Long review below, so...BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: Interesting book if one likes cars. More of a state of the industry circa late 2002. Covers the period 1...moreLong review below, so...BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: Interesting book if one likes cars. More of a state of the industry circa late 2002. Covers the period 1980-2002 pretty well, to the point that I came to consider this as a sequel to Halberstam's THE RECKONING. Decently written, but not well sourced. Reads like a series of magazine pieces. Valuable for the short background histories of nearly every major import manufacturer selling to the American public today. Doesn't cover the big issues affecting the Detroit-based companies in as much depth as I'd like, especially the union and pension challenges. Mainly focuses on car research, design, and manufacturing experiences for the companies covered.
An interesting history of what's happened to the "American" automotive industry in the late 80's, 1990's, and early years of the present decade. The period covered by the book ends in late 2002, as it was published in 2003. By "American," I do not mean to suggest that author Micheline Maynard focuses only on the activities of the Detroit Big 3 (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler). Rather, she focuses on the efforts of just about every car manufacturer in the world to:
(1) - introduce new cars into the American car-buying market that appeal to the current and future market segments of American consumers. This is about 60% of the book.
(2) - create car-manufacturing plants in America to build those cars (subplot here: can Americans be trained to build cars that are of the same level of quality as cars manufactured in Asian and European nations? Author's answer: yes, if the UAW is not allowed to unionize the plant [personally, I'd like to see more info on her answer, though).
(3) - develop the concept of cars that don't run on gasoline AND try to see if Americans will buy them (Toyota and Honda are convinced they will, and are working hard to develop this segment of the market. GM - not so much).
For me, the most valuable aspects of this book were the capsule histories of how nearly all of the major foreign car companies got started, and the adventures they went through in their efforts to penetrate the American consumer market. David Halberstam has covered this in more depth with Toyota in his wonderful car-industry book THE RECKONING, published back in 1986. But author Maynard covers almost every company, and uses their origin stories and/or their crisis event stories to try and identify philosophies that mark each company to this day.
Author Maynard writes well, and includes many humorous anecdotes, which I always appreciate in a business history or current events book. She definitely traveled all over to see for herself much of what she reports, and it looks like she did her best to secure interviews with as many people involved in these events as possible so as to get both sides of the story.
No surprise there, as the back flap bio on author Maynard informs us that she is a New York Times reporter covering the auto industry. For me, this means that I can expect fairly deep reporting, and pretty good writing. But the various chapters read like extended magazine pieces. The author includes a tiny selected bibliography of nine books, two of which are previous books by Maynard herself and two of which were published by the auto companies Toyota and Honda.
She has about three pages of source notes, averaging about four per chapter, which are nearly all newspaper articles.
One wonders what she left out. To be fair to author Maynard, this is more of a current events book than a business history, and so i understand that she needs to protect sources, many of whom could be fired or face career limitations at their company or in the industry for making honest yet critical remarks (especially those folks working for the Detroit Big 3 companies). Not to mention that she'll want to use them for the inevitable sequel book she'll likely write in a few years.
But this is a huge topic, one that affects nearly all Americans who have the discretionary income to be able to decide what kind of car they want, not to mention the millions employed in the industry. The book could have been a lot longer and better sourced, but it is a good start for anyone interested in a perspective of the state of the American car manufacturing and design industry.
But I don't think it's the last word on the subject. The thesis from the outset seems to be that the Detroit Big 3 are eventually doomed, and that they are the creators of their own woes. Personally, I think she's right on that score. After the Delphi parts debacle of last year and GM's liability for creating that situation, I think it increasingly unlikely that any of the Detroit Big 3 will survive as independent companies. I am sure they will be bought by car companies headquartered in a foreign country within at least 20 years (that's my opinion - the author does NOT introduce that concept). This already seems to have happened with Chrysler, although it seems to me that Daimler-Benz gave it back or spun it off after this book was published.
And that highlights a fundamental issue for the Detroit Big 3 that author Maynard keeps coming back to...GM, Ford, and Chrysler have management philosophies that seem to channel these huge companies' activities, and especially their design of new cars, to the whims of whoever their CEO happens to be. When that CEO leaves, then Ford or GM will change direction on what types of car they'll build. But they never take the time to commit their companies to building really reliable cars that Americans buyers are satisfied with, and so Americans with discretionary income who live on the coasts have a poor opinion of ANY car GM or Ford makes (Chrysler too, but they're small-fry compared to the Big 2). GM and Ford upper management are convinced that Americans buy cars based on emotion, so the fundamental issue is the design of the car. Their key question is: will American car buyers be excited by how this car looks/accelerates?
That's not how the Asian and European based companies think. Design is important to them, but they have staked their reputation among American car-buyers on quality and reliability, and they are committed to maintaining that edge over the Detroit based companies.
