Yes, after weeks of not posting on Clunkerture, I’ve decided to publish something. I agree that it’s probably not something interesting to much of the audience (if there even is one). But since people do come here to read things, it only makes sense to provide a review of yet more reading material (in this case a 400+ page book), in between the weeks it takes me to put up a new post on Clunkerture.
Way back in December, when I wrote my own list on my Kinja blog of books worth reading over the holidays, Raphael Orlove of Jalopnik had his own reading recommendations. One of the books on his list was The Reckoning by David Halberstam, a choice which was seconded by many of the Jalopnik commenters. As a result, I placed the book on my own reading list for the holidays.
David Halberstam focuses on the history of two companies, Ford and Nissan, comparing and contrasting their rise in the automotive industry throughout the book. Halberstam chose the second-largest automakers in America and Japan because he thought General Motors would have been uncooperative, so he chose Ford, which made him choose Nissan when profiling a Japanese automaker. Despite that, Halberstam illustrates with great pains (very evident in his research and interviews), that both companies were very important to the development of the automotive industry.
In the book, Halberstam focuses on telling the stories behind the numbers that defined the rise of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. The Reckoning is comparable to many business histories, in that it focuses on the actions of individuals who were instrumental to the rise of both the business and the industry. There are numerous profiles from members of the Ford family and executive management, people in charge of Nissan and its union, government bureaucrats, and Americans who taught the Japanese how to manage their economy and how to build a car for America.
From reading the book, you wouldn’t realize that Halberstam isn’t a “car man.” Even though his background is in business writing, he manages to make the stories of Ford, Nissan, and individuals influential in the rise of the automotive industry as a whole seem as if he’s been close to the automotive industry his entire life, rather than the 3 to 4 years of research he undertook. The state of the auto industry even today can be traced back to the events detailed in The Reckoning. It explains how Japanese automakers, even one as chaotic as Nissan was, managed to gain such a large market share from the circumstances after World War II.
Halberstam examines outside factors which contributed to the state of the 1980s automotive industry, taking special care to analyze the impact of the oil crises of the 1970s and even the early 1980s, which influenced the business strategy of the Big Three in an immense way. He also focuses on the union dealings of both Ford and Nissan, at Nissan uncovering the occurrence of a major strike that changed labor relations immensely, and providing the stories what UAW legacy costs had done to Ford and its employees. Additionally, there are interviews with government bureaucrats both in Japan and the United States about their impact on the development and standards of the auto industry.
Even though the book is out of print, it’s still a staple of business schools across the country, so you can find it in any library across America, meaning you don’t have to pay the exorbitant prices for it on Amazon (though there is a Kindle version for $10). This book was considered an excellent read when it was released during the Reaganomics era, and yet the book doesn’t seem at any point to be dated.
Also, read The Reckoning before reading Bill Vlasic’s Once Upon A Car, another book I like, which details how the American auto industry found itself in its bailout quandary in 2009, before reading The Reckoning. Vlasic takes a similar approach to Halberstam, interviewing auto industry executives from the 1990s and 2000s. From reading Once Upon A Car, one can get the impression that it was the 1990s actions that made American car manufacturers unable to weather the 2009 financial crisis.
The Reckoning really is that good, and takes you through much of the upheaval the American auto industry found itself in during the 1970s and 1980s. By analyzing the history of both Nissan and Ford and chronicling the developments which brought them into their situations in the 1980s, where Ford was struggling and found itself being managed by beancounters which resulted in mediocre products, while Nissan was selling cars in substantial amounts across America with the Maxima and Hardbody trucks, with excellent profit margins.
But you’ll receive the sense that the events of over 30 years ago still has an impact on the automotive industry today. Honestly, this review doesn’t do the book enough justice. And reading it will fill the gap between now and my next post on Clunkerture.