Inside the American Car

In a recent Jalopnik article, auto journalist Elizabeth Blackstock poses a question to her reading audience. When she asks, ‘what’s your favorite car book?’, Blackstock is looking for reading material that has changed an individual’s perspective of a car, or altered his or her perception of the auto industry. Blackstock’s question led me back to my days in graduate school when I selected Car: A Drama of the American Workplace to review as an assignment. Mary Walton’s book – a first-hand account of the 1996 Ford Tauras development and launch – was both educational and illuminative. Written in 1997, Car offers an inside look into an industry that was, at the time, struggling for survival. For those who have an interest in the inner workings of the auto industry in a particular moment in time, I offer my slightly updated review of Mary Walton’s Car for your edification and enjoyment.

Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, written by Mary Walton, follows the lifecycle of an American automobile, the 1996 Ford Taurus, from conception to production to purchase. Walton, a veteran journalist, was provided with unprecedented access into the inner sanctum of the Ford Motor Company for this assignment. For three years, Walton became a part of the Taurus team, as designers and engineers, planners and analysts, and manufacturing and product managers worked diligently and ceaselessly to develop “The Car That Would Save Ford.” In her reporting and analysis, Walton is both critical and kind. Over the course of the Taurus launch, she develops respect and affinity for the individuals she encounters, yet rarely allows those relationships to get in the way of objectivity. For those unfamiliar with the auto industry, Walton offers remarkable insight into the problems and obstacles that plague American car companies. At a point in history when American automobile manufacturers were in danger of going out of business, Walton’s insightful examination not only uncovers weaknesses and vulnerabilities within Ford, but also identifies possible contributors to the impending industry collapse.

The Ford Motor Company has a long and determined history. Its founder, Henry Ford, was an individual who found change difficult, so much so that he built the same car, the Model T, for nearly 20 years. This ideological resistance to change, Walton discovers, is endemic within the current Ford corporate culture. Invention and innovation, in both product and policy, are most often met with apprehension and obstinacy. As Walton astutely observes, the failure to think “outside the box,” to take chances, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an automobile company such as Ford to stake a claim as an industry leader. The redesign and reinvention of the 1996 Taurus presented the possibility of such a position. However, the goal of the Taurus team was never to create a great new car, but rather, to “beat Camry.” It was not to build a better vehicle for its own sake, but to build one equal to or better than a vehicle, the Toyota Camry, that already existed. As Car suggests, developing new products in this manner situates Ford as a competitor rather than a leader. Building a car as a response rather than an introduction guarantees that Ford is always playing catch-up, with the consequence that the company is continually years behind its closest competitor in product design and development.

Walton also paints a revealing portrait of Ford management, a bureaucratic structure of almost unfathomable proportions. It is a complicated, multi-level system that not only stifles creative thinking, but also creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among the rank and file. There are so many approval layers that decisions made by lower echelons may reach the top only to be arbitrarily dismissed by those in power. Superiors often have little knowledge of the factors that went into such decisions, yet possess the ability to change or kill a concept at will. Walton also observes a culture in which white-collar workers are held hostage by an entrenched corporate promotion system based on job level categories. Ambitious Ford employees will do just about anything to rise through the ranks of this elaborate system, and fear staying at any level for too long a period. There is a tremendous amount of competition for promotions, and “rocking the boat” most often decreases an individual’s chance of advancement. Thus individuals are uneasy speaking up to or disagreeing with those in authority. As Walton writes, “the higher you went up the executive ladder, the less people spoke out.” Dick Landgraff, the head engineer on the Taurus project, was often “frustrated by how hard it was to find out what colleagues really thought” (87).

1996 Ford Taurus

Walton describes a white-collar atmosphere in which every aspect of a project is discussed ad infinitum. She remarks, “one of the problems at Ford, one of the many problems at Ford, was that people were afraid to be specific, to make commitments, because they might get nailed if things went awry” (46). Ford engineers and designers often spent more time in meetings than actually working on projects. Walton relates the story of management consultant hired by Ford, who attended seven meetings totaling twelve hours in length. She remarks, “He counted 155 people and one decision. This means 155 people spent 11 hours ‘sharing information’”(146). The time spent in meetings not only causes individuals to lose focus on the project at hand, but it also exponentially increases the time from concept to completion. While the Japanese are able to get an automobile to market in just over two years, it takes Ford almost five to complete the same process. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the preferences of the American car buying public five years in advance. Automobiles developed in such an extended time frame are often out of date before they reach the public. As Landgraff remarked to Walton, “if the Taurus were going to save Western democracy, the war would have been over by the time we got it on the street” (118).

