In the Rearview Mirror ‘The Life of the Automobile,’ by Steven Parissien
AUGUST 15, 2014 i The NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
General Motors was hemorrhaging cash and couldn’t get any more loans to pay its debts. Finally, after a plea from the head of its Cadillac division, the company was thrown a financial lifeline, under the condition that it be controlled by a group of trustees.
It was 1910. Eighteen other carmakers collapsed that year. But G.M., then a consortium of 25 brands, survived on the strength of its size and persuasive leadership.
As with most commodities, the history of the automobile is cyclical, a story of near death and resurrection. Five years removed from the federal government’s intervention, it’s easy to mistake the bankruptcies of G.M. and Chrysler, the largest and smallest of the Detroit Three, as unique. But when it comes to cars, the past is a veritable merry-go-round of bailouts, consolidation and boom times. Each generation, it seems, falls prey to the same missteps.
Steven Parissien’s exhaustive, century-long global overview, “The Life of the Automobile,” lavishes careful attention on the drama, rivalries and infighting that have propelled the industry. Beginning with a description of the death of the irascible Henry Ford, who created both the world’s first mass-market car and the first mass-production manufacturing system, Parissien, the director of the Compton Verney museum and gallery in Warwickshire, England, takes the reader on a mostly fascinating ride through the topsy-turvy makes, models and marques of yesteryear to explain how we’ve arrived where we are today.
The book excels at revealing little-known lore about the titans who are commonly, but mistakenly, remembered as infallible geniuses. Take, for example, Ford’s three attempts at automaking. The first was the Detroit Automobile Company, incorporated in 1899 and folded 14 months later. “Henry had simply never delivered to his new plant a finished car design; unable to adapt his obsessive working practices to industrial deadlines, he simply stopped coming into the factory,” Parissien writes. “His employees saw less and less of him, and eventually found themselves out of work. It was not an auspicious start.” Ford’s second effort, established the following year as the Henry Ford Company, became Cadillac, eventually part of rival G.M., after his board ousted him. In 1903, a third try gained traction, growing into the Ford Motor Company, the Blue Oval we know today.
Though the Model A, which was available only in red and achieved a top speed of 28 m.p.h., begat the industry’s more familiar progeny, the distinction of creating the world’s first gasoline-powered car goes to the German engineer Karl Benz. In 1885, in the back of a bicycle shop, he put together three wire wheels, a four-stroke engine, an electric coil ignition and a transmission consisting of two chains that connected the engine to the rear axle. The result was a contraption that traveled only slightly faster than walking, but the automotive revolution was underway.
That same year and 60 miles away, Gottlieb Daimler created the first motorcycle, affixing a gas engine, designed by his partner Wilhelm Maybach, to a bicycle. But shortly after forming a public company to sell their engines, and just like Henry Ford across the Atlantic, Daimler and Maybach were forced out by what Parissien calls the “money men,” the looming villains — or bankers — continually at odds with the creative talent.
Told against the backdrop of the Ford family, unwavering in their longevity, Parissien’s painstaking history can veer toward the plodding at times. Not every chapter of automotive history is equally enthralling, and the early anecdotes through to the industry’s zenith in 1959 (the “annus mirabilis”) are richer and more captivating than the later sections. We learn, for example, that the car birthed or fostered not only highways, motels, drive-through restaurants and drive-in movies, municipal parking garages and innovations in home architecture to accommodate the one-car garage, but also mail-order businesses, holidays, campgrounds, ski resorts and destinations like Vermont, which was “a quiet, remote backwater until the car and its highway came along.” We follow the industry through its growth in the teens and 1920s (G.M.’s idea to refresh models annually to stimulate demand was an early boon to the industry), its Depression-era slump and its World War II shake-up, which created one of the most popular automobiles of all time, the General Purpose Vehicle, or G.P., later known as the Jeep.
The postwar years altered the industry’s makeup, carving up companies that were no longer viable. An adviser cautioned Henry Ford against acquiring then-struggling Volkswagen, which would be given to Ford of Britain free of charge, with a flippant “Mr. Ford, I don’t think what we are being offered here is worth a damn.” But in the late 1950s the automobile hit its stride as an indispensable accouterment of modern life, boosting excess in the form of tail fins, exaggerated grilles and panoramic windshields, and fueled by cheap gasoline, suburban growth and mounting demand.
Parissien’s encyclopedic knowledge is particularly satisfying when he is recounting the stories behind the most opulent brands. Mercedes (the Spanish word for “mercy”) was the nickname of a daughter of the Jewish entrepreneur who helped Benz market the cars that eventually became the Nazis’ vehicle of choice. There’s Enzo Ferrari, a mechanic from humble beginnings in northern Italy and “an enthusiastic Fascist,” who turned to selling cars to support his racing habit. And let’s not forget the unlikely but historic pairing of the aristocratic Charles Rolls with F. H. Royce, a miller’s son with only three years of schooling; together they built one of the world’s foremost luxury marques.
Still, such details do not always bring the industry to life. The chapters on the modern age, after 1959, meander, even if Parissien does make a case for the period’s importance: The Toyota 2000GT, introduced in the 1967 Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” put Japanese automakers on the map, and Ralph Nader ushered in an age of regulation. In 1981, Japan, known for its fuel-efficient compact cars, gained the mantle of the world’s largest automobile producer, eliciting from Roger Smith, G.M.’s chief executive, the derisive barb that characterized the company’s casual attitude for years to come: “What did the Japanese invent in cars?” And Smith went on: “The only thing I can think of is that little coin holder.” But, as Parissien writes, he “stopped laughing when the Japanese manufacturers began making substantial inroads into G.M.’s market share.”
Now, post-bankruptcy and on the road to recovery, the Detroit Three have paid penance for their reckless acquisitions of the 1980s and ’90s. A new chapter has begun, with an “Imported From Detroit” esprit vying against the world’s automotive giants (even in the face of G.M.’s recent safety scandal). Meanwhile, Toyota has been humbled by a series of recalls, along with allegations that its cars suddenly and unintentionally accelerate, and Volkswagen is investing billions of dollars across the globe to fulfill its goal of becoming the world’s largest automaker by 2018. It would serve today’s leaders well to remember the heroes and villains behind the cars that boomed and busted in Parissien’s cautionary tale.