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Published by EH.Net (February 2004)

Rubenstein, James M., Making and Selling Cars: Innovation and Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 409; diagrams, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas Winpenny, Department of History, Elizabethtown College

Remembering the famous observation that, “When the American auto industry sneezes, the American economy catches cold,” there is no reason to doubt the importance of Rubenstein’s subject. The author brings a fresh approach to an industry that has had many chroniclers — perhaps the best known being John Rae and James Flink. What Rubenstein does with this volume is look at the entire industry in the United States, including the parts business, over the past century. This is truly a staggering task. On the one hand this makes for a very comprehensive piece of work, on the other hand the author runs the risk of having his volume thought of more as a reference book.

The organization departs from a standard chronology, and presents material topically. Thus the reader learns about production from roughly 1900 to 2000, customers from 1900 to 2000, and national markets from 1900 to 2000. While this surely seems logical enough, the reader is in danger of suffering from a bit of whiplash when being asked to jump from 2000 back to 1900 several times.

The author presents a reasonable thesis when he argues that while the auto industry did not invent mass production, when it arrived, they had to learn to sell an awful lot of cars. (Most scholars recognize that the notion of the “assembly line” really goes back to the 19th century beef industry, and “continuous production” probably dates from Oliver Evans on the banks of the Brandywine in the early 1800s.) A few chapters on “deskilling” and “reskilling” remind this reviewer of some old Marxist arguments and thus sound a bit antiquated.

One of the bonuses in this book is the inclusion of several diagrams that depict the layout of assembly lines. While this may at first sound like an elementary matter, this reviewer does not recall seeing comparable diagrams elsewhere. They constitute a solid contribution to this book.

What are the analytical observations that should be noted? Rubenstein seems to exude a sense of discovery in examining General Motor’s “class based market.” In this marketing scheme the consumer moved up from Chevrolet to Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buick to Cadillac as he moved up the corporate ladder. As the reviewer recalls this GM strategy from the perspective of the 1950s, most Americans seemed to think this was self-evident and not particularly interesting.

Also under the heading of the author’s discovery was the fact that Pierre S. DuPont, president of the DuPont chemical company, was also president of General Motors between 1920 and 1923 and chairman of the board of GM between 1915 and 1929. (History records that the use of DuPont Duco paint on General Motors’s cars produced some fascinating anti-trust activity.)

The Daimler-Benz takeover of Chrysler in 1998 was quite a shock to nearly everyone, particularly those who had no idea of the salaries paid to American paper shufflers in the automotive industry. With this merger completed, by 2000 the six largest auto manufacturers in the world now controlled 80 percent of the market. Toyota was able to hold on to its 10 percent market share without the aid of acquisition.

Between the 1930s and 1960s GM manufactured and sold half of the cars purchased in America. This market dominance and apparent tranquility, however, was not to last. In the 1970s the mandate to downsize grew out of the Arab oil embargo. Accordingly, the American auto producers retooled and built smaller cars with smaller engines. The consumer seemed to go along with this, and yet quietly lusted after bigger and more powerful cars. The 1970s were also punctuated by a serious concern for the declining quality of the American product. As we all know, before this poor quality could be remedied, foreign producers made serious inroads.

This reviewer can remember how shocking it seemed to note that by the early 1980s foreign auto manufacturers had captured some 20 percent of the American market. Perhaps the market tranquility of the 1950s was gone forever. The tumult only continued, nevertheless, through the 1990s when Americans became totally enamored with minivans, trucks, and SUVs. In a few short years cars had almost become a relic from our past.

Now, admittedly, these aforementioned observations must seem horribly disjointed, and yet to some extent this is how the material comes to the reader.

Reference to the electric car as something rejected by the American marketplace is essentially true, and yet I cannot help but remind my students of the tens of thousands of electric golf carts that clutter the landscape of our golf courses.

Rubenstein has done a lot of work and produced a useful addition to the scholarly literature of the auto industry. The chapters on the parts industry are particularly welcome. No student of American automobility can afford to overlook this publication.

Professor Winpenny teaches history at Elizabethtown College and is the author of Manhattan Bridge: The Troubled Story of a New York Monument.