companies routinely supplied Lotus with prototype, modified or custom parts. This had its origins in Lotus’ early days when Chapman would get vendors to send him raw castings he couldn’t afford to produce for Lotus to then custom machine. Almost all Lotus production cars used parts scavenged from other automakers, from switchgear and lamps to complete engines and transmissions, a tradition the modern Lotus company keeps alive by using Toyota engines in the Elise, Exige and Evora. Much of the front suspension and steering for the Elan and +2 uses components sourced from Triumph, virtually identical to parts used on the Spitfire. With Lotus, the sum was always greater than the parts. After being sprinkled with some Chapman suspension magic (the Lotus formula was soft springs and stiff shock absorbers), though, the Elan could literally run rings around the Spit.

A musician once told me, “Hacks copy, artists steal.” Colin Chapman was no hack. While he may have taken credit for ideas not his own, the automotive world is the better for his popularizing those ideas. It’s up to the historians like Ludvigsen to give credit where it’s due.

Ludvigsen’s fairness extends to an unvarnished look at Chapman’s failures, his undeveloped or aborted ideas, abandoned ideas that may yet show promise like active suspension, as well as his fruitful ideas that could have been even more successful. Since Chapman’s obsession with weight extended to halving the number of rivets holding a chassis together, and calculating out precisely how much fuel to carry, Lotus racing cars didn’t always finish races and were justifiably characterized as fragile and sometimes lacking reliability – a characterization also applied to Lotus production cars. Winning, though, wasn’t Chapman’s goal, speed was. He would rather lead a race, proving a new idea, than win with something conventional. Mario Andretti said that as revolutionary and fast as the championship winning 72 and 79 cars were, they would have been even faster had they been stiffer and sturdier. The sound of welds breaking, rivets popping and chassises groaning was not exactly music to Lotus racers ears but a common refrain, nonetheless. One reason why F1 banned high wings after Chaparral and then Lotus proved their effectiveness was the many structural failures Lotus experienced with their wing struts. Jim Hall has often said that he and other CanAm constructors using high wings were unfairly tarred due to flimsy construction used in F1.

At 400 large format pages, the book is encyclopaediac, lavishly illustrated with historical photos from Ludvigsen’s own library as well as the historic Team Lotus archives at Ketteringham Hall. Included are facsimiles of Chapman’s own work lists, design briefs and component sketches, as well as a timeline of his life, plus an extensive bibliography and a fairly comprehensive index.

Ludvigsen even goes into the origins of an aphorism attributed to Chapman, “simplicate and add lightness”, finding that the phrase was originally coined by engineering and aviation pioneer William Stout. Chapman, who started flying while in engineering school and later served with the RAF, and briefly worked for British Aluminium, had a lifelong interest in aviation and may have picked up the phrase through that interest. While Chapman is famous for his dedication to lightness, he also simplicated, often using a single component to serve two functions (engine as structural component, airfoil radiator pods).

It’s not a surprise that a person with Chapman’s ego had issues with authority, though in his own domain he was fairly despotic. He ran his racing teams and companies like a dictator, shareholders and directors be damned (though directors were more often than not associates of his). After moveable aero devices were banned in F1, he had the rear wing of the Lotus 72 shock mounted with rubber, effectively allowing the wing to passively trim at high speed for lower drag, at least until the scrutineers discovered why Chapman was using the flexible mount. When French scrutineers would not let the Lotus 23 compete in the 1963 LeMans race (supposedly protecting French entrants with other small displacement racers), Chapman, who by then had won a number of class titles at LeMans, vowed to never race there again, and he didn’t, despite how publicity from his wins there helped sales of the road cars. Towards the end of his career, the radical twin-chassis 88 was designed to the letter of F1 regulations specifically to get around restrictions on aero devices. When F1 disqualified the car, Chapman noticeably lost interest in racing.

The book, as mentioned, is divided into chapters that individually address different technical areas, though the first and the last are a bit more general as they try to give a broader perspective on Chapman’s career. The alliterative chapter titles give a good idea of the topics covered: Conceiving Concepts, Engine Enterprise, Transmission Topics, Suspension Sagas, Structure Stories, Whittling Weight, Aerodynamic Adventures, Discovering Downforce, Man Managing, Driver Dealings, Racing Realities, Coda to Chapman.

