This book is one of those rarities, a committee report worth reading. It is a compendium of some of the best thinking on the passenger car -- its history, benefits, problems and future -- ever presented between two covers; moreover, it is clearly written. But like many new cars that roll into showrooms every model year, it has a few bugs.
The book is at its best in its discussion of free trade, or the lack thereof, in the international auto industry. The authors are free traders: "No new barriers to trade in automobiles should be erected. Protectionism is like quicksand; the more you move the deeper you get into it and the more difficult it is to get out," they say.
That might raise some howls from Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee A. Iacocca, who wants the U.S. government to keep pressure on the Japanese to maintain "voluntary" quotas that have limited shipments of Japanese cars, vans and station wagons to this country since April 1981.
But Iacocca can find some cannon fodder here, too. Through painstaking and highly commendable detail, the authors portray the development of international trading practices since the earliest days of the automobile. The upshot: when it comes to providing a market for new cars, the United States stands alone among the seven largest auto-producing nations in exercising some semblance of free trade.
Japan, on the other hand, has worked vigorously to keep imports out of its home market, the authors say.
But they conclude: "The partly justified accusations of Western European and Japanese hypocrisy, wanting the USA to stick to free trade while allowing them to be protectionist, should lead to the reduction of trade barriers in areas and countries where they do exist rather than the raising of new ones where they do not."
The authors call their work "a collaborative assessment" -- developed over four years since 1980 -- of the international auto industry and its future over the next 20 years. They debunk much conventional wisdom about the car business -- myths generated by the oil shocks of the 1970s and the subsequent global recession.
The industry already has begun to surmount energy and environmental problems. The passenger car will survive for the foreseeable future. And the people who will buy them will not all be in a mad rush for tiny, motorized bunkers with little or no performance or individuality, the authors say.
In all, it's a good read and a fast one, although, as I said, there are a few bugs. For instance, "No dramatic labor-relations changes have occurred in the West German auto industry in recent years, and none are expected," the book says. The German auto labor situation "is characterized by institutional stability," it adds.
That may have been true in post-World War II Germany, when labor and management joined forces to reshape the country into a major economic power. But this truce ended last May 14, when auto workers started a seven-week strike that shut down West German car companies -- costing them more than $3 billion in lost sales. The strike began for reasons the book hints at but fails to develop fully.
For example, auto workers in West Germany "began to concentrate on the protection of their employment opportunities in their individual places of work," the book says, implying that such understandable but economically dangerous myopia could upset the coalition that helped make the German auto industry one of the world's best.
But then the book goes on to say: "Difficulties are expected to come primarily from the outside, the most threatening one being protectionist trade policies in major export-receiving countries."
The authors would have done better to stick with their earlier line, indicating the possible erosion of worker-management consensus. The strike, regarded as the worst labor dispute in a decade in West Germany, was sparked by workers' demands for a 35-hour work week with no reduction in pay.
Shrinking the work week would increase jobs, the workers said. They settled for a 38.5-hour work week with a 2.2 percent pay hike, which will appreciably boost the cost of West German auto production. That, in turn, will make it that much more difficult for German car companies to compete in international markets. So much for stability.
There is another goof in this otherwise excellent work. Perhaps the authors could not get their galleys back in time before publication this fall. But somehow they should have avoided going to press with the assertion that no state in this country "has yet seriously considered" a mandadory seat-belt-use law.
Come on, fellas. New York State passed such a law several months before your book went on sale.
Even so, the few bugs do not justify a recall of this volume.