However, perhaps the most lasting and illuminating impression Walton provides in Car is of a company that has lost its way. The endless meetings, strict hierarchy, inability to make decisions and fear of innovation reveal a corporation unclear of its identity and direction heading into the twenty-first century. The redesign of the 1996 Taurus was undertaken with the goal of meeting or exceeding the success of the original version, which had been the best-selling car in America in 1992. Yet as Walton discloses, “the amazing truth was that Ford never quite understood precisely how or why it had scored with the original Taurus” (52). To achieve success with the redesigned Taurus, Ford believed it was imperative to attract the import buyer rather than expand its own customer base. Yet Ford misunderstood its target, defining the new Taurus customer as the former “varsity football player and his cheerleader wife,” a family configuration more reflective of the 1950s than the upcoming millennium. As a consequence, the new Taurus appealed to no one, not the import buyer nor the traditional Ford customer. As Walton notes after the Taurus introduction, “the press was saying, after a fashion, that the car was too good” (343). Body engineers such as Steve Kozak detected the implication that “Ford had done something almost un-American by elevating ‘America’s car’ beyond the reach of the guys with blue collars” (343). Rather than develop a car to please the American car buyer, Ford’s goal was to out-Japanese the Japanese. The result was a car that cost more than the Camry, making it inaccessible to the average Ford customer, yet with limited appeal to import buyers. Walton adds, “during the four-year journey from Dearborn to dealers, the market had shifted,” a trend noted by the manufacturers of the Camry.  In 1996, the year of the new Taurus, a redesigned Camry debuted with “conservative styling, fewer niceties, and lower prices than the previous model.” Unlike the Ford Motor Company, Walton tells us, “ever-vigilant Toyota had responded to the latest market shift” (347). In 1996, the Camry became the number one car in its class; the Taurus finished a distant third.

When Mary Walton was granted permission to document the development of the 1996 Taurus, she couldn’t believe her good fortune. Yet as she remarks, “sadly, after reading the completed manuscript, Ford management came to regret having allowed a journalist such a candid look at its operations” (xi). The reaction to Car questions how Ford allowed Walton to infiltrate its headquarters in the first place. Perhaps gender played a role, as the presence of a female journalist was perceived as non-threatening to an overwhelmingly male, technologically driven constituency. Normally isolated and introverted, it is possible many of the engineers actually welcomed Walton’s intrusion and used the opportunity to open up to her. Walton’s lack of automotive expertise may have also worked to her advantage. Ford employees may have spoken freely because they assumed Walton would have difficulty understanding what they were talking about. Ford executives, individuals with considerable egos, may have felt themselves to be above reproach; thus their actions and motives would not be questioned nor referred to in a negative manner. It is also possible that Ford offered Walton unprecedented access because it believed that the Taurus was destined to become a remarkable success. Therefore, the book would paint a glowing picture of Ford and its ideology, personnel and structure. 

Finally, perhaps Walton was welcomed for the simple reason that Ford believed if readers could understand what really went on behind its famed glass walls, the image of the corporation would rise considerably in the public imagination. While ultimately such a goal was not achieved, Mary Walton provides an intriguing and enlightened look at the inner workings of an American car company. And while it was written over 25 years ago, Car: A Drama of the American Workplace, provides important and relevant insight into the problems and obstacles that faced Ford, as well as General Motors and Chrysler, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Do you have a favorite car book? What makes an automotive book worth reading? Your suggestions are welcome!

3 Women Under the Tent

Me, Constance Smith, and Sigur Whitaker at the SAH book signing event.

I had the wonderful opportunity to return to the Society of Automotive Historians book signing event at the 2019 Hershey Fall Meet to promote my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars. It’s always a great time to connect with other auto history buffs, check out new titles, and of course, sell a few books. This year I was joined by two other female authors: Sigur Whitaker, who writes extensively about the people and places of Indianapolis, and Constance Smith, who authored the award-winning Damsels in Design: Pioneers in the Automotive Industry, 1939-1959. Constance spoke at an event in downtown Detroit last year, accompanied by Elizabeth Wetzel of General Motors and featured designer Mary Ellen Green, which I had the pleasure of attending. In Damsels, Constance has collected the stories of the women of Harvey Earl’s GM styling group of the early 1950s. These female designers were a significant –  and often overlooked – part of automotive history. A former GM employee herself, Constance provides unique insight as well as an inside look into the careers and lives of these groundbreaking women.

