Book Review

Detroit's Descent

Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry.
By Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White.
New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994.
496 pages. $25.

Reviewed by Steve Farnsworth

FEW INDUSTRIES BEAR THE STAMP OF U.S. CAPITALISM as strongly as does the U.S. auto industry. From the start of the industry a century ago, U.S. entrepreneurs envisioned making cars fit middle-class budgets to push the market beyond its initial niche of providing expensive playthings for the rich.

 Throughout this century, the power of mass production turned U.S. car makers into both the best of industries and the worst of industries. Some U.S. car companies were incredibly rich, while other were so poor that they went out of business or survived only because of a federal bailout. Auto makers may be innovative in terms of design and engine performance, but they have been criminally lazy when it came to making safer cars.

 The automobile-powered American dream of wide yards and home ownership in the suburbs came with traffic jams and smog. New roads were built through the hearts of old neighborhoods, and that spurred ever more suburban growth.

 General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and their customers did much to trigger these fundamental changes. But the success of the Big Three eventually gave way to an arrogance and a corporate flabbiness that made the industry an easy target for Honda, Toyota and other foreign producers.

 The first two-thirds of Comeback reads like a less humorous version of the popular film "Roger and Me,'' as the authors demonstrate how corporate executives, with their immense egos and incredible stubbornness, combined to push the U.S. automotive industry to the brink of disaster.

 Unlike that film, which focused on working-class suffering resulting from corporate misconduct, this book's focus is on the executives suites. But the stories can be just as amazing: particularly the obsessive Machiavellian posturing of corporate underlings throughout the time GM's market share plunged.

 The headquarters office stories in Comeback are both tragic and comical. We learn how Bob Stempel feared to build a leaner, meaner GM, and how the company's board of directors sent him packing. We read of Lee Iacocca's apparent amazement at the existence of self-service filling stations, developed during the decades others tended to his gas tank at Ford and Chrysler.

 The final third of the book suggests that U.S. auto makers learned some lessons from their Japanese competitors. Quality is a much higher priority in today's Detroit, as are fuel efficiency and innovative design.

 Recently, the Japanese auto makers have been hobbled by a high-priced yen, which boosts the price of imports in the United States, and by complacency caused by their own past successes. The authors suggest the Japanese companies might have learned some lessons, though not entirely good ones, from U.S. firms.

 Comeback would have been even stronger if it had spent more time discussing the present, and perhaps better predicting Detroit's future, and had spent less time recounting the past, particularly the relatively well-known GM management shake-up.

 The two authors, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The Wall Street Journal, provide a careful view of Detroit management. But they don't write all that much about other important parts of the automaking story, particularly unions, the environment and the continuing battle over building safer vehicles.

 Safer vehicles are an important issue to many of the people who actually buy cars and trucks, but they seem an afterthought to executives in this industry, who dragged their feet in adopting basic technologies like seatbelts, and later airbags. If the authors had spent a bit less time in the corporate suites, they might have recognized the need to cover this issue in greater depth.

 Similarly, environmental issues get short shrift in this book. Efforts are underway to build and market electric and natural gas-powered vehicles for middle-income consumers, but you can't learn much about those efforts here either.

Since Detroit seems in this book to be bumbling through both success and failure, one might wonder whether a revived Detroit arrogance can turn this latest revival into another fall. Indeed, issues like making safety an afterthought, or poor labor-management relations might just lead to a replay of the 1970s and 1980s if auto executives don't learn from their mistakes.