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Engines of Change

A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars

Paul Ingrassia

Chevrolet nearly gave up on the Corvette after first model. It had an anaemic 6 cylinder engine that didn't match the Jags or Austin Healeys that came in from England, and got reviews saying it was "a sportscar to impress hillbillies". It was saved by Zora Arkus-Dumtov, a Russian Jew who had fled Nazi Europe in 1940. He convinced the GM bosses that the new generation of teenagers was growing up reading about and racing hotrod Fords, and that they would consequently buy sporty Fords and then stay 'Ford Men' unless Chevy could provide an alternative. Originally the fiberglass body was intended only for the 1953 prototypes, but it proved less expensive and more durable than expected, so it stayed.

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John DeLorean eventually turned into a human train wreck, but he left a lasting legacy - the DeLorean sports car of Back To The Future fame, and the Pontiac GTO. The Pontiac car division need a way to set itself apart from the rest of GM, and it had to compete with the early muscle cars like the Ford Mustang. The solution was to take a midsize compact, the 1964 Pontiac Tempest, and shoe-horn in a 389 cu in V8 out of the full size Bonneville. The only problem was GM had strict rules about power-to-weight ratios, and the 389 blew past the limits by about 50 cu in. But DeLorean found a loophole - the approval committee only vetted new cars, they did nothing about optional extras for existing cars. But having gone round the rulebook, DeL went even further and brazenly purloined Farrari's GTO name, which seriously pissed off the traditional sportscar enthusiasts. But the market DeL was chasing - the teen hotrodders - didn't care.

Car and Driver magazine ran a test between a Ferrari GTO and a pair of Tempest Goats as their GTO's became known. The Pontiac team managed to skew results even further by stuffing a 421 cu in engine into one of the test cars, even though it wasn't an available option. But results emphatic - the Pontiac would outrun the Italian supercar (in a straight line ....) In 1964 Pontiac sold 32,000 Tempest GTO's, far outstripping the 5,000 predicted. The next year they sold nearly 100,000.

But by the late 60's insurance companies started to use computers to track accident records, and they suddenly realized that the cars they'd been insuring as low risk compacts driven mainly by little old ladies going to church and back, were actually high-powered muscle cars that young drivers were crashing all over the place. In came high-horsepower surcharges, so that by 1969 GTO drivers were being charged $1000 a year to insure a $3600 car.

Pres Jimmy Carter had a beer-drinking bad-boy brother, Billy, who explained the difference between good ol' boys and rednecks. "A good ol' boy rides round in a pickup truck - which I do - drinks beer and puts cans in a litter bag. a redneck drives round in a truck and drinks beer and throws the cans out the window.

'Mainstreaming': more Jeeps being sold as 2WD than 4WD, rendering them incapable of handling anything harder than a speed bump - radical chic long dead in the US, wilderness chic now the thing. LL Bean found sales of their long canvas field coats, designed with big pockets so hunters could stash dead birds, booming in urban NY. So they lost the pockets and developed new colors and softer fabrics, just kept the style. Applied to lot of things - people want to wear the costume, pretend that they're part of the tribe.

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