Story of America on wheels drives into doldrums



Christopher Finch.


399 pages. $25.

Can you think of any other mass-produced product of the Industrial Age that has influenced more aspects of our daily lives than the automobile?

Think about it: Cars have altered the way we eat, make love, commit crimes, work, live, shop and vacation, to name just a few activities. A book exploring these changes has the potential to help those born after World War II understand how the infrastructure of our country has evolved.

Sadly, while Christopher Finch's "Highways to Heaven: The Auto Biography of America" attempts to trace the automobile's history and influence, it fails to make the most of this fabulous idea.

For starters, the book is punctuated by errors of fact and spelling -- there are two "Es" in Austin Healey; it was Buick, not Chevy, that made GM's first V-6; and, no, the Triumph Spitfire is not an exotic sports car -- and what appears to be a shocking lack of research.

Mr. Finch's matter-of-fact presentation of the auto's beginnings and evolution is rather skimpy. By contrast, his long-winded explanations of how the automobile influenced the street layouts of Los Angeles and New York don't offer enough general conclusions to make them appealing to a broader audience.

He also does not include any quotes or anecdotes from older Americans who remember a simpler time when so many aspects of our daily lives were not dependent upon the automobile.

Only once in the book is there a stretch of writing that kept my eyelids above half-mast. It's Mr. Finch's explanation of how used-car salesmen came to be regarded as something less than honorable. It happened during the Depression. Americans couldn't afford to buy many new cars, but by the late '20s, the country already was far too dependent on the automobile to do without. So, used cars, Mr. Finch says, sold well.

"The used car was a salesman's dream precisely because most American males prided themselves, often without much justification, on knowing something about the inner workings of the automobile. It was an example of the adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing. A skillful salesman could manipulate a customer's real or imagined knowledge of overhead camshafts and epicyclic gearboxes through a combination of flattery and the threat of embarrassment (few men are prepared to admit the limits of their understanding where the innards of cars are concerned). The salesman could also exploit the myths that inevitably grew up around every car after it had been on the road for a while: 'This model didn't sell well, but . . . it was ahead of its time.' "

Mr. Finch is described on the jacket as "a connoisseur of highway culture." He may have had enough material for a decent magazine article. I'd suggest an alternate route to another book.

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