I’m a confirmed Lotus fan, having owned an Elan since the mid 1970s, this is hardly the first Lotus book that I’ve read, and on almost every page, nearly every paragraph, I learned something new about the company and the man.

The book isn’t perfect. I spotted a couple of editing mistakes, and one is often idiomatically reminded that the writer is based in England. I’ve owned British cars, I know the difference between a hood and a bonnet, and I find the Britishisms to be charming but some might find them offputting. Of course, those that do wouldn’t likely be reading a book about a quintessentially British car guy. The format Ludvigsen decided to use sometimes gets chronologically confusing, with the author both jumping forward and back within the chapters and covering different aspects of the same chronological events in different chapters. Also, while Lotus road cars are not ignored, it seems to me that Ludvigsen’s main emphasis is Chapman’s racing innovations. Of course that partly reflects Chapman’s own interests, as he was much more intimately involved in the design and development of the race cars, tending to delegate more matters to others for the road cars.

If there’s a single Lotus production model that most accurately reflects Chapman, Ludvigsen says that it’s the Esprit. One of the few Lotus models equipped with an engine designed and built by Lotus, it “exemplified its creator’s dedication to lightness, functionality and agility”.

Ludvigsen’s assessment is that regardless of how many of “his” ideas were truly the product of Colin Chapman, and regardless of his lack of scruples in getting his ideas made concrete, Chapman was a true innovator. He was eager to embrace new ideas and eager to discard old ones (sometimes too quickly), even some of his own. In addition to his own creativity, he had a great eye for talent and technology.

He may not have been a saint, but the automotive world is the better for there having been a Colin Chapman. Colin Chapman Inside The Innovator is a masterful accounting of Chapman’s influence on that world. In his introduction Ludvigsen expressed the hope that readers would find the book enlightening and in that task I’d say that he succeeded. As with his biographies of Ferdinand Porsche and Enzo Ferrari, this will become a standard reference on Chapman and his career.

Disclaimer: Haynes Publishing sent me a review copy of the book. The book is comprehensive but not all the Lotus factoids in this review are in the book. Yeah, the review is long, but so’s the book. Besides, you’re not paying anything to read it.

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Book Review: The Great Auto Crash Fri, 18 Jun 2010 16:23:38 +0000 To say that the auto industry has had a rough several years would be an understatement of epic proportions. The bailouts of GM and Chrysler dragged many of the industry’s challenges into the open, and the dramatic rescue effort brought an unprecedented level of public awareness of long-festering problems with Detroit’s business model. Here at […]

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To say that the auto industry has had a rough several years would be an understatement of epic proportions. The bailouts of GM and Chrysler dragged many of the industry’s challenges into the open, and the dramatic rescue effort brought an unprecedented level of public awareness of long-festering problems with Detroit’s business model. Here at TTAC, these troubles have provided much grist for our discussions, which tend to focus on the product, business and customer care factors. But behind the decades of Detroit’s weak products and poor business practices, lies a political-economic narrative that tends to be left out of the discussion. In End of a Dream or The Great Auto Crash: An Inside Story, economist William Vukson fits the great sweep of macroeconomic policy since Richard Nixon into a slim volume, and explains Detroit’s dramatic collapse in terms of trade and fiscal policy rather than, say, Detroit’s “Deadly Sins”.

Needless to say, this is something of a departure from standard TTAC analysis, which tends towards product-driven explanations for Detroit’s collapse. The temptation to see GM and Chrysler as the anti-Horatio Alger stories of our times, in which good companies make bad and fall from riches to rags as a pure function of the free market, is undeniable. And if The Great Auto Crash has a shortcoming, it’s that it largely ignores Detroit’s relationship with the consumer in favor of Detroit’s equally dysfunctional relationship with Washington DC and the globalizing economy. But Vukson isn’t an industry specialist (his previous work includes consulting on the Euro launch, and books on currency, and macroeconomics), and his tale of currencies, politics and international relations no more completely explains  the auto crash than a purely consumer-driven explanation. As a backdrop to Detroit’s failure in the marketplace, however, The Great Auto Crash is indispensable.

It is not for nothing though, that economics is widely referred to as “the dismal science.” After a promising preface, Vukson dives into a defense of the Federal Reserve policies of recently disgraced former chairman Alan Greenspan. Without the benefit of Vukson’s economic narrative, this seems like a something of a non-sequitor, as it touches only briefly on auto industry-specific details. Keep reading though, and Vukson’s narrative unfolds in an epic sweep, starting with the Cold War policies of Richard Nixon, all the way through the Bush-Obama industry bailout.

