Why cars still matter

May 11, 2012, 3:42 PM UTC

FORTUNE — It has become an all-too familiar trope for the lazy writer or overworked editor: The American love affair with the automobile is over. The evidence for this assertion is usually shallow, and its half-life fleeting: a dip in new car sales, a hike in gasoline prices, an outbreak of road rage. Periods of slack economic growth tend to spawn a bumper crop of these reports, as strapped car buyers lean toward less-expensive new models.

Lately, a subset of this genre has gained popular currency: Young people are losing interest in cars. You can blame this on the energetic trend spotters at The New York Times. In a March 22 article, Times reporter Amy Chozick argued that “many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars,” and asserted that this trend was “one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry.”

I would argue that car manufacturers face many more vexing problems, such as meeting draconian fuel economy standards and avoiding another round of bankruptcies. But that’s a topic for another day.

The Times story served as a signal for other news outlets to pile on. In search of explanations for this apparent phenomenon, the usual suspects were rounded up: high car prices, videogames, texting. Journalists dusted off familiar analogies with Japan, where economic stagnation and permanent congestion have long squeezed young consumers out of the car market.

Journalists trotted out a number of factoids to support their claims: The percentage of licensed drivers was declining, the number of miles driven was shrinking, bike racks were popping up everywhere. At least these arguments made more sense than an earlier analysis that extrapolated the accelerated scrappage rate from the Cash for Clunkers bill to conclude that the number of cars on the road was in long-term decline.

Reading between the lines of Paul Ingrassia’s engaging new book, Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, I uncovered a more likely villain: Interest in cars is declining due to a lack of exciting cars. (Full disclosure: Ingrassia and I have been friendly competitors for 20 years. No one works harder and knows more about the car business than he does, and he has a Pulitzer Prize to prove it).

Ingrassia identifies 15 cars that “defined large swaths of American culture, helped to shape their era, and uniquely reflected the spirit of their age.” Unfortunately, that age has largely passed. Of the cars on Ingrassia’s list, only the Toyota Prius from made its debut as recently as the year 2000. And while the Prius is a remarkable engineering achievement, nobody has ever called it exciting.

Ingrassia is a veteran journalist who currently serves as deputy editor-in-chief of Reuters News. He has studied the culture of Detroit’s auto industry with the thoroughness of an anthropologist. He skillfully evokes the industry’s glory years of the 1950s and 1960s, when big men like GM’s Bill Mitchell created memorable cars like the 1963 Buick Riviera, the 1963 Corvette Stingray, and the 1970 Chevrolet Camaro.

Mitchell became GM’s chief designer in 1959. Ingrassia describes him as having “terrific talent, a wicked sense of humor, and a combative personality.” One night in New York when he had been over-served, Mitchell hijacked a horse-drawn carriage from Central Park and tried to drive it into a hotel lobby.

Mitchell was the stylist in charge when GM (GM) unveiled the ’59 Cadillac at the height of the tailfin craze, and he had no trouble defending those distinctive if outlandish ornaments. “I say if you take the fins off the Cadillac, it’s like taking the antlers of a deer,” Mitchell declared. “You got a big rabbit.”

Another memorable character: John Z. DeLorean. In 1964, when he was Pontiac’s chief engineer, DeLorean dumped a 389-cubic-inch V-8 into a timid Tempest and created the GTO. DeLorean would later become better known for his multiple marriages and for dating actresses like Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch — not typical behavior for a GM executive. Ingrassia writes: “On Thursday nights he would commandeer a General Motors jet from Detroit to Los Angeles, where a GM junior executive would meet him with keys to a company car and to a hotel room in Beverly Hills or Bel Air.”

DeLorean later started his own car company, which collapsed in short order. GM’s jets are also gone. Thanks to its bankruptcy and the government bailout, all GM execs now fly commercial. Meanwhile, innovative buccaneers like Mitchell and DeLorean are in short supply today. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: “They took the idols and smashed them. And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies. I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Lee Iacocca appears as a leading character in the creation of two vehicles on Ingrassia’s list, the Ford Mustang and the first minivans. He also helped popularize a third vehicle on the list, Chrysler’s iconic Jeep. Now 87, Iacocca lives quietly in Bel Air. Back in the day, his battles with Henry Ford II were the talk of Detroit.

When Ford approved Iacocca’s Mustang, he told him, “You have got your car. It had better work.” It did, but the Mustang’s success didn’t help Iacocca in 1978 when Ford justified his dismissal by saying: “Well, sometimes you just don’t like somebody.” Iacocca moved to Chrysler and saved it from bankruptcy, wrote a best-selling book, and nearly ran for president, but he never got over the way he was treated by Ford.

Ingrassia calls the Chevrolet Corvair the most significant car of the post-World War II era, first because of its radical rear engine design and then because of its defective engineering, which brought consumer advocate Ralph Nader onto the national stage. He doesn’t address the question about whether young people will become as passionate about cars as their parents and grandparents are. My guess is that they will need something to get passionate about: a car that isn’t lower, longer, and wider like the ’59 Cadillac, or cooler than a GTO, but that reflects their own values.

It could be an environmentally friendly, space-efficient car like the tiny Scion iQ, or a fuel sipper like the Toyota Prius plug-in. Or it might be a city car that combines the best features of both, like BMW’s i3 electric car, which goes into production next year. We just need some big men to create them — and an accomplished writer like Ingrassia to make them memorable.

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