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'Engines of Change' by Paul Ingrassia

1953 Chevrolet Corvette.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette. Credit: WIECK/GM

ENGINES OF CHANGE: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, by Paul Ingrassia. Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $30.

It would be impossible to count the number of automotive makes and models that have come and gone since the car was first invented -- or the number of books that have been written about them. The inescapable ubiquity of the automobile has made them, for better or worse, a sort of cultural fodder that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Ingrassia inventively exploits in "Engines of Change."

The question at the center of his treatise: Do cars shape culture, or does culture shape cars? It's an intriguing idea explored with in-depth investigations of 15 passenger vehicles that, in Ingrassia's opinion, "rose above merely defining the people who drove them. . . . [They} helped shape their era and uniquely reflected the spirit of their age."

"Engines of Change" doesn't begin with the first car ever invented, which is a subject of dispute. Rather, it kicks off with the car that first made automotive transportation simple, affordable and practical -- the Ford Model T, which cost $850, got almost 20 miles to the gallon and traveled 40 miles an hour when it was introduced in 1908.

Ingrassia then moves on to General Motors' idea to build "a car for every purse and purpose," setting up the ongoing rivalry among Detroit manufacturers. While American companies get the most attention, Volkswagen and its Beetle, BMW and its yuppie 3 series sedans, Honda with its Civic and Toyota's Prius also get individual chapters.

Ingrassia selects the Chevrolet Corvette as the poster child of postwar American ascendancy. First introduced in 1953, the Corvette demonstrates Ingrassia's appreciation for the engineering and aesthetic derring-do of the vehicles themselves as well as the grandiose characters that brought them to life.

Two sets of glossy photo galleries are pictorial shorthand for the author's talking points, including an image of tail-finned Dodge cruisers at the 1957 Detroit auto show and the cover of Car and Driver magazine showing five basketball players standing next to "a revolutionary new vehicle, the minivan, which was small enough to fit in a garage but big enough to hold five Detroit Pistons."

Ingrassia's writing style is as accessible as it is friendly. He is the deputy editor in chief of Reuters and was, at one time, Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, where he won the Pulitzer in 1993 for his investigations into General Motors' management problems.

One of the book's more thought-provoking premises connects the Chevrolet Corvair's safety issues in the '60s to the 2000 presidential election. Ingrassia argues that Ralph Nader's fame for bringing the Corvair's safety issues to light catapulted him into the spotlight as a consumer rights crusader who was able to trade that fame into a presidential campaign bid that divided the vote and brought George W. Bush to power.

With "Engines of Change," Ingrassia has done a phenomenal amount of research, and an even more impressive job of balancing history, culture and cars.

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