Morality Play

Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age

by Emma Rothschild
Random House, 264 pp., $6.95

Emma Rothschild’s fascinating study of the “decline of the auto-industrial age” tells us more about the peculiar plans of the auto industry and how they have gone awry than any other account of America’s fading love affair with the car. One could write a social history of the United States around the auto industry, for it has not only transformed the countryside and the cities but also our basic national attitudes about work, leisure, and the pursuit of happiness. Ms. Rothschild has not attempted this but she has written a well-researched morality play which shows with painful clarity why all the crises we associate with the car arose and why the US auto giants are incapable of resolving them.

What troubles the auto industry most is a failure of confidence. For both buyers of cars and buyers of car stocks the industry has lost its magic. GM’s total profit for 1972 was $2.16 billion, a figure in excess of the gross national product of a number of small countries; but according to Ms. Rothschild, it represents a lower profit rate per car in real dollars than the company earned in 1950 or 1928. The “harassment” by the consumer movement, as former president James Roche called it, has led to federal antipollution regulation; as a result, Ford’s president Lee M. Iacocca warned, the auto industry “has been backed to the cliff edge of desperation.” (Mr. Iacocca seemed genuinely hurt at the adverse publicity he received when he came to Washington to lobby against the Clean Air Bill.) It is now a cliché in the industry to lament the “rising tide of consumerism” and its excessive preoccupation with auto safety. (More than 30 million defective cars and trucks have been recalled since 1966.)

Mr. Roche’s curious metaphysical explanation of increasing sales resistance is that the American romance with the car has “blossomed into a marriage.” By this he means that the automobile has become an increasingly popular target for the sort of harsh criticism that ten years ago only eccentric social critics would make. A Seattle Chevrolet and Fiat dealer with an instinctive understanding of the repressed anger people feel toward cars has substantially increased his sales by using TV commercials in which he smashes the fenders, headlights, and windshields of some of his new models. Rothschild reports that the customers are eager to buy his cars once they have been chastened and repaired.

In the simpler day when cars could. be sold by having them stroked by sexy models instead of beaten by sledgehammers, investors readily put their money into automotive stocks, but now, as Forbes Magazine asks, “Who wants the nongrowth or slow growth stocks like GM?” The industry has ceased to command the technological frontiers which long ago were taken over by the electronics computer and other high-technology industries. The Wankel rotary engine, the only significant technological advance in basic car design since the war, was invented in Germany and developed in Japan …

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