General Motors, the lumbering Godzilla of the automobile industry, knew back in the mid-1970s exactly what kind of car it would have to make to reclaim the loyalty of American car buyers and beat back the Japanese.
In "Car Wars," Robert Sobel writes that GM told its designers "what was needed was a compact with subcompact economy, a car small on the outside and large on the inside, one that combined high mileage with the size Americans wanted."
As I read Sobel's book, I realized that such a car, a machine built with what Sobel calls "a seemingly impossible set of specifications," was parked in my driveway. My shiny, metallic gray sedan gets 46 miles per gallon on the highway, corners like a sports car and comfortably seats five adults. It squeezes into parking spaces that I once would not even slow down to look at. My car's trunk reminds me of the one in the Oldsmobile Delta 98 that my father once owned.
General Motors did not make my car, however, nor did Ford or Chrysler, nor did any of the Big Three get one penny of the $12,000 I paid for it. Toyota made it and Toyota has my money. Therein lies the plot of "Car Wars," Sobel's popular history of the 30-year-old battle among automakers in the United States, Europe and Japan to appeal to the fickle demands of American consumers. "Car Wars" analyzes the evolution of automotive technology, corporate strategy and world economic cycles as they conspired to put a Japanese car in my driveway -- and in driveways across America.
Sobel has bitten into a juicy subject. Making cars is the largest manufacturing enterprise in the world. One-fifth of America's gross national product is tied to cars. They are symbols of social class, political affiliation, even virility. Next to a house, cars represent the largest investments most Americans make. Affluent Washington happens to be one of America's great car-sale battlegrounds. Here foreign carmakers have laid claim to more driveways -- nearly 40 percent -- than in any other East Coast city. California, as one might expect, is further down this foreign road. Half the cars sold there last year were imports.
A publisher's blurb for "Car Wars" says Sobel, the author of nine other books on business subjects, including "I.B.M.," has written a book that "plunges the reader inside the boardrooms and executive suites and onto the shop floors and assembly lines of a vast and vital industry." Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. Sobel drags his readers through a morass of statistics about wheel base lengths. He assaults them with too many quotes from secondary sources. Sobel's reporting relies far too much on the likes of Road and Track magazine and Ward's Automotive Yearbook, and not enough on original interviews.
The auto industry has been shaped over the past three decades by a handful of headstrong executives, some of them brilliant, some unlucky and some just plain stupid. On the brilliant side, witness Lee Iacocca, who revivified Chrysler while becoming a household name, or Soichiro Honda, the son of a blacksmith, who created Honda Motors while honing a reputation as a prodigious womanizer. Sobel writes about these executives, sometimes at considerable length, but he fails to breathe life into any of them.
All this is not to say that "Car Wars" is not worth reading. While the story line is familiar (particularly as told in Brock Yates' well-written "The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry"), Detroit's precipitous slide from world dominance is an instructive tale that bears retelling. Sobel charts the decline from the heady 1950s when Detroit believed that owning a foreign car "marked one as an eccentric, a snob, or a spendthrift, and probably all three" through the desperate mid-1970s when General Motors suggested that Americans buy a Chevette not because it was the best car on the market but because it was the patriotic thing to do. In what I found the single most interesting fact in the book, Sobel recounts how, during the dark mid-'70s at Chrysler, assembly lines spat up cars that were Volare's on the right side and Aspens on the left.
Sobel reminds us how calculating the Japanese were in sizing up the American market, learning the right lesson from failed European imports and maintaining quality as they stole the loyalty of more and more American car buyers.
"Car Wars" concludes that the automobile industry has been so transformed in the past 30 years that it no longer makes sense to speak of American or European or Japanese car companies. In the future, Sobel argues, hybrid "world" car companies will make world cars. Much of this has already occurred. Honda makes its "foreign" cars in Marysville, Ohio. American Motors is little more than a subsidiary of Renault, the French automaker.
Sadly, "Car Wars" gives short shrift to explaining why that compact Toyota parked in my driveway cost me so much -- about $3,000 over its list price. Sobel skims over the recent ballooning cost of Japanese cars, which is the result, for the most part, of Reagan administration import quotas that limit supply. A Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study shows that last year these quotas cost car buyers -- of both domestic and imported cars -- $2.2 billion. By not linking these quotas to the agony of contemporary car buyers, Sobel fails to plug into an issue that might give his readers an emotional as well as an intellectual reason to fight through "Car Wars."