As for how American really think, author Maynard primarily uses anecdotal evidence. Many chapters start with a "personal experience" story by some guy or lady Maynard found who had a good experience with an import car or a bad recent experience with a GM or Ford car. These get the chapter started off pretty well, but I would like more statistical information (and well-sourced, well-documented information) on how this guy's or gal's experience is representative of an entire market segment of the American car-buying public. Author Maynard reports car-sales numbers, but I'd have to think there's more detailed information out there than what's provided here. I mean, each of these companies spends years and millions of dollars designing and building these cars...I would to think in a world where I get survey calls at home out of the blue from pizza companies (hard to screw up that recipe) that each car manufacturer has a ton of market research that the author might have tapped into if she had the time.
But that's the challenge, I think. The author probably didn't have the time. The chapters kind of read like extended magazine articles, and I wouldn't necessarily expect the level of depth I was hoping for from this book in that media forum. But this being a book with a pretty provocative title, I have a right to expect it, I'd think. And since it's not here, I again wonder: What's been left out?(less)
This is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time.
It is definitely a science book (specifically, it is about "fracture mechanics"...moreThis is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time.
It is definitely a science book (specifically, it is about "fracture mechanics" according to the Library of Congress cataloging data and about "molecular physics" according to the ISBN box on the back cover). However, if all of the science books and classes I took in high school presented their information like the author does in this book, I would have found those subjects a lot more interesting.
I will be re-reading this again soon, and adding more to this review as I do that. But briefly, here is what I liked about this book so much:
1) The author includes autobiographical and historical examples in the text along with scientific explanations and examples for the topics he is covering. Being a big history/biography guy, I found the book fairly easy reading knowing that the author would be tying the theoretical science (which I often couldn't understand very well) back into real life.
2) The book is written pretty much as an autobiography, and thus was generally easy to follow. The author starts with his interest as a kid as to why his marbles broke under certain conditions. From there he describes various experiments with the marbles and other items to see how those things broke, and under what conditions. I especially enjoyed his early chapter about his efforts to figure out to destroy the supposedly unbreakable Corelle dinnerware (as soon as he finds some in a Goodwill store, he buys it, then takes it home and immediately starts figuring out to destroy it. Cool!) The author goes on to do undergrad work at the University of COlorado at Boulder, grad work at MIT, and then on to a first job at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. He is currently an instructor at the Colorado School of Mines. Throughout the book, the author's enthusiasm for the people and places he works at is apparent and fun to read about, even as he pursues specific and detailed answers to the question that has always inspired him: Why do things break?
3) Throughout the book, the author points out some serious challenges to how we do scientific research in the country. These brief passages read like the current events books that describe all of the detailed problems of a specific issue in society. However, I found these parts to be very interesting and thought-provoking, in that the specific issues he raises had never occurred to me. The best example of this is his discussion as to why his area of research, "fracture mechanics," is an important yet neglected area of science. The author claims that most researchers working on aspects of this problem over the last hundred years or so are seeking predictions as to WHEN things will likely break, and under what conditions. this is a very different question as to WHY they break. The answers to the first question are concerned with minimizing the effects of eventual structural failure, but the author in trying to answer the second question may be able to someday identify better materials and design methods so that the things we use every day are less likely to fail as frequently as they do.
As I said at the start of this review, I want to elaborate on much more about this great book after I re-read it and take some notes. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any area of science, technology, and general non-fiction. It's a fun read.(less)
Interesting story, but a mediocre book. The laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable was the Internet revolution of the 19th century, and the tale...moreInteresting story, but a mediocre book. The laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable was the Internet revolution of the 19th century, and the tale of how this enterprise was completed is very compelling.
But that tale isn't enough for the author, who pads his book with numerous tangents about ancillary subjects that add nothing to the main story...often these tangents don't even provide much relevant background information (which is why I think the author included them in the first place). The frequent footnotes are particulalry useless and annoying.
Other problems: The author is prone to hyperbole when describing the significance of the entire venture and of the various components that accounted for its success, and I often found his descriptions of the science and technological innovation involved to be unclear (though that might be more my challenge than the author's). Finally, though the author lists about thirty books and other materials in his bibliography, he only appears to have used about six of them....these six books seem to account for over 80% of his source notes. The author often seems to pad the book with lengthy but not very useful quotes from these sources when there isn't much action going on.
But, despite the author's many shortcomings, this is a neat story, and one that I have always been interested in. I considered the laying of the first telegraph cable across the ocean to be a major technological and business accomplishment, but this book opened my eyes to exactly how challenging this endeavor was. The companies that collaborated on this enterprise undertok a major attempt in 1857, two in 1858, and one in 1865 before finally achieving true success in 1866 (the second 1858 attempt succeeded in laying a cable across the ocean, but it stopped working after a few weeks).
Entreprenurs and others interested in business will be inspired by the commitment and confidence of the leading figure of the entire venture, Cyrus Field. From start to finish, he oversaw the entire project, and was instrumental in raising the funds, securing the permission and cooperation of the governments involved, finding the scientists and technicians with the right attitude to get the job done, and maintaining a belief in all concerned that the enterprise would eventually be both successful and porfitable. In the end he was right on all counts.
P. S. My paperback edition of the book has some great maps and some very good photos and illusrations. Kudos to the author for including those; they enhanced my understanding of the story.(less)