A Drama of the American Work Place” by Mary Walton

My wife and I are used-book addicts, and I’ve finally had the time to read some of the books I bought but haven’t opened in ages. Car books are even better, so today I want to tell you about “Car: A Drama of the American Workplace” by Mary Walton, the inside story of how the 1996 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable were created.

Ford gave Walton fly-on-the-wall access for the Taurus’ four-year gestation, something the company would later regret doing. Walton writes that once Ford’s upper management read the manuscript, she became persona non grata among her former contacts. “No writer had been given such access before, I was told,” she wrote, “and it would likely be a long time before it happened again.”

I first read this book a few years after its 1997 publication, and it is a must-read for any car fanatic. It delivers real insight into the process of how a car goes from an idea on paper to a real, drivable vehicle, a process far more complex than you probably ever considered. Have you pointed to anything in a vehicle and said, “This is stupid, why the hell did they do it that way?” If so, “Car” will enlighten you by showing you specifically what a struggle every single decision is, and each one’s domino effect on weight, cost, dimensions, dynamics, and executive egos.

This book was vital to my understanding of the industry I cover, and re-reading it now, I’m reminded what a well-told tale it is: There’s no extra drama or tension weaved into the story, nor does there need to be. Walton tells it the way it is—and the way it is just happens to be fascinating. The fact we now know how history viewed the ’96 Taurus and Sable adds a bittersweet note; neither the author nor her subjects knew how the story ends, but the reader does.

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Why did Ford dislike this story? Probably because it’s one of a relatively rare number of car books that provides an honest portrayal of life in a big corporation. Many of us will recognize the frustrations, the fiefdoms, the pettiness, and the abdication of responsibility that are part of corporate life. It’s not a hatchet job; Walton clearly had great respect for the people about whom she wrote. But must companies want to be portrayed as bastions of strength and sensibility. Walton’s book is an uncomfortable reminder that companies are made up of ordinary people subject to ordinary human frailties, and on whose shoulders sits an extraordinary burden: Developing a product that could make or break the company’s future.

“Car: A Drama of the American Workplace,” is one of the best car books you can read and it is available new in paperback from Amazon.com. Or, you can pick it up used for $10 or less. Read it and I’m sure, like me, you’ll never look at a car the same way again. If there’s any downside, it might be that it also significantly raises your expectations of all car books in the future.

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