After detailing the challenges faced by auto industry analysts attempting to read a US car market that has collapsed from nearly 17m units of annual sales to about 10.5m units, Vukson sets the way-back machine to the early 1970s, when the US auto industry’s dominance was first challenged by foreign competitors and pressure from rising inflation, OPEC and safety advocates like Ralph Nader.  Nixon, argues Vukson, inherited an auto industry that faced little external pressure, and was focused largely on balancing economic gains between the union and OEM pricing power. But the first cracks were already beginning to show. The US market, long closed to competition, was opened to key cold war allies like Japan and Germany. Vukson holds that this decision, though motivated by geopolitical rather than economic concerns, would have one of the more lasting impacts on the US industry.

These foreign competitors were not expected to ever replace the Detroit firms, but were rather seen as curiosities that would soon go the way of French and Italian brands, as well as the many British sportscar makers of the post-war import boom. And though he acknowledges that Detroit’s quality was in a sorry state by the mid-1970s, he avoids drawing the conclusion that superior quality alone accounts for the rise to prominence of German and Japanese automakers.

The Ford administration’s resolution of the first OPEC energy crisis, argues Vukson, allowed Detroit to continue a “business as usual” approach that ignored the potential for a second energy crisis. When the second energy crisis hit, Detroit was left vulnerable by its own complacency, which was enabled by the “false hope” of the Ford administration. When energy prices doubled between 1978 and 1980, the imports which were only allowed market access for geopolitical reasons, suddenly found themselves holding the ball with an open path to the end zone.

Much of Auto Crash is devoted to changes that came about in the Reagan administration, particularly the inflation-busting experiments of Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. With the auto industry already struggling under pressure from OPEC and safety advocates, Volcker’s decision to halt runaway inflation with tight monetary policies sent interest rates soaring above 18 percent, and made the dollar appreciate considerably against the Japanese Yen. Vukson writes:

It was not necessarily a fact that the Japanese made more fuel efficient cars, hence the American consumer was focused on hedging the increasingly erratic prices at the pumps; but it was more a testament to the undervaluation of the Japanese imports which was made possible by tight Fed money policies to the point where these vehicles were just too good to pass up or, at least experiment with.

Vukson does acknowledge, however, that Detroit’s complacent response to the first energy crisis resulted in crude, uninspiring products that were rushed to market when the second energy crisis hit. Was this complacency the original sin? Would the Japanese automakers have made the gains in this period that they did had the Dollar-Yen relationship not spun out of balance? Vukson’s implied answer to both of these is no. In any case, he argues that the more crucial decision in the Reagan era was not Volcker’s inflation-busting per se, but the government’s response to growing pressure from Japanese automakers.

Though Reagan helped break OPEC’s power and check inflation, the final leg of his economic policy would prove to be the most disastrous yet for the Detroit firms. In the effort to secure currency concessions from Japan, the Reagan administration demanded import restrictions, and more fatally, demanded that Japanese firms produce more of their vehicles in the United States. Given the industry’s relatively rapid transition from serving a protected market dominated to the Detroit 3 to a far more globalized, competitive environment, this would prove to be the final nail in the protectionist paradigm.

With consumers already tempted by more-efficient, higher-quality Japanese cars, the rise of transplant manufacturing broke Detroit’s long-unanimous support in congress. The transplants’ decision to build plants in non-union Southern states not only helped maintain their cost-competitiveness, it divided the American body politic to the point where protectionist policies of the past had no chance of being exhumed, and enabled the loud opposition to the Bush-Obama industry bailout. The NAFTA free-trade deals of the Bush I and Clinton administrations further complicated the political perspective on Detroit, especially when Detroit became a major beneficiary of cheap Mexican labor. Low oil costs were the major government priority in terms of Detroit-friendly policies, and once again it allowed complacency that led to the short-term SUV boom.

