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A review of American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce C. Hoffman.

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Drive My Car

Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages)

The Germans couldn’t change their company’s name back to Daimler fast enough.   Chrysler was a bad memory, and the automotive merger of the century a regrettable failure.

In 2005, the Ford Motor Company built 4.8 million cars and trucks, and sold 3.3 million of them.   This meant that 1.5 million sparkling new cars, SUVs, trucks and pick-ups were destroyed.   Such was the prelude to the disaster that fell upon the auto industry when the U.S. economy hit rock-bottom three years later in the summer of 2008.   Ironically, Ford was the manufacturer left standing, while General Motors (GM) and Chrysler came within days and weeks of shutting down operations forever.

How bad was it?   Well, by the end of ’08, GM was losing $60 million every single day.  Instead of buying 16 million cars a year, Americans were purchasing just 10 million.   Gas prices were up, leases were non-existent, and the home mortgage crisis was in full swing.   As Vlasic puts it, “The U.S. car market had imploded.”

GM had made some tough decisions, but it had not made them soon enough.

This is the tale of that implosion caused by faulty leadership and tepid management at two of the Big Three auto firms.   GM was within just weeks of insolvency when Barack Obama took over as president.   Yet GM’s then-chief, Rick Wagoner, “refused to even discuss bankruptcy as an option” and flew on a fancy corporate jet when he first traveled to D.C. to ask the nation’s politicians for a hand-out.   Wagoner’s leadership proved to be so disastrous that the Obama administration made Wagoner’s resignation one of the pre-requisites for federal support.

In its time of need, GM was missing the one attribute that could save it: credibility.

Wagoner was so detached that, “…he left the actual duties of building cars at arm’s length.”   Vlasic, though, not only details Wagoner’s many failings in this “fly on the corporate wall” account, he also takes us through the hopeful marriage and subsequently messy divorce of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler; and he shows us how and why forward-thinking leadership ensured that Ford would survive without needed dollars from American taxpayers.

Did America care enough about the autoworkers to save them?

(The) help was not simply to save GM or Chrysler, but rather to prevent an economic catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression.

Vlasic’s uber-detailed 400 page reporting will leave even the most skeptical reader with a full and fair understanding of why the federal automobile bailout of 2009 was essential; well, anybody not named Mitt Romney.   For years, the Big Three had been operating on razor thin profits (literally, working for cents on the dollar); in ’08 Ford brought in $38 billion in revenue, of which only $100 million remained as profit.   It was a business model that could not last, especially because more than 3 million jobs in the U.S. were tied to the auto industry.

The Big Three had to hit bottom – or avoid doing so, in Ford’s case – and refocus in order to see a future in which American consumers would prefer to drive a Ford Focus rather than a Hummer or Escalade: “It had a special, European-style direct injection turbocharged engine.”   It’s a new day in Detroit and Once Upon a Car tells the story of how we arrived here, for better rather than worse…  And, baby, you can drive my Focus.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer once served on the Ford Motor Company Consumer Advisory Board.

General Motors lost $45 billion in the last 15 months of Rick Wagoner’s tenure as CEO.

Bill Vlasic is also the co-author of Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler (2001).

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Silence is Golden

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer (Public Affairs, $27.95, 385 pages)

“Lou Reed’s (music) is not noise; Gregorian Chant piercing my bathroom wall is.”

This is a highly entertaining and sometimes annoying survey account of noise around the world and its impact on humans.   Garret Keizer occasionally cites relevant points, such as that one’s reaction to noise is often tied to personal factors.   If I’m married to a professional pilot, the noise from the nearby airport does not bother me the way it troubles my neighbors.   (Human transportation remains the number one noisemaker around the world.)   He also notes, importantly, that we do not become “used to” noise, and that its damage to our ears is all too permanent.

But Keizer also includes considerable material of little relevance that seems to be an attempt to justify his travels around the globe in the guise of doing research for this book.   Is he serious about discussing the noise made by foreign sex workers?   Keizer also makes one whopper of a questionable pronouncement, which is that noise is something imposed on us against our will.   If we enjoy something, such as rock music, it is not noise.   Nonsense.   I love Live at Leeds by The Who but played at any volume it remains noise, even if a joyful one.

This compilation of random thoughts and scientifically based findings on noise is interesting but meandering.   The editor was missing in action.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Easy as 1-2-3

Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)

The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book.   The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion.   In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.

