Automotive books take up a chunk of the sales floor of your local Barnes & Noble. Most are glorified coffee table books or of the Practical Restoration of the 1953 Jowett Jupiter variety. The books about Corvettes, Porsches, Mustangs and Harley-Davidsons are perennial favorites, but none of them are all that good. The automotive business should be the source of a tremendous volume of great writing, but you tend to get a mix of dry analysis or overly sentimental hooey, and not much in the way of great journalism, personal recollection or storytelling. There have been great things written about cars, though. Here are five authors you really should read if you’re interested in learning more about the history of automobiles and their impact on society:
Before his untimely death in a car accident in 2007, David Halberstam wrote all-encompassing, incredibly engaging histories about the greatest American decade (The Fifties), the rivalry between Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams (The Summer of ’49) and the media (The Powers That Be).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Halberstam was researching for his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the foreign policy crafted by intellectuals and academics that resulted in America’s engagement in Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest). Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, was a pivotal character in the book. Prior to joining the Kennedy Administration, McNamara was one of the “Whiz Kids” that revitalized the Ford Motor Company following World War II. His research into McNamara’s career led Halberstam to write The Reckoning.
The book was published in 1986, and it’s a fascinating slice of history. It compares the second-place American Ford Motor Company to the second-place Japanese Nissan at the point where Nissan’s future was brightest, and Ford’s was most questionable. The book opens on the eve of the Ford Taurus launch.
On a personal note, The Reckoning is the book that made me want to do this for a living. It’s an unforgettable history of automotive titans. Reading it produces a list of other people and time periods you’ll want to dig into further.
Ford: We Never Called Him Henry
Harry Bennett with Paul Marcus
One of those characters you’ll want to learn more about is Harry Bennett (left, in the photo above). This isn’t a particularly well-written book, by an author you can even trust to tell the truth. But it’s a vital to understand, and it provides a snapshot of automotive history in the 1920s and 1930s.
Bennett – a former boxer and a disgraced Navy sailor – was Henry Ford’s enforcer. He ran Ford’s nefarious Service Department, and he had one job: to bust the heads of United Auto Workers who were fomenting unrest at Ford’s.
Ford: We Never Called Him Henry is Harry Bennett’s co-written autobiography, published in 1951, and it’s a notoriously one-sided version of what happened during those tumultuous years. Bennett had assembled a rogue’s gallery of former fighters, ex-football players, hooligans and criminals to put down the union as it began its decades-long struggle for the rights of workers in Ford plants.
Following the stock market crash in October of 1929, U.S. vehicle production was more than halved, and unemployment in Detroit had risen to 400,000. On March 7, 1932, the Detroit Unemployed Council, and the Auto, Aircraft and Vehicle Workers of America staged a march from Detroit to Ford’s River Rouge factory known as the Detroit Hunger March. In an attempt to stop the march, Dearborn Police fired tear gas into the crowd of 5,000 people. Ford Service Department employees also began firing into the crowd. Harry Bennett himself drove up to the crowd and opened fire, which resulted in his car being pelted with rocks. When the dust settled, four were dead and dozens were hospitalized, including Bennett.
Bennett was next in line to run the company after Henry Ford’s son Edsel died in 1943. Instead, Henry Ford II became the new president, and his first act was to show Bennett the door.
The book details all of this from Bennett’s side. It’s notoriously unreliable, but it’s also a first-person account that puts many of Halberstam’s assertions in some perspective. It’s a book everyone interested in automotive history should read.
The Detroit Novels
Fiction about cars, racing or the automotive industry tends to run to sentimentality almost immediately. Loren Estelman spent most of his career writing crime fiction and westerns, but his seven-book series (Whiskey River, Motown, King of the Corner, Edsel, Stress, Jitterbug, and Thunder City) is textbook historical fiction, blending fictional characters into real-life settings during Detroit’s rise and fall.
Estelman wrote the series – which started off as a trilogy – to “tell the story of America in the 20th century through the microcosm of Detroit, the one city whose history mirrors precisely the history of the United States of America.”
Each novel covers the events in a particular decade. Edsel, for example, follows the story of a brash former newspaperman, who takes a job with Ford as a public relations man on the eve of the Edsel’s ill-fated launch. It’s one of the best novels ever written about the automotive public relations business. In Motown, 1967 Detroit is poised to burn to the ground, muscle cars are at their zenith, and a Ralph Nader-esque character takes on the industry on behalf of the American consumer.
Best Damn Garage in Town: My Life and Adventures
When asked about Bill France, Jr. in an interview, Smokey Yunick once said “He’d have to go to fourth grade for three more years to get an idiot’s license.”
Smokey Yunick is an American icon. Along with being the author of Smokey’s Power Secrets in 1984, In the 1950s, with Herb Thomas, Paul Goldsmith and later, Fireball Roberts, Smokey built unbeatable cars for the track, and was the master of bending the rulebook to its most illogical conclusion.
His tour-de-force was this three-volume, tire-smoking, straight-shooting, politically incorrect barnburner that recounts a lifetime of stories from the Carrera Panamericana to NASCAR’s golden era and beyond, in an engaging, front porch storytelling style.
Like Harry Bennett’s book, The Best Damned Garage in Town isn’t terribly well written, and it’s notoriously one-sided, but it is the kind of book that never gets written by people who are alive, or hope to remain so. “I know the book will cause some problems…there is no way to please everyone,” Yunick wrote in his introduction, “For those who are ashamed of what you did…you did it. I’m not proud of all I did and I have tried to include my warts and bad stuff also.” And include them, he did. The first few chapters frankly could’ve been called Women I Had Sex With.
It’s a book you can come back to time and time again. In an era when professional racing has largely been sanitized into submission, Smokey’s autobiography takes you back to a time when regular guys ran racing on a shoestring budget, and fought the sanctioning bodies and the auto manufacturers for every inch.
If we can’t convince you to read the book, get the audio version. It’s hilarious.
Kings of the Road
There are any number of essay collections that are well worth being on anyone’s list of great automotive books: Side Glances (Peter Egan), Road Trips, Head Trips and Other Car Crazed Writings (edited by Jean Jennings), and Clarkson on Cars (Jeremy Clarkson) are all great to read through. But the first, and the best, was Ken Purdy’s Kings of the Road.
Ken Purdy started out as a cub reporter at a paper in Athol, Massachusetts and worked his way into reporter’s gig as associate editor at Look magazine. During World War II, he worked as the editor at Victory, the publication of the Office of War Information. But after the war, Purdy became a full-time freelancer who wrote about cars in a way they’d never been written about before. His most notable work was in the early days at Playboy magazine, where he won the magazine’s annual writers’ award three times.
Kings of the Road was a collection of his best essays, and it introduced an American audience to the likes of Tazio Nuvolari, and reminded us that here in America, we used to build fantastic automobiles – Mercer was his favorite – that set the standard for the rest of the world. In 1949, he wrote “We have raised a generation of Americans who have been cheated out of one of life’s important pleasures: the joy of driving a light, fast, safe and supple automobile.”
It’s an idea that resurfaces over and over again, but nobody was writing about it in 1949 but Ken Purdy. Kings of the Road is the roadmap for original automotive criticism. The International Motor Press Association named its writing award for Purdy following his death in 1972, and since, people like Karl Ludvigsen, Pete Lyons, Brock Yates, Dan Neil and Henry Manney have been its recipient. This book is a history lesson in how it’s done.