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Cars, Computers, and "Engines of Change"
June 10, 2012 - 9:00pm

Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars by Paul Ingrassia

Published in May of 2012

When I was in 9th grade (in 1984) I subscribed to 4 car magazines: Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Road & Track, and & Automobile. Today, my fondest dream is to own zero cars and to rent an occasional Zip Car (preferably a Prius, Volt, or Leaf) whenever the need for driving should arise.

Reading "Engines of Change" was a good reminder for me about how important automobiles once loomed in my worldview. At some point my passion for cars was replaced by a passion for computers and technology. At 14 I thought I wanted to be an automotive journalist, and 42 I'm very happy to work at the intersection of education and technology (and to be driving a minivan - slowly).

I'm betting that my story, one of a shift from a love of automobiles to a love of computers, is not unique. How many teenagers who once spent time changing spark plugs and reading car magazines morphed into building PCs and hanging out on computing message boards? I have this theory that today's computer geeks were yesterday's car enthusiasts - and that is why today's Apple new product announcements are so much more exciting than the new model car launches.

Ingrassia takes us back to a time when new cars really mattered. He profiles 15 cars that have had a large impact on American culture. These stories are all engaging and well-told, and in learning about the Model T or the Corvette or the Mustang or the Honda Accord we also learn a great deal about the times in which they were introduced. This is not a book about the "15 best cars of all time", rather Ingrassia is interesting in describing the cars that had the biggest cultural impact.   

Ford's Model T literally changed how American society was organized, as an affordable mass produced automobile was a prerequisite to a rural to urban migration and a mobile society. The Honda Accord was the first Japanese car to be built in a U.S. factory (in Ohio), and ushered in a long-term transition away from UAW dominance and the decline of The Big 3. The Chrysler minivan (a Lee Iacocca encore after bringing to life the Mustang) killed the traditional station wagon, empowered a new generation of soccer parents, and eventually led to Mercedes Benz's disastrous and short-lived purchase of Chrysler.

Ingrassia is a terrific writer, and is also the author of the excellent Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout-and Beyond. I hope that Ingrassia's next project is about the only cars that really excite me now, cars that run on electricity (although his chapter on the Prius in Engines of Change is excellent).  

I think that there is a huge market of computer geeks (and educational technologists!) just waiting to buy our first batter powered car, as soon as the technology improves and the costs come down to a point where electric cars are nearly competitive with gas powered vehicles.

What are you reading?



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