The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success.   The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?”   We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile.   I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web.   Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book.   If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed.   Very, very disappointed.   This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student.   For such is not writing, it’s compiling.

The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?”   The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures.   They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related.   Except that sometimes they are not.   I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.

Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else.   In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.

Yes, it was entertaining.   The only problem being that life is not like this…  At least not usually.

If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”

The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?”   Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon.   A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things.   When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.

If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent.   The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.

This article is the third in a continuing series.   Note:  The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds  like an interesting read.

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The Yugo

The Yugo by Jason Vuic (Hill and Wang, March 2010)

“Yugoslavia should be proud of this small car.   Everyone will be talking about it in the United States.”   Malcolm Bricklin

Everyone did wind up talking about the Yugo in the United States in the 1980s, if not for the reason intended by the shifty entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin.   In writing this nonfiction tale of the Yugo’s introduction into the U.S., Jason Vuic had the opportunity to appeal to two audiences.   One audience consists of car buffs, people who cannot acquire enough knowledge of automobiles of the past or present – and who buy the major automobile magazines each month to take sneak peeks at the cars coming down the line.

The second audience is the group that loves human interest stories.   In this case, the book might have consisted of stories of people who actually purchased Yugos and what that meant in their lives.   Did they enjoy them?   Did they love or hate them?   Did they have near-death experiences in them?

Unfortunately, Vuic’s account reaches neither audience in a way that will prove satisfactory.   There’s not a whole lot of detail in terms of the design, engineering or manufacturing of the ill-fated car (other than descriptions of it as a modified Fiat).   More surprisingly, there is not a single account in The Yugo that puts the reader in the place of someone who owned the car.   But this is not the biggest fault with this account.

The story of the Yugo, even more than the story of the Chevrolet Corvair so well detailed by a then-young Ralph Nader, is a story of danger.   The Yugo was a car that produced 3.6 deaths for every 10,000 cars sold.   It was an extremely lightweight tin can that weighed just 1,832 pounds.   Even though it did not share the road with today’s SUVs and light trucks, it nevertheless was clearly too light to be safe.

Let’s put this in context.   The Yugo’s 1,800-plus pounds compares quite unfavorably to today’s smallest vehicles.   A Toyota Yaris weighs 2,400 pounds, a Mini Cooper between 2,550 and 2,750 pounds, and a Volkswagen New Beetle weighs between 2,900 and 3,000 pounds.   But these are cars with steel safety cages and crumple zones that were not even dreamt of back in the days of the Yugo.

Vuic is correct when he writes that, “people have come to expect so much more than the Yugo deliver(ed),” especially in terms of safety.   How badly built was the Yugo?   When the impacts of a collision in a Yugo at just 5 miles-an-hour were tested, the car suffered $2,197 worth of damage; over half the car’s original value of $3,990!

Sadly, it is only when the reader is nine-tenths of the way through Vuic’s account that he/she finds an account of the tragic death of Leslie Ann Phulac.   Phulac died when she drove her Yugo off the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan – a 199-foot high bridge.   She was in the air a full 6 seconds before she hit the water.   Sixty-four million drivers had passed over the bridge without incident.

The account of Phulac’s death is where this book should have begun not ended.   The Yugo was not a funny or silly car despite the author’s light-hearted tone; it was a poorly designed and manufactured death trap.   Yugo, in fact, was sued by the “Yugos” litigation group of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America because the car was unsafe.

The Yugo met its demise in 1988, when dealers in the U.S. had a 133-day backlog of unsold cars.   This substantiated Abraham Lincoln’s claim that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but in the end the public proves wise to the game.

It’s worth restating that the lack of stories from Yugo owners in The Yugo is a major deficiency.   These might have been funny or sad (especially in the instances involving relatives of the almost 4 deaths per 10,000 owners), but would surely have been engaging.   Real people lost money on these things and had their lives endangered.   Their safety was very significantly compromised.

Vuic’s telling of the quick rise and predictable fall of the Yugo might have made – if very sharply edited – for a quite fascinating airline magazine article.   But it veers off course far too often in its 213 pages of actual content, especially when comparisons are made to the Ford Edsel.   The Edsel may have been unattractive, but it was a safe and well-built vehicle.   The Yugo was far from being “The Edsel of the Eighties.”

Vuic does get it right at one point, the point at which he writes that, “…the Yugo is the worst car in history.”   Enough said.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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