With quality improving thanks to intense transplant competition, yet another problem was building for Detroit by the time Bill Clinton took office. Cars were lasting longer and car ownership was outstripping the population, leading to concerns about the sustainability of the industry. With Alan Greenspan in charge at the fed, financial deregulation became the industry’s great hope for a sustainable future. Taking advantage of Greenspan’s low Fed rates to offer cheap loans and cheaper leases, the industry was able to revert to a more fashion-oriented business model than the pragmatic, fear-driven approach of the 1970s. This drove huge profits in fashionable segments like SUVs and luxury cars, as the industry convinced more and more consumers to trade in their vehicles after two to four years, despite the fact that they would now last longer than ever.

But the low rates that enabled this consumer debt binge was also combining with the rise of global free trade to hollow out the American manufacturing sector while hiding its effects in subsequent technology and real-estate bubbles. This, argues Vukson, is ultimately why GM and Chrysler collapsed just a few years ago. With collapse of the credit markets, the cheap loans and leases that kept the US market “sustainable” above 15m units were no longer available, causing the entire industry to collapse to its current level. Already staggering under legacy costs, and having never fully recovered from the OPEC/currency imbalance/transplant body slams, GM and Chrysler’s immune systems were unable to survive the correction that occurred in 2008 and 2009.

Of course, Detroit had no shortage of opportunities to turn itself around, most recently with the huge profits of the SUV era. Vukson tends to trace Detroit’s inability to capitalize on the good times in preparation for the bad to government policies like Alan Greenspan’s low interest rates, which he says caused Detroit to become complacent. And if you subscribe to a more free-market philosophy, it’s tempting to dismiss this analysis as apologia. This response, however, would be missing Vukson’s main point.

Though it’s interesting to dissect the decline of Detroit, and though focusing strictly on that single phenomenon requires more than just macroeconomic analysis, there’s a larger issue at play here. The final bankruptcy and bailout of GM and Chrysler were but symptoms of a larger issue, and one that has not been resolved by the bailout: drastically reduced demand for automobiles in the US. The bailouts and reorganizations at GM and Chrysler have helped these two firms adapt to a dramatically smaller market for new cars, but it will only have been worth it if future growth is still possible. Because of inertia in consumer perceptions (not to mention anger at the bailout), GM and Chrysler’s future depends more on a pick-up in the overall market than on major gains in market share (which never happen without a fight). But, says Vukson, financial “magic” was the key to the market’s “sustainability,” and now it’s gone with no obvious replacement waiting in the wings.

Will the market return to 15m or more units any time soon? It’s hard to say that Vukson is optimistic on this point. The only real options he leaves on the table are resisting calls for financial regulation and allowing the financial “magic” to continue, or “aggressive spending” to counter the industry’s decline, specifically in the area of green technology and improved production models. Neither of these options are particularly attractive, especially for free-market-oriented thinkers, but the alternative could be an industry stuck battling for a market that refuses to grow organically. From this perspective, perhaps a more fitting title for the book would be The Great Auto Correction. In any case, Vukson’s ability to condense decades of economic and political policies into a slim, easily-understood volume is of far more value than attempts to politicize his findings. As always, the truth is a complex thing, and The Great Auto Crash adds another valuable level of analysis for more product-oriented industry-watchers.

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Book Review: Carjacked: The Culture of Automobiles And Its Effects On Our Lives Fri, 26 Feb 2010 16:19:21 +0000 [Editor’s note: Please join us today at 3pm Eastern (noon Pacific) for a livechat with the authors of Carjacked: The Culture Of The Automobile And Its Effects On Our Lives] Over the last several weeks, the Toyota recall scandal has reopened the national discussion about car ownership, raising new questions about the role of personal […]

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[Editor’s note: Please join us today at 3pm Eastern (noon Pacific) for a livechat with the authors of Carjacked: The Culture Of The Automobile And Its Effects On Our Lives]

Over the last several weeks, the Toyota recall scandal has reopened the national discussion about car ownership, raising new questions about the role of personal responsibility in our relationships with automobiles. Here at TTAC, we’ve argued passionately that a major lesson of the Toyota recall is that consumers can not rely on brand reputation or the assumption that cars will always work as we expect them to in order to protect ourselves and our families. But responsible car ownership doesn’t end there. To maintain a functioning relationship with our cars, it’s important that motorists understand that the vehicles we cherish come with high costs. And anyone who thinks that the awesome power of the private automobile doesn’t come with great responsibilities would do well to read through the relentless documentation of these costs that makes up the book Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect On Our Lives.