Traditionally, the SAH book signing tent has been filled primarily with male authors. Thus it was great to share the table with these two outstanding writers of the female persuasion. May subsequent years see many more women under the tent.

Have you read any automotive books written by women? Do you think female authors offer a new perspective to automotive literature and history?

Points & Condensers

Book presentation at the Points & Condensers Restoration Society, Ypsilanti MI

I was honored – and somewhat intimidated – today to talk about my book to a group of avid car enthusiasts. The Points & Condensers Restoration Society is an organization that meets the first Saturday of each month to nosh, talk about cars, and attend a presentation on various car subjects. The meetings are held in a storage garage owned by Bill Milliken, which is filled with an ever changing array of new and old cars of every description. As I looked around while setting up, I noticed – to no surprise – that the attendees were primarily male. There were very few women in attendance; however, those that were there made a point of coming up to me and lending their encouragement and support. The presentation went very well, I sold a few books, and I met John Tucker – the grandson of the founder of Tucker automobiles – who, as it turns out, happens to be a neighbor. I was invited back to next month’s presentation which focuses on the Shelby. It was a great experience and hopefully I changed some minds about women and cars.

Are you a woman with a muscle car? Has the response of male car enthusiasts been positive or negative? Feel free to share your muscle car experiences in the comments section.

HAM Speaker Series

Today I had the pleasure of presenting my book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars – as part of the Hackett Auto Museum Speaker Series. The presentation was held at the Carnegie Library in Jackson, Michigan, an old historic building with an interesting past. It was a very cold day – with temperatures hovering around zero – which no doubt affected the attendance. But those who braved the frigid temperatures were polite, interested, asked good questions, and purchased a few books. All in all a good day.

Do you ever attend automotive book readings? If so, what have been some of your favorites? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Book Signing @ Hershey

Under the tent at Hershey PA

The SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] book signing is an annual event prior to the Hershey Car Show, and this year I was privileged to be there as an author. It poured the entire day, so there weren’t a lot of visitors to the tent. But there was a lot of talking, sharing, and even a little book buying among those who weathered the storm. It was a great way to connect with other SAH folks – the close quarters and inclement weather resulted in getting to know other car folks better.

Do you read books about cars? What are your favorites and what do you like about them? You are welcome to share your best-car-book list in the comments section.

Autoline with John McElroy

Appearance on Autoline After Hours with John McElroy

Had the amazing opportunity to talk about my book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars on Autoline After Hours with John McElroy. I was nervous but John and his cohost Gary Vasilash asked informed and interesting questions and made me feel at ease. Throttle Gals editor Doni Langdon was also on the show and added another very much needed female perspective.

Are you a fan of Car TV? What are your favorite shows and what do you like about them? Feel free to add a best of list to the comments section.

Speaking @ Motor Muster

Signage at Greenfield Village to promote my presentation on women and muscle cars.
Motor Muster – Greenfield Village, Dearborn MI

Motor Muster is a longtime annual event held Father’s Day weekend on the beautiful grounds of Greenfield Village – part of the Henry Ford complex in Dearborn, Michigan. It is a car show like no other; there are no prizes, just hundreds cars from the 1930s-1970s parked all over the village. There could be no better place to present my work than the town that Henry Ford built. The presentation went well with many in attendance, and I participated in a book signing afterwards. It was quite a thrill to see my book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars – featured in the Greenfield Village bookstore.

Have you visited automotive museums? What have been your favorites? You are welcome to share your museum experiences in the comments section.

Drive History Conference

Presenting in Allentown PA

Attended my first “Drive History” conference as both a presenter and spectator. It was an interesting three days. I met a lot of new folks from the automotive community – academics, historians, collectors, and car enthusiasts. There were classic cars to drive, presentations on preservation, restoration, and automotive history, and an up-close-and-personal look at the infamous ‘Bullit” Mustang. It was a great chance to network, talk about my book – Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars – and mill around dozens of automobiles.

Do you enjoy looking at classic automobiles? What are your favorites, and if you could have any old vehicle, what would it be? You are welcome to share your best-car-list in the comments section.