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Paul Ingrassia’s new book looks at 15 cars that reinvented not only the wheel but also American culture.

Let’s make one thing clear: Paul Ingrassia’s Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars (Simon & Schuster, $30) is not a book for gearheads. So take all arguments about the supremacy of the ’57 Chevy elsewhere. Instead, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist offers an insightful look at American life through the prism of 15 thoroughly vetted vehicles.

“I didn’t want to write the usual book about the 10 best cars of all time,” Ingrassia explains to American Way. “I wanted to put these cars in their historic and cultural context and describe how they uniquely defined and helped to shape their times.”

Ingrassia takes readers cruisin’ past Hamlet’s castle with Cadillac Club Denmark to ponder tail fins and their eternal dilemma: too big or not too big? He swings through the ’60s for a nod to the real-life Mad Men whose unconventional ads burnished the Volkswagen Beetle’s hip image. And he makes a compelling argument for why the Corvair would come in a photo finish with the Model T for the honor of most influential car. “The Corvair created one of the greatest growth industries in the late 20th century: lawsuits,” the author says. “It helped change the government attitude toward regulating industry. It started the whole consumer movement and made Ralph Nader famous.”

Ingrassia gives credit where it’s due to some of Detroit’s most famous names, such as Lee Iacocca and John DeLorean. But even more engaging are his portraits of the car industry’s quieter heroes, such as Toyota’s Takeshi Uchiyamada, whose career took a dramatic U-turn when he developed a hybrid car called the Prius. “He had this unexpected chance,” Ingrassia says, “and he created this car that is a change agent.” Likewise, Ingrassia has created a book that will change how readers look at cars and the legacies they leave behind.

Auto Tunes
In case readers doubt the cultural significance of the cars Paul Ingrassia writes about in Engines of Change, several have been immortalized in song.

GMC Lasalle:
“Those Were the Days”
—Theme song to
All in the Family
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GMC Lasalle
Fred Seib/Alamy

Chevrolet Corvette:
“Dead Man’s Curve”
—Jan and Dean
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Chevrolet Corvette
Car Culture/Getty Images

Pontiac GTO
“Little GTO”
—Ronnie and the Daytonas

Ford Mustang:
“Mustang Sally”
—Wilson Pickett
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Ford Mustang
Car Culture/Getty Images

“Drive (for Daddy Gene)”
—Alan Jackson