A number of our readers will doubtless interpret Carjacked as an explicitly anti-car text, and from the cover image of a man straining under the weight of an SUV to the conclusion’s exhortations to support public transportation, there’s little to disabuse the reader of that impression. Indeed, upon a first reading, the car-loving reader might be tempted to dismiss the authors as irrationally car-hating ideologues. But at the end of the introduction to Carjacked, its authors offer an insight that should give pause to those who would discard the book as a mere screed:

asking individual Americans to take a close look at the problems caused by the automobiles can elicit a defensive gut response. Just as suggesting that a loved one sit down with a marriage counselor or a nutrition advisor can evoke fears of divorce or draconian diet restrictions, asking a driver to examine the full impact of the car on his life can prompt deep anxiety that he will be forced to give up his car. But for most of us, the choice is not between the car and no car. It is about whether it is possible to drive less and pay less for it; it is about recognizing the powerful lure of car advertising ad educating ourselves about the schemes of the dealership; it is about making careful choices about where to live when we move…

This sensibility alone prevents Carjacked from descending completely into the politically-driven, auto-hatred of the far left. The authors, anthropologist Catherine Lutz and marketer/investment banker Anne Lutz Fernandez, do indulge in a certain amount of utopian anti-car-ism, but their approach is more rooted in the problems of our daily life than garden-variety political demagoguery. And what red-blooded pistonhead can’t admit that the fantasy of our love for automobiles is rarely echoed in reality?

Car lovers having a hard time dealing with their “defensive gut reactions” to Carjacked‘s frontal assault would be well advised to start with Chapter Seven, which addresses the problem of traffic. While many of the book’s beefs with the automobile involve broader social challenges like economic inequality, poor health and the dire results of effective marketing, the section on traffic, sprawl and road rage help illustrate how car obsession hurts car lovers as much or more than anyone else. “Sartre’s much repeated line, ‘Hell is other people,’ may hold as a truism more on the nation’s highways than anywhere else in the public sphere,” write the authors. “Americans tend to treat traffic and its related hassles as a problem caused by others, failing to recognize our own role as drivers.”

It’s a pity, then, that the authors force readers through 150 pages of comprehensive and relentless criticism of all things car-related before giving motorists such an approachable example of the problems of car culture. Despite having admitted that “for most of us, the choice is not between the car and no car,” the authors blame car marketing for perpetuating the myth that cars equal freedom before ever getting to the infinitely more common sense critique that our actual, day-to-day freedom is more dependent on the number of other cars on the road than the ground clearance of our SUV, or the amount of horsepower under our hoods.

This is emblematic of the fundamental problem with Carjacked: it falls into the convenient trap of blaming everyone from oil and auto companies, to government policy and the entertainment industry for the automobile’s ills, reducing individuals to mere pawns of these malignant forces. Not only does this approach confuse the symptom (the negative effects of automobiles) with the disease (the broader social values and historical legacies of modern America) but it also alienates the authors from the average reader who, according to the statistics, are more likely to own two or three automobiles than none at all.

This is a shame, because the authors do wrap up the book with some solid advice for individual motorists who struggle with the all-too-common reality of feeling like their car owns them instead of the other way around. But it’s also telling that, once the authors are done dishing out advice to help Americans take charge in their personal relationship with the automobile and help address the larger issues around auto-dependence, it urges the reader to “get political” by lobbying for improved public transit, less car-friendly land-use policies and higher fuel efficiency standards.

Though its fair to include political advocacy at the end of Carjacked, most readers who make it through to the conclusion probably agreed with the book’s politics before they picked it up. Motorists who want to better understand the impacts of their personal relationship with the automobile (let alone the multiplied impacts of our national relationship with cars) without distracting wedge issues (Anthropogenic global warming and a section titled “why Rush Limbaugh likes sprawl” come to mind) will have to look elsewhere.

Ultimately, Carjacked is packed with perspectives that car lovers typically avoid, and unfortunately it gives them plenty of reasons to avoid it. Carjacked seems to have been written for people who already dislike and fear automobiles, rather than those who appreciate and use them most. Which is a minor tragedy, considering that the book is understandably unable to plot a clear course away from our dependence on private automobiles. Since even Carjacked‘s authors seem to admit that the automobile is here to stay, they probably should have focused their book more on the people who do love, appreciate and regularly use automobiles. Because love can be blind, but functional relationships are based on truly understanding the impacts of our own actions.

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