Required Reading

The automobile has been the muse of countless authors, and there are many books about cars and the car industry that make a compelling argument for closing up the laptop or switching off the TV. The following selections, however, are of special interest because they illuminate a specific sphere of the automotive universe. Each is akin to a crash course in a single automotive subject.
But don’t worry; there’s no final exam.

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace
by Mary Walton

How many of us really understand what’s involved with the design, engineering, and launch of a new car? This book, which chronicles the development of the 1996 Ford Taurus, is a window into that tortuous process. Ford’s then-chairman, Harold A. Poling, granted Walton complete access, a mistake no car company will ever make again. The fact that we now know that the ’96 Taurus went on to become a major failure in the marketplace makes the effort that went into the car’s creation all the more incredible. If you spend any time bitching about the failings and compromises in new cars, it’s worthwhile to understand just what it takes to develop one. Read this, and you’ll realize it’s a miracle that new cars get made at all. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 360 pages

The Dream Machine: The Golden Age of American Automobiles 1946-1965
by Jerry Flint

This is an immensely readable, highly entertaining historical primer on the glory years for American carmakers. What makes Flint’s history particularly rich and lively is that it’s filled with quotes from dozens of key players, who provide the human backstory. The book is arranged by year, with additional chapters on fins, grilles, small cars, show cars, convertibles, station wagons, the Corvette and the Thunderbird, the Edsel, and the start-up dreamers. Extensively illustrated with period photographs and far better written than most marque-specific books, The Dream Machine is a very easy way to fill in any gaps in your knowledge of the postwar heyday of the American car. Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 344 pages

The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry
by Brock Yates

Yates delves into America’s great industry at its nadir. How did things go so wrong for America’s auto companies? What is it they did to get themselves into the mess they’re in now? In many ways, Detroit’s automakers, powerful and (usually) profitable, yet insular and parochial, were victims of their own success. The heart of this book is the chapter on the Detroit mind, with its dissection of the auto executive: where he comes from, how he looks, what he does, where he lives, how he works, and what he must do to succeed. Yes, U.S. auto companies have changed a lot since this book was written in the early 1980s, but it’s worth examining the cultural precedents that they’ve had to – and still have to – overcome. Empire Books, 301 pages

Ford: The Dust and the Glory, A Racing History
by Leo Levine

There are so many different arenas of auto racing that it’s hard to pick one book that gives a definitive insight into the sport, but this magisterial – and massive – tome, which covers the years 1901 to 1967, comes close. Because the book is ostensibly about Ford, it gives a somewhat fractured account, but Ford’s international presence means that the book deals with Formula 1 and rallying as well as various homegrown American racing series. Levine does a great job capturing the culture of the hot-rodders whose prewar exploits on the dry lakes of Southern California would lead to Ford’s postwar triumphs at Indianapolis and Le Mans; he was also one of the first to write seriously about NASCAR, which wasn’t considered to be a major form of motorsport at the time the book was written. Although Levine’s long-awaited follow-up was a disaster, The Dust and the Glory remains a benchmark for all future motorsports historians. The Macmillan Company, 630 pages

A Century of Automotive Style
By Michael Lamm and Dave Holls

This history of American auto design is impressive in scope, and yet here it’s broken into small, easily digested pieces that allow you to keep nibbling without getting too full. It helps that this book is packed full of factory photos, including rarely seen pictures of failed styling proposals and early iterations of production designs, which illustrate the progression from designer’s sketch to auto showroom. The text introduces us to the players and their maneuverings, providing the human drama behind the sheetmetal shapes. Sidebars explain additional elements such as how auto design is related to shipbuilding, why Henry Ford painted his Model T black, and the origin of Planned Obsolescence. Lamm-Morada Publishing Co., Inc., 306 pages

Where the Suckers Moon
by Randall Rothenberg

We’ve all seen hundreds of car commercials, which we’ve snickered at, yawned at, or – occasionally – admired. Their empty-winding-road sameness suggests that auto advertising is a relatively brainless affair. Not so. This book takes you behind the scenes of an automotive advertising campaign; in this case it’s a highly unsuccessful campaign, in which Subaru hired hotshot ad agency Weiden & Kennedy to launch the SVX, the luxury/sport coupe that was supposed to vault the Japanese automaker out of its economy-car ghetto. Rothenberg, a columnist for Adweek, can come off as a bit of a know-it-all, but he provides an excellent window into the process, which proves to be a mixture of high art and low-down hucksterism with a healthy overlay of self-delusion played out against a backdrop of conflicting objectives. Read it, and you might even pause before switching channels on the next car that heads down a scenic, empty highway. Vintage Books, 480 pages

by Ben Hamper

Few groups are more derided than UAW autoworkers, but how many observers actually know what it’s like to build cars for a living? Allow fourth-generation shop rat Ben Hamper to take you inside the industrial fortress of Greaseball Mecca (GM). Hamper spent a good chunk of the ’70s and ’80s as a tiny cog in the massive machine cranking out Suburbans at GM Truck and Bus in Flint. His essays on life inside and outside the factory (drawn from a series he wrote for Michael Moore’s Flint Voice) are as entertaining as they are irreverent. Assaulted by vengeful bosses, inane propaganda (GM’s Qual-ity Cat), and oppressive boredom, he fights back with booze, humor, pranks, and more booze. It’s the blue-collar reality you won’t get in a Bruce Springsteen song. Warner Books, 234 pages

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